Britain's Top 100 Entrepreneurs 2008: Premier league

It wasn't a privileged background that kicked things off for most of our elite wealth-creators. It was spotting the killer niche in a well-worked market.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

1. PETER CULLUM - TOWERGATE

An insurance-industry veteran of nearly 40 years, Peter Cullum left his job as marketing director of Hiscox to found the Towergate Underwriting Group in 1997 because he thought he had spotted a gap in the market for niche insurance services. He was right - since then, the Maidstone-based group has acquired specialist brokers and underwriters covering everything from holiday homes and military equipment to agriculture, pubs and nightclubs. In 2006, it became the largest privately owned insurance intermediary in Britain.

Income in the first half of 2007 increased by 32% to £161m, while earnings were up 37% to £67m, so it had no trouble raising £276m to acquire Open International software, the credit crunch notwithstanding. No sub-prime loan, this.

Having bought the Royal Bank of Scotland out of its 25% stake in 2005, Cullum now owns about 56% of the firm. Two US hedge funds share a £65m stake, with nearly all the remaining stock held by Towergate staff.

Last summer, there were persistent rumours that a sale was on the cards for Towergate, with a price-tag of some £3bn. But Cullum shows no sign of wanting to step down; indeed, he re-cently maintained he was 'entering the most exciting phase of his career'.

Either way, after-tax and allowing for past salaries etc, he should now easily be worth £1.7bn.

2. AYMAN ASFARI - PETROFAC

In 1991, Syrian-born Ayman Asfari joined domestic US oil services group Petrofac. He transformed it into a UK-based international business managing North Sea rigs and designing drilling and refinery equipment for global customers. Now a British citizen, Asfari led the £742m flotation of Petrofac as chief executive in October 2005.

The record oil price is a boon for the firm, which operates out of four strategic sites - Aberdeen, Sharjah (UAE), Woking and Mumbai - plus a further 16 smaller offices worldwide. Asfari remains committed to the North Sea, despite its dwindling reserves, going on record recently as saying: 'The UK continental shelf market remains buoyant. We have added 300 personnel in the UK since January and are continuing to hire.

'Aberdeen is material to us as a centre of excellence for best practice, which we can transfer to our overseas business. Management deployed in Dubai, for example, is all from Aberdeen.'

The surging demand for its services meant that in the first half of 2007, Petrofac reported net profits of £38.6m, up 47% on a year earlier. Revenue for the period was 14% ahead at £1.06bn. Asfari's stake is now worth £348m.

He sold £56m worth of shares at the float and should easily be worth £390m after tax.

3. ANDREW BLACK AND ED WRAY - BETFAIR

Andrew Black, Betfair's co-founder, used to make a good living as a professional gambler backing horses and playing bridge. But he resented the money that traditional bookmakers were making and thought that there had to be a better way of betting. It was when he met former investment banker Ed Wray at a garden party in 1999 that he found the better way.

Betfair is not a bookie in the conventional sense, but a platform that allows gamblers to bet against one another. It has a truly enviable business model: the odds are set - and the risks taken - by the punters themselves. Win or lose, Betfair makes its commission anyway.

Its site works round the clock, thanks to a huge investment in technology, and processes 5 million transactions a day - more than all the European stock markets combined.

In 2006-07, profits at Betfair's parent company, The Sporting Exchange, came in at £25.3m on sales of £181.9m, with overseas business accounting for 38% of that. But a prescient policy of not taking bets from America has protected the firm from the US crackdown in on-line gaming.

In 2006, Japanese technology group Softbank took a stake that valued Betfair at £1.5bn. Plans for a flotation have been shelved, but Black and Wray have shares worth about £188m apiece. Sale proceeds and other assets take the pair to £190m each. They could be Britain's first gaming billionaires.

4. Philip Richards AND Michael Alen-Buckley

RAB Capital

At RAB Capital, the quoted London-based hedge fund group, profits hit £50m in 2006 on sales that more than doubled to £118m. Michael Alen-Buckley, an accountant and former Merrill Lynch banker, co-founded the business on April Fool's Day 1999, with Merrill Lynch colleague Philip Richards. It hit the headlines in November after threatening to block the Virgin bid for Northern Rock.

The group's philosophy has always been to recruit investment managers with proven talents and provide them with a strong institutional platform to allow them to dedicate themselves to running focused investment strategies. RAB also puts money into new ventures and sticks with them, frequently retaining its stake when they float.

It works a treat. In the past seven years, RAB's funds under management have grown to £840m, rising by 75% in the past year alone. RAB was a pioneer among hedge funds when the pair floated it on the Aim market in early 2004. It's now valued at over £570m. Alen-Buckley - son-in-law of the late Lord Forte - and Richards have stakes worth £124m apiece. Other assets and nearly £20m of share sales take them to £150m each, allowing for tax.

5 Dr Mike Lynch

Autonomy

Profits at Autonomy, the Cambridge-based firm specialising in searching unstructured data ('meaning-based computing' or MBC), soared 89% in the first half of 2007 on the back of business from all over the globe, including projects with the US government.

Founder Dr Mike Lynch is indeed a rare beast: a British high-tech entrepreneur who has managed to crack the crucial American market. Autonomy hired executives with federal clearance to sell to US government bodies and launched new software for tracking copyright material, such as music and films illegally distributed on the internet.

Lynch has been buying in the US as well as selling. In July, Autonomy announced a $375m deal to buy Zantaz, a private rival in California.

A Cambridge graduate and maths whizz, Lynch borrowed £2,000 from billionaire Joe Lewis in 1991 to launch his own firm, Neurodynamics, before setting up Autonomy in 1996. Fast-forward to 2000 and Autonomy was floated, roaring into the FTSE-100 with a £5bn market value. The shares crashed in the hi-tech meltdown but have recovered, and Autonomy is now valued at £2bn.

Lynch grew up in London's East End and his Irish parents were not well off: his father was a fireman, his mother a nurse. 'I had the sense of wanting to hide gold under the floor and support myself,' he says. He certainly has gold to hide now. With other assets, share sales and property, he is worth about £263m.

6 Simon Nixon

Moneysupermartket.com

Dropping out of university was Simon Nixon's passport to a fortune. The chief executive and co-founder of financial website Moneysupermarket.com proved this in July 2007, when he floated the company on the stock market, valued at £843m. But his timing could have been better: a week earlier, bankers had predicted it would realise a £1bn valuation.

After working as a financial adviser, Nixon and co-founder Duncan Cameron set up a website comparing deals on mortgages, credit cards, personal loans and savings accounts. It proved a phenomenal success - in 2006, 64 million people visited Moneysupermarket.com.

The site now boasts more than 28 channels, including utilities, personal loans, credit cards, mortgages, current accounts, savings accounts, motor insurance, home insurance, travel insurance and stockbroking services. Flights are also covered by sister firm travelsupermarket.com and the group plans to add car hire and hotels. Nixon admits it's a demanding schedule but it's vital to keep up, he says. 'In the industrial age, change happened in a decade. In the internet age, it happens in a heartbeat.'

Nixon sold £102m worth of shares in the float. But he'd spent £162m earlier in the summer buying out most of the stake held by Cameron, who left the company some years ago. Allowing for this and for at least £20m of past salaries and dividends, Nixon should be worth £480m.

7. LAURENCE GRAFF - GRAFF DIAMONDS INTERNATIONAL

Nicknamed 'The King of Diamonds', Graff runs the only vertically integrated diamond operation in the world, doing everything from buying stones direct from the mine through to polishing, cutting and retailing.

In 2006, profits at Graff Diamonds International leapt to a record £39m on sales of around £194m, and Graff celebrated his fourth Queen's Award for Export with a London party in December. He could also have toasted his acquisition of the 603-carat Lesotho Promise diamond, the 15th-largest rough diamond ever found, for $12m-plus. It has yielded 26 stones worth some £29.5m.

With his roots in London's East End, Graff took a Hatton Garden apprenticeship in diamonds and by the mid-60s his workshop was a favoured haunt of the mega-rich. There are now 28 stores worldwide and the only check on growth is getting enough gems. To help meet demand, Graff is founding an industrial zone in Botswana, where local craftsmen will be taught to cut and polish locally found diamonds.

On the basis of the increased profits and the strong values attributed to luxury brands at present, we value the whole Graff operation at £1.3bn. That sort of price will not deter the many firms that have expressed an interest in acquiring the Graff name and operation. Other assets such as past dividends (£6m in 2004) and houses should take Swiss-based Graff to £1.5bn.

8. MATTHEW BROWN - GIANT GROUP

Chartered certified accountant Matthew Brown started out providing specialist accounting services to IT contractors in 1992, under the name Independent Accountancy Services. He had previously held a number of senior financial positions in the electricity and travel industries. The name was changed from IAS to Giant Group in 1998.

The London-based firm has grown dramatically in recent years, with offices in the capital and in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, Edinburgh and Dublin. It provides an integrated accountancy, tax and independent financial planning service. In 2005-06 it made a healthy £10.7m profit on sales of £109.4m.

9. MARK COOMBS - ASHMORE GROUP

The credit crunch has so far had little impact on Ashmore, the specialist City investment group. Profits in 2006-07 rose more than a quarter during the year, thanks to a 57% rise in funds under management to £15.6bn.

Indeed, Mark Coombs, the group's chief executive, reckoned that the market turmoil emanating from the US would throw up chances 'to acquire risk at better prices and give us the opportunity to do interesting things over the next year or so'.

Star banker Coombs acquired Ashmore in 1999 from ANZ Bank for a nominal sum months after it was hit by the Russian default crisis. His skilful management, combined with the rising popularity of emerging markets among institutional investors, transformed Ashmore's fortunes.

The low-key Coombs, who studied law at Cambridge, has built up clients ranging from Dutch airline KLM to the Houston Police Officers' Pension System. Ashmore floated on the stock market in October 2006. It is now valued at nearly £1.94bn.

10. CHRIS DAWSON - CDS (SUPERSTORES)

Barrowboy-made-good Chris Dawson plans to have 35 of his The Range discount homeware stores open by the time you read this. He has recently diversified into online sales and his portfolio now includes a shopfitting company, property interests and a newly established waste-management firm.

Having started in business at the age of seven selling ice-cream, Dawson went on to become a market trader developing a winning sales patter that earned him the nickname 'Plymouth's very own deluxe Del Boy'. He opened his first superstore in 1988, and now his CDS (Superstores), trading as The Range, are springing up nationwide.

CDS made a £5.9m profit on sales of £134.7m in the year to January 2007. Despite the trappings of wealth, such as his £200,000 Aston Martin, Dawson remains disciplined about money. 'I always fly economy and I always stay in Travel Inns,' he says. 'I'm not a wizard or a maestro, I'm just a bit of a boy when it comes to business.'

We can't argue with that. With more stores coming on-stream, CDS is a £140m business. Other assets take Dawson to £150m.

33. TONY LANGLEY - LANGLEY HOLDINGS

Tony Langley seems intent on disproving the doom-laden predictions of the demise of British industry. In 2006, profits rocketed from £14m to £40.3m at his Nottingham-based industrial group Langley Holdings, on sales exceeding £234m, and its order book is at record levels. In 1976, aged 22, he resurrected the firm from the ashes of his grandfather's failing engineering business. It is now a multi-discipline engineering company serving clients globally, including a significant presence in China. Langley has 25 trading subsidiaries, producing a range of products from cement cooling machines to dockside cranes.

39. SIR ANTHONY BAMFORD - JCB

It's all systems go at JCB, the world-beating construction equipment group based in Staffordshire. In 2006, profits increased by 35% to a record £149m, as turnover hit £1.75bn. Production climbed by more than 22% to 55,000 units, with notable increases in sales to central and eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and India. The company reckons it is the world's third-largest plant manufacturer by volume. The firm also recently won its largest-ever order, worth £80m, from the Pentagon. It will supply military versions of up to 500 of its famous earth movers. It's a real success story for British manufacturing. A new £40m heavy-products factory on the outskirts of Uttoxeter is also on the cards, creating 100 jobs. Bamford stood down as CEO in 2004 but remains chairman.

=47 ALAN DUNN - DUNN BROTHERS (1995)

Dunn Brothers (1995) processes and recycles ferrous and non-ferrous scrap metals. Its pioneering use of shipping containers specifically for steel scrap has opened up export markets considerably and the company now sells more scrap to China than it does within the UK. In 2004, it exported 74% of its output, mostly to the Far East and Europe. Its main markets are China (41%), India (26%), Taiwan (15%), France (6%) and Japan (6%). The Dudley-based operation is run by Alan Dunn and owned by the Dunn family. In 2006, it made a £3.3m profit on £86.5m sales. It should easily be worth £30m on these figures.

59. SIR DAVID MCMURTRY - RENISHAW

Having spent £7.5m on a new factory in Gloucestershire, Renishaw is another of our entrepreneurs intent on defying those who would write off British manufacturing. And indeed, if the rest of British industry was as productive as the quoted precision-instrument group, our economic problems would vanish. In 2006-07 it made £32.7m profit on £181m sales. Renishaw has its roots in the aerospace industry of nearby Bristol but these days operates in markets ranging from machine-tool monitoring and calibration to CAD/CAM systems for dental technicians and implantable neurosurgical devices. It was co-founded by Sir David McMurtry, an ex-Rolls-Royce engineer, who left his native Dublin at 18. He set up Renishaw in 1973 and floated it on the stock market 10 years later.

=60. ALAN BEARDSHAW - SPECIAL STEEL CO

In 1925, a small steel producer, the Special Steel Co, was founded by a Bennett Beardshaw. The Sheffield-based company has diversified into metal testing and steel treatment as well as manufacturing superalloys for the energy and aerospace industries. Chairman Alan Beardshaw is the third generation to run what is one of Sheffield's few remaining family-owned steel operations. In 2005-06, profits soared from £3.8m to nearly £7.6m on sales of £30.1m.

=65. ALLAN AND ANN POTTS - MMD MINING DEVELOPMENTS

Alan Potts established the Derbyshire-based MMD Group in 1978 after the National Coal Board asked him for a way to prevent large lumps of coal blocking conveyor belts. Potts came up with a sizing machine that became the standard for all UK pits. Since then, MMD has branched out into increasingly sophisticated mining and quarrying equipment worldwide. The company is owned and run by Potts and his wife Ann. Profits at MMD Mining Machinery Developments, the main company, soared from £1.4m to £5.5m on sales up from £25.5m to nearly £35.2m in 2005-06.

68. JEREMY WOOLRIDGE - BE WEDGE

BE Wedge, founded in the 1850s and still based at its Victorian site in Willenhall in the West Midlands, is the largest galvaniser in Britain. The firm galvanises steel and iron components for buildings, crash barriers, cars, phone masts and electricity towers from its 14 plants in Britain. Its techniques protect the Pepsi Max rollercoaster in Blackpool from salty sea air, and keep the gates at Ascot pristine. Wedge, backed by 3i, has expanded into the US under its owner Jeremy Woolridge, and seen profits up from £6.2m to £13.5m on sales also up sharply at £98m in 2006-07.

=71. CHRIS REA - AES ENGINEERING

Rotherham-based AES designs and manufactures mechanical seals to prevent leakage of harmful liquids and gases, and sells them to industries that include the refining, pharmaceutical, chemicals and power generation sectors. It's a market leader, and took the top prize in the prestigious Manufacturing Excellence Awards in June 2006. Boss Chris Rea had bought AES some 26 years earlier, on April Fool's Day, 1979, and began to turn it around. He did well, doubling sales and trebling purchases from its US supplier. But in 1981, that US supplier switched to another UK distributor with only a day or two's warning. 'It wasn't pleasant but, with hindsight, it was the major turning point,' says Rea. Despite having no products to sell and no customers to sell them to, Rea bought out his partner and started his second turnaround, developing both his own modular product range and 'customer first' philosophy. In 2006, AES increased profits from £5.3m to £6.3m on £61.6m sales.

76. JAMES BARRETT - BARRETT STEEL, BRADFORD

Barrett Steel is the UK's largest independent steel stockholder, with more than £28m worth of steel in its 20 warehouses across the country. The business has boomed in recent years on the back of strong demand for steel worldwide. It was created in 1992 when James Barrett led a £15m MBO of the steel services and steel building companies belonging to his family firm, the Henry Barrett Group. In the year to September 2006, the Bradford-based operation saw profits fall from £15.3m to £12.3m, though sales rose from £212.5m to £220.7m.

81. SIMON PREEDY - MARLA TUBE FITTINGS

Marla Tube Fittings, a Warwickshire metal-tube manufacturing business, is growing fast. Founded in 1956 and now supplying tubes and tube fittings for everything from oil pipelines to domestic and industrial plumbing, it is run by MD Simon Preedy. The Preedy family and trusts hold around 98% of the shares. In the year to October 2006, profits rose from £6m to £8.3m on sales also up sharply from £44.5m to £61.2m.

20. JANE CAVANAGH - SCI ENTERTAINMENT

Jane Cavanagh started computer games company SCi Entertainment in 1988 and floated it on the stock market eight years later. The London-based firm is best known for its Lawnmower Man and Kingdom O'Magic games, and titles like Tomb Raider Legend and Hitman Blood Money. SCi took over rival Eidos in 2005 through a £105m deal. But the computer games market is cut-throat and 2006-07 proved a tough year for SCi. It is now talking to a number of suitors, including a Chinese games publisher. Much was riding on the success of SCi's big Christmas release, Kane & Lynch, for which Hollywood Lionsgate has already bought the film rights.

=35. EILEEN GALLAGHER - SHED MEDIA

As chief executive and co-founder of TV drama production business Shed Media, Eileen Gallagher has enjoyed impressive hits with Supernanny on Channel 4, Footballers' Wives on ITV and Waterloo Road for the BBC. After stints as MD of London Weekend TV and as deputy MD of Granada Broadcasting, Gallagher set up Shed in 1998. As chair of the trade body for independent production companies, in 2002/3, she lobbied successfully for changes to the Communications Bill. In March 2005, Shed floated on Aim, valued at £44m. In September 2007, Shed acquired TwentyTwenty Media for £19m.

=35. CARLY READ AND VALERIE SCOTT - ICON LIVE

Founded in January 2002, Icon Live is one of Britain's fastest-growing companies, supplying jewellery ranges to a number of well-known high street fashion retailers. Its complete package includes designing and buying jewellery collections for clients. Based in Burgess Hill, Icon is owned and run by local businesswomen Carly Read and Valerie Scott. Industry veteran Read provides the fashion nous, while accountant Scott looks after the numbers. In 2006 it opened a high-tech distribution centre, creating 20 jobs. In 2005-06, profits soared to £4.3m on £45.7m sales.

=53. DAWN GIBBINS - FLOWCRETE

Orders from Dubai and Qatar plus buoyant markets in Europe have created soaring demand for Flowcrete's flooring products. Dawn Gibbins, who runs the Crewe-based operation, expects 2007 sales to top £40m. In 2006, Gibbins was voted the UK's top industrialist in the UK in a survey of experts. Started 25 years ago with her late father (who developed the firm's innovative flooring technology), Flowcrete offers anti-microbial floors for the food and pharmaceutical industries, as well as self-levelling products that are 40 times faster to install than traditional offerings. Flowcrete turned in a useful £1.7m profit on £36.5m sales in 2006.

=55. SHELAGH ELKINS - TECTRADE

Shelagh Elkins founded Godalming-based computer business Tectrade in 1991 as a hardware provider, reselling mainframe and mid-range servers. But in 1997 a data and storage management division was formed, specialising in the integration of enterprise-wide backup and recovery. It was such a success that the firm is now focused on backup and recovery, data archiving and storage. Clients include British Sugar and the Natural History Museum. Elkins chairs the fast-growing company, which made £1.1m profit on £27m sales in 2006-07.

=69. CHEY GARLAND - CJ GARLAND

Not all call-centre jobs are going to India, and Chey Garland, founder and owner of CJ Garland, is largely responsible for stemming the tide. A new call centre in South Shields opens next month and should eventually employ more than 1,000. In October 2006, Garland's won a customer service contract from easyJet. Three months earlier it took on an extra 250 staff after bagging a call-centre deal for Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk service. Garland, who founded the Hartlepool-based business in 1997, uses a range of initiatives to motivate staff. Her state-of-the-art buildings feature sculptures, water features, chill-out zones and Radio GaGa - its own radio station. It works. In 2006, profits came in at £1.6m on much higher sales of £43.6m.

75. DOREEN LOFTHOUSE - LOFTHOUSE OF FLEETWOOD

The Lancashire seaside town of Fleetwood is home to Fisherman's Friend, the super-strong throat lozenges. First concocted by local chemist James Lofthouse in 1865, the original menthol-and-eucalyptus recipe was popular with the town's fishermen. Now, 19 flavours are sold in 120 countries, and 96% of the 4 billion lozenges made annually goes overseas. Doreen Lofthouse, the septuagenarian MD, is the person credited with transforming the business into a global brand. In 2005, profits rose from £3.1m to £3.8m on sales up nearly £5m at £33.8m. The company has net assets of about £54m, but insists Lofthouse: 'Money means little. I am driven because I enjoy every minute of the working day.' The worldwide brand is now worth some £175m.

90. DAME MARGARET BARBOUR - J BARBOUR

When Helen Mirren wore a Barbour for her Oscar-winning role in The Queen, sales soared, particularly in the US. The famous waxed jackets so beloved of City types and the huntin' and shootin' fraternity, were invented in 1909, but for years they were simply wet-weather clothing for farmers and the like. But in 1968 the firm's boss John Barbour died at 30 and his widow Margaret gave up teaching to take over. She masterminded the Barbour's discovery as a fashion statement by urban types in the 1980s. The firm continues to do very nicely - in the year to December 2005, profits soared to £4.8m on sales of £54m.

94. ANNE RIDGEON - RIDGEONS GROUP

Anne Ridgeon chairs the Cambridge-based builders' merchant Ridgeons Group, which dates back to 1911, when one Cyril Ridgeon started selling timber from a bedroom in his house in the town. The business has grown steadily over the years, but the pace of expansion has picked up markedly since the 1990s amid the Cambridge development boom. Ridgeons now has 20 branches all over East Anglia, with more on the way. The family-owned company made nearly £8.4m profit on £116.3m sales in 2006. It has a rock-solid balance sheet and more than £56m net assets. On these figures, it should be worth £70m.

97. DENISE MILLARD - PERRYS

Denise Millard runs Northampton-based car dealership, Perrys Group. The company was established in 1908 by Harold Perry, selling Citroens and Fords (which it still does), and is now involved in the sale, repair, service and hire of new and used motor vehicles. It is also the largest independent Peugeot dealer in the UK and has one of the largest networks of Vauxhall dealerships too. It employs 1,200 people across its 41 outlets. In 2006, it made £6m profit on £395m sales and has net assets of £24.1m. With trusts for her late husband Paul, Millard owns 68% of the share capital.

12. MARK FITZGERALD, 31 AND THOMAS O'DONOHUE, 29 - MX TELECOM

MX Telecom is the company behind a range of interactive phone offerings, including The Sun newspaper's 63000 service (so readers can submit news tips, gossip and pictures) and the live streaming of video content to 3G customers from the likes of the BBC and Endemol. MX Telecom also offers mobile payment facilities internationally in conjunction with Paypal, and has just launched a new mobile payments service called Payforit. MX, founded in 2000 by its two youthful directors and owners, Thomas O'Donohoe and Mark Fitzgerald, has grown rapidly as a result of its skill in channelling wireless traffic in voice, video and text between content providers and mobile networks. In 2005-06, it made more than £1.6m in profits on £45.2m sales. MX should easily be worth £100m. That values the stakes of ex-derivatives trader Fitzgerald and O'Donohue, the financial and IT brains, at £50m each.

15. ANDREW GOWER, 29 AND PAUL GOWER, 31 - JAGEX

Sony, Microsoft and Electronic Arts are the giants of the computer games business. But Jagex, a modest, Cambridge-based company, is taking them on - and winning - in the battle to get customers to pay for content online. Jagex's killer game is called RuneScape, and it has more subscribers than any other online game of its kind outside South Korea. RuneScape is one of a growing number of massively multiplayer online role-playing games that is turning a profit from the net. There are about 5.3 million active players - mostly boys - worldwide, who spend $5 a month to test their skills against each other. RuneScape started as a pet project of programmer Andrew Gower when he was at Cambridge in the late 1990s. He introduced RuneScape online in 2001, then formed Jagex with his brother, Paul, and a third partner. In 2005-06, Jagex's profits soared from £2.7m to £10.2m on sales up from £5.2m to £16.8m. The founders told the Wall Street Journal they would not sell the firm for £250m.

42. DEAN HOYLE, 40 AND JANET HOYLE, 40 - CARD FACTORY

In the early 1990s, Dean Hoyle was selling greetings cards from the back of his van in his home town of Wakefield. By '97, he and his wife Janet had set up Card Factory with the aim of selling quality cards at low prices. Today, the company has 300 shops, 20 of which came from the acquisition of Celebration Cards in January 2006. It claims to have held prices stable for nine years. Annual profits at its parent, Sportswift, soared to £4.4m on sales of £72.1m in 2006.

43. LEE COTTINGHAM, 32 - MARK GROUP

Leicester-based Mark Group began insulating homes in 1974 - back then, it was all about saving money on fuel bills, now the drivers are reducing carbon emissions and saving the planet. Today, from 14 locations nationwide it helps make more than 3,000 homes more energy-efficient every week. After more than three decades in charge, founder John Cottingham handed control to his son Lee in 2005. Since then, the business has grown from four depots to 14. Customers range from homeowners to local councils and utility companies. Mark Group is also branching out into small-scale alternative power projects, installing wind turbines, solar heating and ground heat pumps. In 2005-06, profits at Mark soared to £3.3m on £36.8m sales, valuing it at, say, £30m. The Cottingham family owns it all - a very sustainable business.

57. JAMES MURRAY, 37 - ALTERNATIVE NETWORKS

James Murray left school at 16. A dyslexic, he managed to get a few O-levels. His first taste of success came when he worked for a telecom company and rose to become its top salesperson. Then, in 1994 he co-founded Alternative Networks with a friend, using a £10,000 loan plus £4,500 of their own savings. The London-based telco grew rapidly, providing corporate telephony, VoIP and data services to the B2B market. It floated on AIM in February 2005 valued at around £44m. Its market capitalisation has now risen to nearly £81m, of which Murray holds a £26m stake.

=60. IAIN BURGESS, 35 - BVG-AIRFLO

Powys-based BVG-Airflo Group was established in 1991 by Iain Burgess after completing his A-levels. The company is a mail-order, marketing and distribution company. It manufactures an eclectic range of products - from fishing tackle to shoes - at a factory in India and sells and distributes them all over the world. It also buys, sells and distributes between 15,000 and 20,000 other products, which change every year according to demand. It uses eight or more channels to sell through - everything from reader offers in newspapers to brochures to retail stores to TV shopping channels. 'Most companies only have one or two distribution channels. We will sell to anyone in any way possible,' Burgess says. In 1996 BVG acquired Airflo, a manufacturer of fly-fishing tackle. Airflo's innovative, internationally patented products were a perfect complement to BVG's high-energy marketing techniques. The launch of the Fishtec mail-order operation in 1997 and subsequent acquisition of its major competitor Tightlines Direct completed the group's first-phase acquisition plans. Sales have grown rapidly and it continues to dominate the markets served by its two core businesses. In 1999, a Mid-Wales development grant assisted its expansion into a second larger unit at the Ffrwdgrech Industrial Park, Brecon. In 2005-06, the fast-growing operation turned in a useful £3m profit on sales of £36m.

=71. RORY SWEET, 40 - SIMIAN GROUP

Computer entrepreneur Rory Sweet runs Simian Group, a Cirencester-based holding company whose main subsidiary is Zycko, a global distributor of networking, storage and server accessories for the computer and telecom networks markets. The group also includes support and e-tail divisions and now employs 180 in six offices around the world, including Norway, the US, South Africa and Russia. In 2005-06, Simian made profits of £3.8m on sales of £62.3m and had net assets of £7.5m.

86. DARREN DONNELLY, 37 - (AND JOHN DONNELLY, 60) - RETLAN MANUFACTURING

The Donnellys, father John (MD) and his son Darren, own 77% of Retlan Manu- facturing, Ireland's - and the UK's - largest manufacturer of trailers for heavy good vehicles, based in Co Antrim. Recently, it has opened seven parts- distribution centres around the UK, and acquired a recycling business and a joint venture in India. In 2005-06 Retlan made a healthy £6.8m profit on £92.2m sales. It produced 5,000 trailers in 2006. Prices start at £15,000 and rise to £40,000 per unit. Haulier Eddie Stobart recently ordered 700 units.

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