Britain's top 100 Entrepreneurs 2009: Premier League

From search software to smoothies, fitness to forecourt retailing, designer fashion to diamonds, this year's top 10 all have can-do spirit a-plenty.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013


Profits at Cambridge-based software house Autonomy soared 80% in Q2 2008, proving that its Irish-born founder, Dr Mike Lynch, is a rare beast: a UK-based high-tech entrepreneur who has cracked the all-important US market. Autonomy's products help businesses to archive and retrieve unstructured data such as e-mails and phone calls, and identify unusual trading patterns. The software draws on the theories of Thomas Bayes, an 18th-century cleric and mathematician. Lynch is confident about doing well out of the crunch - Autonomy experienced 'waves of interest' from financial services companies after September's market collapse. The firm has also made shrewd acquisitions in the US, where the market is growing rapidly as regulations compel firms to track information archives. Cambridge maths graduate Lynch borrowed £2,000 from an unnamed eccentric in 1991 to launch his own firm. Billionaire Joe Lewis was also an early investor. In 2000, Autonomy floated, making Lynch a paper billionaire briefly before the bubble burst. The shares have since recovered, and Lynch's stake is now worth £175m. A modest childhood gave Lynch his moneymaking drive. '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 easily worth £215m.


Smoothie-maker Innocent Drinks was set up in 1998 by these three Cambridge graduates. At a festival that summer they had a stall with a sign asking customers: 'Do you think we should give up our day jobs to make these?'. At the end of the day, the 'yes' bin was full, so the trio quit high-powered jobs in advertising and consultancy to launch Innocent. The west London-based firm has doubled in size in each of the past three years and now has annual sales of £115m, and 72% of the domestic smoothie market. The firm's groovily branded products - sold in 100% recycled plastic bottles - are also available in Austria, Germany, Scandinavia and France. Last January, Innocent borrowed £32m from the Bank of Scotland to secure further growth in Europe and America. The parent company made profits of £9.1m on sales of £75.6m in 2006. The co-founders each have a 24% stake in Fresh Trading Ltd, which we estimate to be worth more than £200m, even in the present market. Reports surfaced late last year that they are looking to sell a minority share in the firm for around £35m, partly as a result of flagging post-crash sales. But they have an enviable brand and plenty of marketing savvy. We reckon they're worth about £55m apiece.


A million people subscribe to RuneScape, paying £3.20 a month in Britain and $5 elsewhere for unfettered access. After World of Warcraft - which has 10 million subscribers - RuneScape is perhaps the next most successful multiplayer computer game. Yet it started as the pet project of programmer Andrew Gower when he was a Cambridge undergraduate in the late '90s. He introduced RuneScape online in 2001, then formed Jagex with his brother Paul and a third partner to run it. The company hires as many computer-science graduates as it can to help improve the game. In 2006-07, Jagex's profits soared from £10.2m to £15m on sales up from £16.8m to £28.1m. A new CEO - formerly head of PayPal Europe - joined in October to make Jagex even more commercial. There are no plans to float the business, although a US private-equity firm has a 35% stake. The leap in profits means the company can fund its own development - plans include a move into non-English-language markets, starting with Germany and Brazil. The founders have told the Wall Street Journal that they wouldn't sell the company for £250m. On its figures and potential, we value it at £200m. Andrew and elder brother Paul - both notoriously publicity-shy - own a 52% stake, worth £104m.


In 2001, Zuber Issa, based in Darwen, Lancs, began buying run-down petrol stations from oil companies and upgrading them. He has added 10 such freeholds every year since, and now Euro Garages owns and runs 70 filling stations and forecourt shops across north-west England. His plan to double the size of his estate means that the firm should spread beyond its regional roots in the next five years. The stores bring in 35% of the revenue, and Issa is converting them to Spar franchises to boost buying power and create a stronger retail offering. Subway sandwich franchises also operate out of some of his sites. The petrol sales, which account for the rest, are branded BP, Shell, Total or Texaco. Because of his religious beliefs, none of his stores sells alcohol. In 2006-07, Euro Garages made a £3.6m profit on sales of £159.3m. Capital spending, higher petrol prices and additional retail services have pushed up the value of the company to about £85m (allowing for £25m of debt) in the current climate.


Ashley Head has many years' experience in the payment-processing and banking industries. Previous roles have included senior vice-president and manager of the Africa region for MasterCard International, and director of technology and electronic banking for the National Commercial Bank in Saudi Arabia. In 2003, Head took over Proc Cyber, a company he helped to establish, and in 2006 it was acquired by the quoted Datacash operation in a £61m deal. Head joined the board and is now executive chairman of the fast-growing, London-based payment-processing operation, which supplies software and technology to support card payment systems. Pre-tax profits for first half of 2008 rose from £2.6m to £3.2m, on the back of a 34% increase in transaction volumes for the same period. The firm has benefited from the relative strength of online retail sales, many of which are processed using its technology. Last September, Datacash acquired German rival EasyDebit for about £7m, a deal financed from existing reserves.


Duncan Bannatyne has become a celebrity, thanks to Dragons' Den, the BBC's business reality show, and clearly relishes it. 'It has helped me in business,' he says. 'When I am phoning people, I get through much more easily. And going to dinners with famous people and being recognised by them is certainly an advantage.' His story off-screen is a classic of rags-to-riches entrepreneurship. He left his Clydebank school at 15 with no qualifications, and his first job was delivering bread - which paid him enough to secure a mortgage. After he had bought an ice-cream van in north-east England, some rival vendors tried to put him out of business with threats. He carried on, buying four houses with the profits and refurbishing them as B&B hostels. Later, Bannatyne built a nursing home and developed his firm into a chain of 30 homes, which he sold in 1997, netting £26m. He put £20m into a new fitness club venture. Along the way, he made £22m from selling his 80% stake in the Just Learning nursery operation he developed. His Bannatyne Group has grown sharply and is now the largest independent gym operator in the UK, with 62 health clubs, three hotels, 28 day-spas and a busy bar. In 2007, it made £10.8m profit and, having developed as a brand, it should now be worth £270m. In October, Bannatyne opened the £12m Bannatyne Spa Hotel in Hast-ings. Other assets, such as the proceeds of his autobiography Anyone Can Do It, a villa in France and other properties and shares, make him worth £310m.


'King of Diamonds' Laurence Graff's business, Graff Diamonds International, has just had its best year, with 2007 profits on UK operations just short of £59m on sales of £244m. Uniquely, it buys diamonds direct from the mines, cuts and polishes them and retails the finished gems. In 2006, Graff purchased the 603ct Lesotho Promise diamond, the 15th-largest rough diamond ever found, for over £6m; technicians worked on it at a new Graff workshop in London - the biggest in the world. They cut and polished the stone to produce 26 diamonds weighing 224ct in total, worth £25m. This man knows his stones. In December, he paid nearly $25m for the 35.5ct Wittelsbach gem, a world record price for a piece of jewellery sold at aution. Clients include the Sultan of Brunei and Donald Trump, who paid a reported £500,000 in 2004 for wife Melania's 12ct engagement ring. There are now 35 Graff outlets worldwide, with expansion plans for Russia, China and the Middle East. On the basis of higher profits, record diamond prices and strong luxury-brand values, we put the operation, including overseas firms, at £1.8bn. Graff has homes in London, New York, Gstaad and Cap Ferrat, a 150ft yacht, a winery in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and an art collection.


Robbie Cowling will have been disappointed that Colchester United's 2007-08 season ended in relegation. A lifelong Hammers fan, local boy Cowling took over as chairman of 'the U's' in 2006. Having left school with no qualifications, he initially trained as a motor mechanic. In the mid-80s, he taught himself computer programming and in 1993 launched JobServe, which, he claims, was the world's first online recruitment consultancy. His Colchester-based firm headed the 2000 Sunday Times Top 100 most profitable companies. In 2007, it made an £11.7m profit on sales of £26.6m, yielding an impressive margin of 43.9%. With profitable internet companies still valued on hefty multiples, JobServe should easily be worth £90m. And with other assets and past salaries included, Cowling himself should comfortably be worth £105m.


Natalie Massenet was a fashion editor at Women's Wear Daily, later moving to Tatler - hardly classic preparation for a career as an entrepreneur. She founded in 2000, an online boutique based in London that sells serious brands to cash-rich, time-poor fashionistas. The firm delivers 150 top designer ranges across Europe, America, the Middle East and Far East, employing more than 330 people in its New York and London offices. Net-a-porter sells hip designer brands, including Miu Miu, Chloe and Marc Jacobs, promising same-day delivery to addresses in Manhattan and London. Vogue has hailed Massenet's business as 'revolutionising the way we buy designer clothes'. In 2007-08, the London end made a £3m profit on sales of £55m. It's one of Britain's fastest-growing firms, and Massenet has had offers worth millions for the business, which has found a perfect niche in the cut-throat world of fashion with slick service and a website that mixes editorial with clothes for sale. Net-a-porter is reckoned to be worth £250m, on the basis of growth potential and niche-market position.


Founded in 2000 by Thomas O'Donohoe and Mark Fitzgerald, MX Telecom has grown rapidly as a result of its skill in channelling wireless traffic in voice, video and text between content-providers and mobile networks. MX has just launched a mobile payments service called Payforit, which can be used by all UK mobile phone networks. In partnership with PayPal, the service has already been rolled out in the US, Canada and Britain. The London-based group also developed the Sun newspaper's 63000 service, encouraging readers to get in touch if they have any news, gossip or pictures. The Sun is the latest media outfit to sign up with MX, which has also teamed up with TV and production companies such as the BBC and Endemol to stream live video to 3G customers. Big Brother devotees can watch the house live on their 3G mobile phones. The firm's systems also allow drivers in London to pay the congestion charge by text message. In 2006-07, it made a profit of more than £382,000 on £50.3m sales, but adding the £5.4m directors' pay to the bottom line takes the profit to nearly £7m. On these figures, MX should easily be worth £70m.

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