Britain's Top 100 Entrepreneurs 2011: The Premier League

This year's top 10 are drawn from an encouragingly diverse range of sectors, which augurs well for a robust, broadly based UK recovery.

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013


Former ad exec Nick Robertson co-founded fashion retail website Asos in 2000, inspired by the tale that when TV sitcom Friends first aired, 25,000 viewers were said to have rung in, desperate to find out where they could buy the photoframe that hung on Monica's front door. He sniffed an opportunity to sell 'as seen on screen' fashions to net-savvy 16 to 34-year-olds looking to emulate celebrities like Kate Moss, Sienna Miller and Alexa Chung but at a fraction of the price. He was right - Asos has been one of the most successful internet retailers. The north London-based operation stocks 800 brands including Reiss, French Connection and See by Chloe, but the real mark of its success comes from the fact that half of all Asos's sales are from its own collections. It's a business in which speed is crucial: a dress inspired by the latest catwalk shows can go from drawing board to delivery in just under three weeks.

Asos is also one of the few British fashion brands with plans to manufacture in the UK - it has acquired a factory in Haringey where it will provide jobs for 20 seamstresses plus apprentices, although the bulk of its garments still come from India, China, Turkey and Brazil. A new warehouse also opens in Barnsley later this year, creating another 1,000 jobs. Asos, which raised just £2.8m at its 2001 float on AIM, is now valued at over £1bn and posted a 59% rise in recent half-year profits. And there's plenty more to come, says Robertson, predicting that 20% to 30% of all transactions will be made from smartphones within three years.


Simon Arora knows how to spot bargains - and sell them. A Cambridge law graduate, he cut his commercial teeth at Orient Sourcing Services, a wholesale business sourcing cheap domestic goods from Asia set up by his brother Bobby. Having sold Orient, they took over Blackpool-based discount retailer B&M Retail in 2005.

Using Chinese manufacturers, they secured whole ranges of non-grocery items at rock-bottom prices for B&M's stores. They also sell 2,000 grocery lines, sourced from within the UK.

The Aroras have cleverly used the recession to their advantage, snapping up plum sites from struggling competitors and turning them into new B&M outlets. Profits at parent company Firesource soared to £32.1m on nearly £427m of sales in 2009. There are now over 200 B&M stores and new branches are opening at the rate of one a week. How much larger can it get? A £24m distribution centre and headquarters has recently opened in Liverpool, and it's big enough to handle 400 stores ...


Co Down-based TG Eakin was formed in 1974 by Tom Eakin, a pharmacist, to manufacture medical supplies - specifically ostomy products. Based on the experiences of his customers, he spotted an opportunity to provide better disposable bags and pouches for urostomy and colostomy patients than those available at the time. The firm, which has pioneered new designs, materials and adhesives, has grown rapidly. In 2007 it acquired Cardiff-based Pelican Healthcare and the business now supplies ostomy and wound care products to more than 30 countries. Owned by the Eakin family and run by his sons Paul and Jeremy, parent Eakin Holdings delivered healthy profits of £16.9m on £36.5m sales in 2009-10.


In 2001, Noel Hayden's London-based firm Gamesys created, a 'soft gaming' website that specialises in bingo, instant-win games and casino tables. Gamesys claims that now has more than two million registered users, one of whom won a record jackpot of £1.3m in 2008.

Managing director Hayden sold his previous company, Internet Digital Media, to Gameplay for £7m in 1999. He used the proceeds as seed capital for Gamesys, focusing on the soft gaming sector (rather than hard gambling such as poker), in the belief that it would reach a wider audience.

The company also operates 'white-label' gaming websites in partnership with consumer brands - such as GMTV's Instant Win Games, a site where players can win anything from a chocolate fountain to a trip to the Inside Soap Awards. In 2008, Gamesys took over the operation of the Sun newspaper's bingo website. In 2009-10, the firm made £21m profit on £75m sales.


The octogenarian Dr Alan Reece owns and runs Pearson Engineering, one of the best-performing industrial groups in the north-east. Pearson develops systems and equipment for the combat engineers of the British and US armies, and the US Marines. Its particular expertise is the development and supply of specialised countermine equipment for armoured fighting vehicles, but it also provides industrial deepwater mining and excavation systems. In 2009, Pearson's profits more than doubled to £31.3m on soaring sales of £116.2m. Reece is also using his wealth for the greater good of industry - he was the biggest single donor to Cambridge University's Institute for Manufacturing last year, whose new research building on the university's west Cambridge campus is named in his honour.


Cheltenham-based Supergroup owns the ultra-cool and hugely successful Superdry clothing label. Founder Julian Dunkerton floated the business on the stock market in March last year, and the shares have soared - the operation is now valued at a recession-busting £1.2bn. Supergroup's roots date back to when the then 19-year-old Dunkerton spotted a gap in the fashion market and decided to set up a shop. He worked in a factory and also as a fruit picker to raise the money, and after borrowing an additional £2,000 from his family he scraped up just enough for the rent on a local shop that was due for demolition. He made £16,000 in his first year - 1985 - and has never looked back. Superdry's celebrity fans now include David Beckham and High School Musical star Zac Efron - even though the company does not pay famous faces to endorse its clothes. Profits in the year to May 2010 trebled to £26.5m, leading Dunkerton to boldly predict: 'We are now ready to make the leap to becoming a global brand.'


There seems to be no stopping Bet365, the Stoke-based online gaming group. Profits soared in 2009-10 from £66.5m the previous year to nearly £101m, on £420m sales. The only drain on the group was Stoke City, the Premiership football club of which Bet365 co-founder Peter Coates is chairman, which lost £3.9m. 'It's clearly not a sensible financial investment,' he admitted as far back as 2006, when he took over the Potters for the second time.

A miner's son, Potteries-based Coates founded a catering company, Stadia Catering, in 1968, which provided food and drink at football clubs. But in 1974 he struck on the activity which was really going to make his fortune, opening three bookmaking shops. He subsequently built up the 49-shop Provincial Racing chain of bookies. Then in 2000, Coates' daughter Denise came up with the idea of online betting. Bet365 was born, with an initial investment of £12m. It was so successful that Coates senior sold his betting shops in July 2005 to concentrate on the online business, which now goes from strength to strength - complete with swanky ad campaign fronted by Ray Winstone in the commercial breaks during televised football matches.


Cambridge-based biotech business Abcam has proved very far from a dead loss, despite the fact that its first office was in a former morgue. Molecular geneticist Dr Jonathan Milner founded the company in 1998, when as a research fellow at Cambridge University working on breast cancer, he became frustrated with the difficulty of obtaining the high-quality antibodies needed to support vital protein interaction studies. So he decided to start supplying his own. It was tough going for the first few years as venture capitalists declined to invest - at one point Milner was reduced to hawking an ice-bucket full of antibody samples to fellow researchers, but he got there in the end. Abcam now supplies more than 45,000 different antibodies to 50 laboratories worldwide. It was floated on AIM in November 2005. The shares have soared in recent months on the back of a 58.4% rise in profits in 2009-10, and Abcam is now worth around £600m.


Founder Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia reckons Euro Car Parts, his 70-branch car parts supply company, has benefited from the rising popularity of independent garages, where mechanics' hourly rates are often half those of manufacturers' franchised dealerships. Increasingly, thrifty motorists who buy parts from his stores before contracting their own mechanic have also done their bit. Whatever the reason, it seems to be working - 2009 profits soared from £6.6m in 2008 to £17m, while sales rose to £186.9m.

It was in 1978 that Ahluwalia spent £5,000 on a high street parts store in Willesden and began to trade under the name of Highway Autos. He then spotted a gap in the market, supplying parts for prestige German car brands such as BMW and Mercedes, and renamed the business Euro Car Parts. In December 2004, Ahluwalia bought out the entire family interest in the company and is now sole shareholder. The company recently extended its range to include Ford, Vauxhall, Rover and Japanese manufacturers, which should further help sales.


Dragons' Den veteran Duncan Bannatyne has slogged his way to the top and now clearly relishes the fame that his TV appearances bring, saying, 'It has helped me in business. 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. I don't think there is much downside.'

Bannatyne is the classic rags-to-riches entrepreneur and proud of it, having left school at 15 with no qualifications. His first job was delivering bread, which paid him enough to secure a mortgage. Then he bought an ice-cream van in north-east England, which resulted in other local vendors threatening to put him out of business. They failed, and with the profits he bought four houses and refurbished them as bed-and-breakfast hostels.

Next, Bannatyne built a nursing home, ultimately developing a chain of 30 homes which he sold in 1997, netting £26m for his stake. He then put £20m of that into his new Bannatyne's health and fitness gym venture. As if that wasn't enough, he made a further £22m along the way from selling his 80% stake in the Just Learning nursery operation he started after failing to find a nursery for his own children. His remarkable drive shows no sign of flagging, and the Bannatyne Group has grown sharply. It now operates 61 health clubs, three hotels, 28 day spas and a bar.


Huddersfield-based pound store Poundworld has been bucking the economy and growing fast, adding 27 stores to its portfolio last year. The 102nd Poundworld, in a Glasgow retail park, opened just before Christmas. The business was founded by brothers Chris and Laurie Edwards in 1974. They began by selling household goods in Wakefield market before building a chain of stores across the north of England. Poundworld still sells many products at the same price that it charged more than 30 years ago, including one pound umbrellas. 'At a time when customers are looking for the best possible value and many retailers are struggling to compete, our basic formula of selling high-quality goods at just a pound is hugely successful,' says Chris Edwards. Poundworld plans to open 45 stores in 2011. Sales grew by nearly 40% to £94m in 2009-10.


Angus Robertson's London-based company supplies Japanese voltage optimisation technology that stabilises mains power supplies for its commercial customers. This helps to extend the life of machinery, promotes energy efficiency and enables firms to cut energy bills and carbon emissions. With sole distribution rights in Britain and parts of mainland Europe for 20 years, PowerPerfector has installed its technology in 1,000 Tesco stores. When Robertson, a former moneybroker, started out in 2001, he sold only one unit in his first year. In 2009, Powerperfector made £8.9m profit on £29.7m sales.


Since opening its doors 25 years ago, Chain Reaction Cycles has grown from a small family-owned village bike shop in Ballynure, Northern Ireland to the number one online bike store in the world, operating from a 100,000 sq ft, purpose-built factory. The original Ballynure Cycles, the humble brainchild of George and Janice Watson, came into being thanks to a £1,500 bank loan. But the hard-riding pair had their eyes on greater things and in 1989 moved to larger premises. Ten years later, as Chain Reaction Cycles, it went online and the rest is history. Still family-owned, it is now run by the Watsons' son, Chris. In 2009, it made £8m profit on £77.4m sales and should be worth £75m.


Clothing company Jack Wills may sell hoodies, baseball caps, track pants and other leisurewear, but its affluent, youthful customers are more likely to have a double-barrelled name than an Asbo. In 1999 Peter Williams opened his first store in Devon, straight out of university. Initially financed by savings and credit cards, the firm labels itself as a 'university outfitter' and 'the definitive British preppy clothing brand'. It has grown to over 40 stores in Britain and the US, plus a catalogue and an online store. Rumours of a Japanese expansion plan have even been circulating. Spin-off chain, Aubin & Wills, is aimed at an older clientele. In 2009-10, its profits soared to £6.7m on £64.7m sales.


John Griffin suffered from tuberculosis as a child and left school at 16 without an O level. Yet he successfully bluffed his way into a job as an articled clerk for an accountancy firm. When his father's business got into trouble, Griffin quit to help out, hitting on minicabbing as a way to earn cash. In the end, his father went to work for Islington council, but Griffin stuck with the cabbing. He set up on his own in 1975, picking the name 'Addison' because one of his controllers was living in a squat in Addison Gardens and he thought it sounded posh. The 'Lee' part he added off the top of his head. Today Addison Lee is London's largest minicab operation - it made £2.6m profit on sales of £88m in 2009.


The late John Meade may have been a headmaster in Bangor, but he was an entrepreneur at heart. In the 1960s, he and a friend bought out a rowing boat business operating from a site on the fringes of Holyhead harbour and within a few years were repairing and refitting pleasure craft. Meade left teaching to work full-time on the venture. Today it is called Holyhead Boatyard and run by Meade's son, Mark. As well as building military and commercial craft for a range of blue-chip customers, it is involved in dredging and tugboat services. Profits at Holyhead Boatyard rose to £6.8m on £29.8m turnover in 2009. It is not reliant on the UK market, which accounts for only 34% of sales.


Surinder Arora is rightly proud of his new luxury hotel, the Sofitel, at Heathrow's Terminal 5. It won the gong for best new business hotel in the world at the 2009 Business Traveller Awards. Arora's portfolio comprises 16 mainly airport-based hotels, at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester. Seven of them are operated under the Arora and Accor brands, while the remaining nine are operated independently. His next project is a hotel within the Oval cricket ground. The quietly spoken Arora has succeeded against all the odds - given away at birth in India, he spoke not a word of English when he was sent round the world to begin again in Britain, aged 14. Hard work has been the key, he says: 'For the first 20 years, I did 20-hour days.' Arora started as an office junior at British Airways, while also moonlighting as a hotel waiter. Later, he was a salesman for Abbey National, rising to become branch manager. He pushed the family savings into property, developing a row of houses opposite Heathrow into large-scale bed-and-breakfast accommodation. From that emerged his first hotel and a deal with BA to accommodate its air crews. He never looked back.


Over the past 30 years, Medina Dairy has grown to become one of Britain's largest independent dairies. The Windsor-based company has spent £20m on acquiring and developing its 157-acre main facility in Hampshire, capable of producing 250 million litres of milk a year. The company has a second production site in Yorkshire and a nationwide network of 19 distribution depots through which it delivers dairy products, eggs and morning goods to the retail, catering and food manufacturing sectors. In 2009 it made £4.8m profit on £171.2m sales. It is run and owned by Mohammed Azam and his family.


Insurance comparison website was launched in 2006 by Hayley Parsons. Parsons has spent her entire career in insurance and was formerly the business creation specialist at Admiral Group, where she helped to launch Gladiator Insurance and Based in Wales, Gocompare soared into profit in 2009, making £12m on £74.9m sales, compared to a £4m loss in 2008.'s insurance quote volumes increased to 19.4 million quotes in 2009 from 12.3 million in 2008 and today the company is issuing in excess of two million quotes for car, home, pet, van and motorbike insurance per month. It has also fully repaid the £30m loan facility it agreed early in 2007 with insurer esure. Some of that money went to make its TV commercials featuring the moustachioed opera singer, which have been voted the most irritating ads on the telly. generates revenues from relationships with over 150 insurance brands, underlining the company's position as a leading UK insurance aggregator.


The Iceland food chain started life one summer's day in 1970. Walker and Peter Hinchcliffe, a pair of trainee deputy managers for Woolworths in North Wales, bought freezers on hire purchase, food on credit and opened for business in a small shop in Oswestry, Shropshire, rented for £60 a month. They both lost their jobs at Woolies as a result, but domestic freezers were all the rage and their frozen food operation was ready to take off. Iceland floated in 1984, valued at £44m and the stakes held by the two co-founders were then worth £10m apiece. Walker was ousted from the company in 2001, but in 2005 he returned, heading a consortium that took over the by-then struggling business in a deal worth £150m. He successfully turned it around, and in 2009-10 profits at the Clwyd-based operation soared to £110m on over £2.2bn of sales.


Graham Baker was born and brought up on the family farm in Rugby, and at the age of 18 began working in the wholesale butchering operation attached to the farm. Demand grew steadily, resulting in more and more offal and meat by-products that could not be sold for human consumption. Baker hit on the idea of pet food and began supplying own-label products to cash-and-carry stores. It was a success, but it wasn't until cans of Butcher's Tripe Mix for dogs hit the supermarket shelves in 1987 that his brand became a household name, complete with the strapline 'Fit as a Butcher's dog'. Baker bought out the other family shareholders in 2007. The parent company, FW Baker, turned in a record £6.6m profit on £72.2m sales in 2009-10.


Cathie Paver always found shopping for shoes difficult, so with the help of her family she opened her own shoe shop in the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough. That was in 1971. It was such a success that further shops followed in York, Hull, Newcastle and throughout the north. In 1996, Pavers'

first Outlet store opened in North Shields. A discount footwear retailer, Pavers offers many more brands than normal retailers. Cathie Paver is now 82, but the firm is still family owned, run by her three sons: Stuart is the managing director, Graham logistics director and Ian is buying director for the Outlet stores. Its products can now be found on TV shopping channels and on its website, which claims to be the largest online shoe-store in Europe. By 2007, the Pavers had over 60 shops around the UK and Ireland, and had built Catherine House, a brand-new, multimillion-pound warehouse/head office in York. Now looking to emerging markets for growth, it recently opened its 50th concession in India. In 2009-10, Pavers made a healthy £5m profit on £49.6m sales.

- Click here to download the full table of Britain's Top 100 Entrepreneurs (Pdf)

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