Mark Mills: Picking up pennies at the corner shop
A visit to the States gave Mark Mills the brain wave he needed to make his fortune from cash machines in Britain.
Mark Mills, 42, was not exactly an overnight success. His first three businesses left him with more debts than profits. But in 1996, he and his brother Nigel hit the big time on the back of one smart idea. The brothers were excited by the advertising potential of petrol stations. "They're great because so many people go there to spend money."
They tried to negotiate a deal for advertising space on forecourts, but found that "one advertisement cost £1,000 a year it was too much for us". So Mills changed tack and asked petrol-station owners if there was anything he could supply them with that he could stick advertising on for free. They settled on post boxes.
"A petrol station is the perfect place for a post box because people can buy a card from the shop and post it straight away. It was also a great addition for the petrol stations as it would bring more customers." Mills was sure he'd have advertisers queuing up for a space on these post boxes. But there was one snag Royal Mail were unwilling to help.
Undefeated, in 1997 Mills "studied law for a year at night school" before discovering an arcane piece of legislation that allowed private firms to set up post boxes as long as they paid a fee and allowed Royal Mail to control the lock.
Mills soon struck up deals with "all the major petrol station chains, bar one". Meanwhile, Nestl signed a contract to advertise on a network of 1,000 post boxes. But Mills only had enough money to build six of them by himself, so he agreed a partnership with a major advertising agency. Now he was ready to install post boxes across 1,000 petrol-station forecourts.
Two years later he put the business up for sale it ended up being bought by Royal Mail. "They were worried that a European competitor might get their hands on the network, so they ended up removing most of the boxes." Now £2m better off, it was time for the brothers to find a new idea. So in the summer of 1999, "we hopped on a plane to New York", knowing America's financial capital was full of innovation.
Once again Mark spotted an opportunity the paid-for cash machines that were ubiquitous in American convenience stores. "I got charged $3 to take out $50 and thought that's a great business'."
Realising other people had the same idea, the pair raced back to Britain and signed deals with Alliance & Leicester for access to their cash-machine network; Securicor, for transporting cash; and Girobank, who provided the notes needed for the machines. By March 2000, they were ready to install their first cash machine.
"When you first approached shopkeepers they thought you were mad. But when they saw other people doing it, they realised the concept worked." Shopkeepers didn't get any money for hosting a machine, but Mills persuaded them that it would boost their sales. By 2002 ,they had a network of hundreds of machines and listed the firm, Cardpoint Plc, on Aim.
The £6m they raised fuelled further growth and by 2006 they had more than 6,000 cash machines dotted around the country. When a private-equity firm offered £170m for Cardpoint, the brothers sold up.
Mark has now set off on his own, founding Cormega Consulting, a business broker, in 2011. He's also written a book about his experiences, Natural Born Entrepreneur.