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."

Advertisement - Article continues below

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.

Advertisement - Article continues below
Advertisement - Article continues below

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'."

Advertisement - Article continues below

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.




Don’t squeeze our entrepreneurs with higher taxes

Britain’s entrepreneurs and business innovators get generous tax breaks. They should keep getting them.
17 Nov 2019

Masayoshi Son: the God of tech tests the faithful

Masayoshi Son, the founder of Japanese tech giant Softbank, has had a bad crisis. He has bounced back before, and will do again, he insists. It wouldn…
1 Jun 2020

Top four financial villains of the last 20 years

Despite MoneyWeek’s 1,000 issues, we struggled to find a page of material on people we considered particularly worthy of honour. We were spoilt for ch…
26 May 2020
Small business

New grants for the self-employed

Self-employed workers can now apply for government support if their income has been affected by Covid-19.
22 May 2020

Most Popular

UK Economy

What bounce back loans can tell us about how we’ll pay for all this

The government will guarantee emergency "bounce back loans" for small businesses hit by Covid-19. Inevitably, many businesses will default. And there'…
1 Jun 2020

This looks like the biggest opportunity in today’s markets

With low interest rates and constant money-printing, most assets have become expensive. But one major asset class hasn’t. John Stepek explains why com…
2 Jun 2020
Global Economy

The MoneyWeek Podcast: James Ferguson on the virus, the lockdown, and what comes next

Merryn talks to MoneyWeek regular James Ferguson of Macrostrategy Partnership about what's happened so far with the virus; whether the lockdown was th…
28 May 2020