Harvey Sinclair: 'You either want to strike out or you don’t'

Having already cut his teeth as a successful entrepreneur, Harvey Sinclair is making another fortune in LEDs.


Harvey Sinclair, Leitcorp International

By the time he was in his mid-20s, Royal Holloway graduate Harvey Sinclair had already made rapid progress up the corporate ladder. After a spell as a consultant at RSM International and a position at marketing firm Archer Young, in 1999 Sinclair found himself firmly established as a commercial director at global advertising agency McCann Erickson. But despite his success, he wasn't satisfied to keep working for someone else. "You either have a desire to strike out or you don't and I do," says serial entrepreneur Sinclair, now 41.

With e-commerce starting to take off, he looked around for business models that would take advantage of the growing popularity of the internet. He settled on contact lenses. Small, light, and unlike glasses based purely around the recommended prescription, rather than any fashion considerations, they were "an unsentimental purchase and one that could easily fit inside a letter box".

He set up Iris Online Contact Lens Centre with optician Russell Scher in 1999. It was such a rapid success that they began to sell glasses as well, under the name Iris Spectacle. Eventually the two firms merged, and by the time Sinclair was bought out by his partner in 2010, Iris Optical (its current trading name) had an annual turnover of £5m.

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But Sinclair wasn't satisfied with just one successful venture. In 1999, he turned his attention to the online recruitment industry. He noted that there was a gap in the market for students looking for temporary work during their holidays or gap year. He founded Hot Group, a recruitment website, to take advantage.

After initial success, the tech bust in 2001 hit the market hard. But Sinclair used the slump to buy several rivals, including some traditional agencies. He also expanded into other areas, including public-sector workers. In 2006, the company was sold to publisher Trinity Mirror for £60m.

Now Sinclair has two new big projects on the go. He is managing director and joint partner in Lietcorp International, a manufacturer of light-emitting diodes (LEDs). He believes that LEDs are "a hugely disruptive technology in a hugely disruptive market". He points out that the McKinsey consultancy has released a report predicting that half of all commercial lighting will be LED-based within five years. In fact, the energy-efficient lighting market "is potentially bigger than the global PC market". While Lietcorp's current turnover is £15m a year, he thinks this could quickly double.

The only trouble is that today's difficult economic environment means firms have little cash on hand to invest in cutting down energy use, and replacing old lighting with LED-based alternatives. Many businesses are also finding it hard to raise funds, even though investment in LEDs delivers a high return in terms of savings. So Sinclair has also set up Energy Works, which provides financing for firms to invest in LED technology.

Energy Works fits the technology, with payments linked to a proportion of the realised savings. While the new fund was only set up in June, he claims that interest from the sector has already been "phenomenal". Overall, the plan is to invest up to £100m in the next three years.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

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