Terry Read: What I learned from Jimmy Goldsmith

Terry Read defied funding issues and a brutal recession to steer his recruitment start-up to profits. And having sold the business to listed recruiter Hays, he's not done yet.

Terry Read, 70, learned a lot about entrepreneurship in his very first job working for British tycoon Sir James Goldsmith in the 1960s. "Jimmy was a real character. You were never quite sure if you would get paid at the end of the month."

At Goldsmith's Cavenham Foods, Read "did a bit of everything". But by 1970 he was ready to go it alone. "The recruitment industry was just getting started. I had helped recruit some people for Cavenham and thought it seemed like a growing industry."

Read set up a London-based service specialising in marketing and sales personnel. Lacking money, he teamed up with an older American partner who financed the start-up in exchange for a 75% stake. The new firm, London Executives, operated on a shoestring in a serviced office. "It was difficult before I could even begin selling the firm to clients I had to sell the idea of recruitment agencies."

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Nonetheless, he managed to place candidates with the likes of Procter & Gamble and Black & Decker. After 18 months, he was able to move to a proper' office in the West End.

The business grew solidly until the mid-1970s. The turning point arrived when Philip Morris launched Marlboro cigarettes in Britain. "I managed to get the contract and needed to fill positions throughout the country." Realising he would need good staff, he contacted one of the candidates he had placed a few years earlier, David Carroll. "He kept tight control and made sure we didn't waste money." Unlike rivals, they chose not to open branches in other parts of the country. Instead, they arranged batches of interviews in other cities and travelled.

It was a good strategy by 1989 the firm had a "multi-million-pound annual turnover". A larger rival stepped in with a decent offer, but Read and his majority partner fell out "he owned 75% of the business but I had all the contacts, and in recruitment people are the company's main assets. The buyers would only pay if I came with the company and I wasn't happy with what he offered me."

A few months later Read and Carroll set up on their own. The new firm, Read-Carroll, operated from a cheap base in Harrow. "It was as far out as we could get and still keep the London phone number." After only a few months the recession hit and they were forced to lay off staff.

However, Read's long contact book now came into its own. "Some of the people I had placed 15 years before had moved up... and turned to me for new staff." Better still, "all the other occupants in our block went bust or moved out. The building manager let us stay rent-free because he wanted someone to keep out squatters and vandals." The rent holiday was a "massive help".

When the economy picked up in 1992 Read-Carroll hadn't taken on any debt and costs were low. The pair knew they would sell out to a larger rival and spent most of the decade making the firm "as profitable as possible".

By 1997, turnover was over £2m and half was profit. That's when listed recruitment firm Hays put in a bid the pair could accept. Read is now back with Carroll running Stonor, which offers recruitment services and mergers advice for small firms and already has sales in "the early six-figure range".

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.