Fil Adams-Mercer: 'If you’re ballsy, you’ll make money'

Wheeler-dealer Fil-Adams Mercer, owner of Britain's biggest independent online parcel delivery firm, has come a long way from his beginnings in a two-bedroom council house in Bolton.

Fil Adams-Mercer, 56, has come a long way from the two-bedroom council house in Bolton where he was raised. The son of a handyman who took "any job he could get his hands on", he now runs Britain's biggest independent online parcel delivery firm, £9m-a-year Parcel2Go. Not bad for a man who left school at 15 without "an A-Level, B-level or spirit level".

Mercer has always been a wheeler-dealer. Aged nine, he started buying bruised fruit in the local market at 25% of the normal price and selling it on at a profit. He ended up working on the stalls, before getting a job in a supermarket and then as a truck driver. "I was always a bit of a jack the lad, buying and selling anything to get by."

In 1981, aged 28, he opened a video shop. By 1988, it had grown into a four-store chain. He sold it for £360,000 to Ritz, which later became Blockbuster and took the money in shares rather than cash. They eventually doubled in value to £720,000, "the most money I ever had by a million miles", he says.

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Mercer sold the shares to invest in a greengrocer and a video wholesale business. But neither did well, and when he ended up with a tax bill of £250,000, he didn't have the money to pay it. Focusing on paying off his debts in stages, he lay low for a while, running a small logistics firm "that was just turning a coin, £50,000 a year". Then, in 2001 he got the idea for online parcel deliveries while on holiday in Florida. "Every advert on TV was for www dot this and www dot that." So he bought the domain name Parcel2Go for £120. He chose that name "because I had just bought furniture off Rooms2Go."

At the time, DHL and UPS weren't taking parcel orders online. So Mercer decided to take orders over the internet and get DHL and others to fulfil them.

In October 2004, he spent £80,000 on advertising with eBay. A week later, Parcel2Go was receiving 3,000 calls a day. "That really woke us up to the size of the market" not to mention the need to sort out his customer service. "We were being slated as rubbish because we never answered the phones. Then a guy said he would build us a customer relationship management system for £7,000." Mercer ended up paying over £1m for it, but he insits it's been worth it. With the service issues fixed, turnover soon hit £1.5m, reached £6.2m last year, and nearly £9m in the year to April 2009.

But Mercer is still wheeling and dealing. He sublets space at his headquarters to eBay traders, and is even selling 50,000 out-of-date nuclear, biological and chemical warfare suits for £4.95 a piece via eBay. He bought them for £1 each from the Ministry of Defence. So what's his secret? "After I sold the video stores, a friend of mine sold his four to Woolworths for £3.3m on 29 March 1992." Four days later, he died of a heart attack, which put Mercer's own troubles into perspective. At the time, "my biggest worry was that the taxman would take the house off me. But after that, I realised it's just a game between life and death. Once you realise that, it will make you ballsy. And if you're ballsy, you'll make money. If you lose it, so what? At least you're not dead."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.