My first million: Nick Laing, Steppes Travel

Lots of people go travelling hoping for a life-changing experience. Nick Laing may be one of the few to have actually had one.

Lots of people go travelling hoping for a life-changing experience. Nick Laing may be one of the few to have actually had one. In 1975, the then Scots Guardsman went on a seven-month tour of south-east Asia in a Land Rover. It opened his eyes: "I suddenly discovered that there was a whole other world out there, which operated outside the confines of a barracks. And it was rather more appealing than the life I'd become used to." So he left the army, bought a farm in Gloucestershire, and decided to get involved in tourism.

But his first venture was nearly his last. He invested in a Nepalese hunting lodge he'd come across on his travels, but several years and $50,000 later, was forced to admit that it wasn't working out. But painful though it was, the experience proved useful when in 1988, an old banker friend called with a proposition. "I've got this introduction to Russia, to go and look at a tourism project," the banker said. "You know about tourism why don't you come with me?" Laing agreed immediately. "I mean, what an adventure!"

Their destination was the Altai, on the Mongolian border, where the authorities were looking to semi-privatise hunting operations in the area and build lodges for Western tourists. Laing could see the investment potential from building lodges there, and jumped at the chance to lend "some expertise for free in exchange for exclusive rights to the whole area."

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free
https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/flexiimages/mw70aro6gl1676370748.jpg

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Back in the UK, Laing spent the next six months making contacts and promoting himself as the link between the outside world and Russia. A business plan was compiled and £200,000 raised to build a travel firm which knew "the country like the back of their hand and had the dirt of it under their fingernails". A team was put together at his farm office. They produced a brochure, sent it to their friends and waited for them to start booking holidays. "Which they didn't do." Things didn't get any better the next year. In 1991, Russia was falling apart. "There was no fuel, no food, there was a big question mark over safety. Nobody wanted to go there." Faced with making "negligible sales" Laing drew on his travelling experiences and started selling holidays in India and Nepal, which kept the business ticking over.

But he continued to build in the Altai, so when interest in Russia began to pick up in 1993, "we were unquestionably the people with the best knowledge" of the region. In 1994, Steppes took on a PR company and started flying journalists into places such as Uzbekistan where "very few people had been if we sent a journalist to Mongolia and got a double page in The Times, or The Telegraph at the weekend, we would get 70 or 80 replies". By 1997, Steppes Travel was turning over £1.2m a year. The firm has since grown, buying agencies specialising in both African and responsible' travel, bringing group turnover to £8m this year. And unlike so many entrepreneurs who turn their interests into money-making ventures, only to lose their passion for what becomes just another job, Laing still has his taste for adventure. Just two years ago he rode a motorbike from London to Vladivostok, and plans to circumnavigate the Mediteranean soon. "It's not a job, it's a hobby. It's fantastic."

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.