Richard Thompson: the advantages of starting young

Richard Thompson used the confidence borne of youthful inexperience to set-up a string of successful businesses.


Richard Thompson: "hard work and a determination to do better"

Many entrepreneurs who found more than one business tend to stick to one particular area or sector, on the principle that you should focus on what you know best. However, Richard Thompson (now 48) has gone from selling computers, to marketing to now running an elite talent agency. How does he do it? It all started when he left school at 16 to work in a firm that sold office supplies. When they branched out into computer hardware, Thompson realised that he could do a better job on his own. As a result, he set up his own dealership, First Stop Group, in 1986 after only three years.

Quitting your job to start your own firm might seem a big step for a 19-year-old. However, as Thompson points out, his youth worked to his advantage. After all, he was living at home with his parents, who were prepared to support him. As a result he wasn't weighed down by either the need to pay a mortgage or to support any children of his own. And, he adds, he was also helped by confidence borne of youthful inexperience "I wouldn't have known what risk was if it had hit me on the nose". Of course, he wasn't completely doubt-free. But he always believed that his drive and ambition would enable him to overcome any obstacles in the end.

Thompson rapidly decided that the best strategy was to focus on IBM computers. While First Stop Group did make some sales direct to consumers, with a concession in Harrods, most of Thompson's sales were made to businesses. Firms were initially sceptical as to whether a small dealer could really be trusted. However, Thompson managed to build up a client base in London by arguing that they would get a better, more attentive service from him.

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His big breakthrough came when he won an order from fast-food giant McDonald's to supply the computers they used in their branches. This deal proved so successful that Thompson won the coveted IBM Salesman of the Year award in the late 1980s. These achievements generated a huge amount of credibility for the company, further increasing sales. By the time he sold First Stop in 1993 to a management group, it was a thriving business with a turnover of £6m.

Thompson then went on to found EMS, a marketing company that he sold to the Canadian firm Mosaic for £6m in 1998. And since 2003, he has been deeply involved with his third company, talent management group Merlin Elite (now M&C Saatchi Merlin). The idea was born of Thompson's keen interest in sport. He is chairman of Surrey County Cricket Club, and over the years had befriended many sportsmen. He believed that marketing them as a brand (with a focus on media work) would increase their earnings potential.

The approach won him a host of clients, including England football manager Roy Hodgson and cricket star Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff. In 2013 M&C Saatchi bought a 60% stake for around £1m, renaming it M&C Saatchi Merlin. Thompson sees many parallels between sports and entrepreneurship success in either comes from "hard work and a determination to do better". His advice for anyone thinking of setting up on their own is to ensure that their "commitment is enough to support their ambition".

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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