Money makers: how London has changed

Robin Birely © Rex Features
Robin Birely: “the work ethic that has changed”

Robin Birley has seen many changes in London over the years. When he was opening Birley’s sandwich bars in the 1980s, most customers were “old-style people”, one step removed from the bowler hat, he tells the Financial Times. Annabel’s and Harry’s Bar, the exclusive Mayfair club and restaurant founded by his father, Mark, were always full of English toffs and Americans, plus a few “Greek shipping owners”. Now, London is “much less English”.

The club he currently runs, 5 Hertford Street, struggles to keep its membership even half British, three-quarters of the waiting list is “international” and 85% are “self-made”. Tastes have shifted accordingly. “I’ve had to relax the dress code,” he says, “so members can wear smart trainers.” The menus have moved away from rich French food to “soups and salad”. And London is a soberer place.

“I think of all the japes and heavy drinking at Annabel’s in the 1970s… It’s the work ethic that has changed. People get up earlier in the morning and if you turn up with a hangover two days running, you get fired. Things are much more serious.”

Trading trainers

Josh Luber has two great passions in life: trainers and compiling data. Four years ago he was working as a consultant for tech giant IBM, spending his free time bidding for rare trainers online. Trainer sales are booming in the US and the resale market is estimated at half a billion dollars a year, with prices often pushing through $1,000 per pair. But Luber was constantly frustrated by the lack of data on when each trainer was released, or how much other collectors were paying. He began compiling prices and launched a blog that doubled as a price guide for expensive American shoes.

Luber’s blog attracted the backing of Dan Gilbert, a billionaire mortgage lender, and the two worked together to expand it into a full-blown trading platform. Luber likens the outcome, StockX, to a stock exchange for trainers, offering transparent price data for traders, including 52-week highs and lows. StockX charges a 10% commission on every transaction.

The platform is “revolutionary”, Luber tells Businessweek. StockX does not disclose its financial performance, but it has grown to have 21 employees. Gilbert wants to expand the business into other rare items, including watches, wine and cars. He wants to be in everymarket “overnight”, Luber says. “We’re trying to manage the best way that’s logical to get there.”

Selling satchels

Running your own business can be a lonely and isolating experience, Julie Deane tells The Daily Telegraph. In 2008, with just £600, Deane started the Cambridge Satchel Company from her kitchen table. Her colourful designs based on the traditional British school satchel were a huge success. Four years later, thousands of orders were coming in daily and the business grew to a staff of 80. Deane had starred in a Google advertisement and was regularly topping lists of successful British entrepreneurs.

But it was the loneliest time of her life. She discovered that the supplier producing her satchels had ripped off the design and was selling it under another brand. Deane had to end the contract, leaving thousands of orders unfulfilled and the future of her firm at risk. “At one stage we had a 38,000 bag backlog and I’d fired the manufacturer,” she says. “But when things go wrong, you can’t look to your staff for reassurance because then the ship has no captain. They needed a strong… leader.”

Deane didn’t even tell her mother that the business might go under. “She would have been so worried about me. It was lonely, but that comes with the territory as an entrepreneur. You have a mentality whereby you don’t need to discuss every problem with lots of people.” Isolation, Deane says, is oneof the biggest obstacles for entrepreneurs, but she pulled her business through, simply by focusing on doing her best for her children. “It was the sole reason I started the business and, as a mother, it was the pressure to sort that out that I focused on.”

Peter Neumark © Classic Motor Cars

Horsepower to the people: classic car workers take over the firm

The boss of a classic-car restoration firm based in Shropshire has given the business to its employees in order to ensure its survival after he retirees. Peter Neumark (pictured), who says he is “nearer 70 than 60”, said it was the best ownership structure for the company going forwards. “If I keel over tomorrow,” he tells the BBC, “which I’m not planning to, but you never know, then it was important to me that this business had a good home and I can’t think of a better set of owners than the employees themselves.”

Classic Motor Cars was formed in the 1990s by Neumark and co-founder Nick Goldthorp. It has 60 staff and sales of around £5m each year, restoring some of the world’s most iconic classic cars,including an E-type Jaguar from the 24-hour Le Mans race in 1961.

Neumark’s majority stake in the business has been handed to an employee ownership trust, including apprentices at the firm, imitating the ownership model of department store John Lewis, which shares out profits among all workers on the shop floor in the form of an annual bonus.Around 300 businesses in the UK are owned by employee trusts, with a total annual turnover of more than £25bn. In almost every case, Neumark says, those businesses tend to have greater productivity, better staff retention, happier customers and higher profitability.

“We are all a bit shocked,” one panel beater told The Guardian. “It took a while to sink it. We’ve got this amazing opportunity to put ideas on the table and shape a business. It gives everyone drive to work a little bit harder when it’s your business.”