Money makers: watchmaking is coming home

Giles and Nick English
Giles and Nick English: training a new generation of craftsmen

As children, brothers Nick and Giles English hung out in the workshop of their father, Euan (an RAF pilot turned aeronautical engineer), tinkering with stuff and learning to fly, says Ben Wright in The Daily Telegraph. Tragedy hit in 1995 when Nick and Euan’s Harvard aircraft crash-landed, and Euan died.

Both Nick and Giles were working as accountants at the time. “We realised that life is short,” says Giles. “I remember my boss at PwC coming over to me,” adds Nick. “He was fat; on his third wife. And he said something to the effect of: ‘If you work really hard, you can be like me.’ I phoned up Giles and we both agreed to quit the following day.”

They first took over their father’s business, restoring historical aircraft, before turning to their father’s other hobby: watches. “We knew we were entering a battlefield populated by really good players and we would only stand a chance if our watches were beautifully made,” says Giles. That meant setting up a workshop in Switzerland, but the brothers have been trying to move production to Britain – no easy task as Britain, once a world leader in watchmaking, no longer has the skills. The brothers have had to train new recruits from scratch, which takes between two and seven years.

Their company, Bremont, turned over £18m last year, an annual increase of 26%. “We talk to our rivals in Switzerland and they can’t [believe] we can’t go round the corner to the local pinion manufacturer,” says Giles. “British manufacturers need to help each other out to develop skills.”

How the Wizard of Ozark built a better bank

George Gleason was trying to talk one of Arkansas’s biggest banks to take its business to the law firm where he was working, says Peter Robison in Bloomberg Businessweek. Gleason, who was just 24, was told he seemed too entrepreneurial to practise law, and that he should buy a bank instead. So in 1979, he bought one in Ozark, a town of 3,700 in Arkansas, with $10,000 in cash and a $3.6m loan, putting up the family farm as collateral.

The bank had $28m in assets and two dozen employees, who looked shell-shocked when Gleason told them Bank of Ozark would become the best bank in the state. “I think they thought we’d be lucky to survive until Christmas,” he says. The bank has since grown into one of America’s biggest construction lenders. Profit almost tripled in the two years to 2011, by which time it had $3.8bn in assets and Gleason had been dubbed the “Wizard of Ozark”.

Turning a headache into a $12bn business

In 2007, Drew Houston was 24 years old and desperate to find a business partner to win funding to get his cloud storage business up and running, says the BBC’s Will Smale. Venture-capital firm Y Combinator had given Houston just two weeks to fulfil his search.

Houston had come up with the idea for what would become Dropbox in late 2006 while on the bus from Boston to New York. Frustrated at forgetting a memory stick he needed, he began writing code for a file-storage system that users could access online from anywhere.

Arash Ferdowsi, a 22-year-old student, agreed to quit his studies and join the business. “In retrospect this was pretty crazy… I’m sure his parents had a different plan for him, one that involved finishing college,” says Houston. Today, Ferdowsi is worth $1.3bn, while Houston has amassed a $3bn fortune. Earlier this year, Dropbox listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange, where it is now valued at more than $12bn. Revenues from subscriptions exceed $1bn a year. Houston says he is focused on making sure his 2,000 staff ignore the success of the flotation, and instead “stay focused on why we are here – making customers happy”.

Sebastian Siemiatkowski

The payments disruptor

A young woman hesitates about making an online purchase, says Richard Milne in the Financial Times. “Klarna it,” her friend urges, referring to the “pay later” function offered by some retailers, whereby shoppers are given 30 days to settle their purchases.

Klarna, founded in 2005, and valued at $2.5bn, has become one of Europe’s biggest start-ups. Last year, the Swedish company also became the biggest fintech group in Europe to get a banking licence. “We are on a long-term mission here,” says Sebastian Siemiatkowski (pictured), 36, Klarna’s co-founder and CEO. “There is a massive opportunity now to change an industry where, unfortunately, banks have been more absorbed by themselves than their customers.”

Klarna is preparing to launch its first banking product – a payment card – and wants to expand out of its Nordic and German strongholds. It is still relatively small, posting revenues of SKr4.5bn (£388m) last year, with net income of SKr346m (£30m) from fees charged to merchants and users, as well as interest charged to late-paying customers. “We are a pretty cool thing: a fintech and a bank,” says Siemiatkowski, on challenging the traditional banks. “Payments is a $1trn industry… The shift hasn’t even started yet.”

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