• THEANALYST

    In 15 years, HAMISH STEVENSON has built Fast Track into the UK's leading networking events company. Here he gives Long View the inside track on its success in measuring business success

     

    Hamish Stevenson’s “lightening moment” for starting Fast Track came at perhaps his lowest ebb. Having lost control of his business, he recalls watching the 1996 Games. “I thought: Why the hell am I sitting here at two o’clock in the morning watching these gymnasts? And then it came to me. People love watching excellence – it attracts everybody. And I thought, I need to create a league table to find the top- performing private companies in the UK.”  

      

    To make his Olympic vision a reality, Stevenson knew he needed credibility and financial backing. “I’m Mr Nobody. Richard Branson was the only entrepreneur I’d heard of, and I knew I needed a clever way to get him involved.” 

      

    Returning to his Alma Mater, Oxford University, 15 years ago, Stevenson set about convincing the Dons of the Dreaming Spires to create a Fellowship in Entrepreneurship.  It was tough persuading the University that the concept had academic legs, and then getting Branson to back the idea and fund it. 

      

    But the cards fell in Stevenson’s favour. He was appointed a Research Fellow, and Fast Track was launched. “I was very persistent. I hounded and hounded Richard. I sat on his doorstep. That’s what you need in business: confidence, persistence and luck. And I was very lucky. We had a one-hour meeting, shook hands and the next week he went off on his round-the-world balloon trip. I had nothing in writing and I thought: I hope he doesn’t go and kill himself and I’m not going to get my money! But he didn’t and Richard’s been fantastically supportive.” 

      

    Taking the Olympic model, Stevenson set out to measure business performance and reward it. Initially based on the most obvious and available data, Fast Track launched with the Fastest Growing Sales, rapidly followed by the Profit Track 100 when he recognised that profits were a better indicator of success. Then came the Tech Track 100, when the technology bubble emerged. 

      

    “Then I realised there were some very good, sensible businesses that weren’t necessarily doubling their sales or profits every year – the Dysons, the JCBs, the Virgins,” he recalls. “So we launched the Top Track 100, the UK’s largest private companies, when I realised it wasn’t just about growth, it was also about performance.” 

      

    The Top Track 100 led to the Top Track 250, encompassing the mid-market, with the companies all sharing one characteristic – they’re privately owned or private equity backed. Since then, Fast Track has taken on its own momentum, now producing seven league tables every year, hosting 36 dinners with The Sunday Times and sponsorship from the likes of Lloyds Banking Group.  

     

     "The Bank has been very supportive," agrees Stevenson. "They've sponsored our Profit Track 100 for the past nine years, recognising that these companies are the real wealth and job creators in the UK. For the past five years, they've also sponsored our Buyout Track 100."

    “Without being too arrogant and overstated,” says Stevenson, “I’d like to think that Fast Track has helped to encourage growth. We’ve created role models. When I started out, I stood on a corner and asked people to name entrepreneurs. Fifteen years ago, the only two entrepreneurs people could name were Richard Branson and Anita Roddick. That was it. 

      

    “Fast Track has been part of the whole enterprise culture. But it’s also a networking organisation and I know it’s helped fast growth companies to grow even faster because they’ve done deals amongst each other. So growth has been encouraged on those two levels.” 

      

    The notable successes in Stevenson’s little black book include Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse, Sir Robin Saxby, founder of ARM Holdings, one of the UK’s leading technology companies, Richard Reed of Innocent, Nick Jenkins of Moonpig and Chrissie Rucker of The White Company – all aspirational figures and role models for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. 

      

    Stevenson reckons he must have sat down for dinner with 9,000 entrepreneurs over the last 15 years. And it’s the shear quality of the people, he thinks, that’s the most common characteristic of our fast growth enterprises. “It’s very difficult to distil into a ‘growth DNA’, but I think sheer relentless persistence and energy with a smart idea – and the right wind – count for a lot.” 

      

    The most recent league table is International Track 100. It chimes with the current sentiment of public policy-makers and economic theorists that the path to economic recovery and sustainable growth lies in the export market and international trade.  

      

    “These businesses are the future because there’s not much growth left in the UK,” argues Stevenson. “As an overall vision, looking overseas is the way forward. But, if you analyse their strategies, about half made a deliberate choice to go international almost from day one, while the other half were quite opportunistic, perhaps following a key customer. I don’t think there’s one growth strategy that fits all.” 

      

    He also senses a much greater focus on sustainable growth, accompanied by a belief that we’re unlikely to see the exceptional expansion that characterised earlier periods.  

      

    Interestingly, he also disputes the notion that entrepreneurialism and risk are interchangeable terms. “These people might look like risk takers, but they’re actually, on the whole, quite good at managing the downside,” he says. “It’s not necessarily about measuring the risk, but having an intuitive feel of how to manage it and for how the current economic environment impacts. 

      

    “There are lots of companies showing significant growth, capitalising on today’s sustainable energy trend, or looking at international markets, or at specialist manufacturing. In the current economic environment, customers are either going for real value or for premium brands. It’s the middle ground that smart entrepreneurs are avoiding.” 

      

    This father of four likes to refer to Fast Track as his “fifth child”, and he clearly delights in meeting entrepreneurs and tracking their success. “There are 1,500 privately owned or private equity backed companies in the UK making profits of more than £3m. They are the real job and wealth creators and the vast majority of them are in our league tables. It’s a fantastic resource.” 

      

    It’s also what makes him perpetually enthusiastic about tomorrow. “We need to make sure that we’re monitoring, tracking and connecting these entrepreneurs in the UK’s top private companies. I’d like to run a Davos-type summit once a year in the UK, so that we can really champion and learn from these top companies.  

      

    “And perhaps politicians could listen to them and learn what policies they need to create to help the top performers perform even better and to help those not in the Fast Track league to get into it. To achieve that, I need talented people, who believe in that vision, to join me to take Fast Track to the next level and to create a business environment that breeds sustainable growth.” 

    Hamish Stevenson’s best business advice

     

     

    See barriers as opportunities

    “On the day we launched Fast Track, Richard Branson gave me three bits of advice. First, he said, people will always throw up barriers and your success will depend on how you overcome them. So, rather than see a barrier as a threat, treat it as an opportunity. That was really good advice.  

      

     

    Employ someone to do your job

    Second, he said to keep employing somebody to do your job, and you'll always find something else to do. I didn't understand, or wasn't clever enough, to take that advice. But I think it's brilliant, and I'm only now trying to follow it.    

     

      

     

    Take three months off

    Third, he advised me to take three months off a year. He used to go to his island for three months. He said: You'll re-charge your batteries and, as importantly, the company will learn to operate without you.  That's such good advice. But, again, I wasn't clever enough to take it.” 

     

      

      

9/17/2019 3:54:51 PM