The new British Library entrepreneur-in-residence is a fascinating character, discovers Charles Orton-Jones
Hands up: when the British Library told me of their new entrepreneur-in-residence I thought “Who on earth is he?”
The previous title holders have been Anita Roddick and Rachel Elnaugh – both nationally known personalities. Since the BL has luminaries such as Mike Lynch of Autonomy and Dawn Airey, boss of Channel 5, on the board, you’d expect a premier league name.
So how did an unknown like Stephen Fear land the gig?
To answer this I had a chat with him. And I can report that Mr Fear is not only the ideal for the job, it is mystery why he’s not as famous as his forbearers.
Let’s start with his record of starting and running businesses.
To be a serial entrepreneur you need have, what, four or five businesses under your belt? A premier league serial entrepreneur like Stelios can count two dozen.
Fear has more than 70 in his current roster. “I’m not too sure of the exact number,” he tells me. “These are real firms. One or two are investment companies, and there is an SPV to manager a property portfolio. They range from manufacturing car trailers to making widgets.”
Having started his career in his mid-teens, Fear has founded, run, bought and sold hundreds of firms. He’s traversed all sectors. “I’ve got interests in pretty much everything,” he says, rattling off stories about his holdings which are everything from property to industrial chemicals.
His latest wheeze is a household cleaning fluid without alcohol. “It is an attractive product for Muslim countries” he theorises.
His total wealth is estimated in the hundreds of millions. “Hard to calculate exactly,” he says, “as you’d need to do re-evaluations. Let’s just say I’m not struggling for turkey at Christmas.” He has liquidity too; a £100m fund is available for immediate purchases.
His international reach is astonishing.. Fear has been doing business in America since his early twenties, and is as at home in South America and across Europe.
“If the government said everyone is going to get 10 grand, and that’s all you can earn, I would still do deals. I just love it,”
His story is a cracker. It begins with a telephone box.“I was brought up on a rough council estate,” he recalls. “I didn’t know anyone with any money. Didn’t know anyone with a bank account until I was 17.”
Aged 15 he read an advert for domestic oven clearing fluid. He could be the UK distributor, he thought. But how to call America? He had no idea, so he called the operator from a BT telephone box. She explained the technicalities.
Bizarrely, they formed a relationship.
She became his secretary for outgoing calls. He took control of the telephone box, turning it into his “office” by hanging an out of order sign on it. The relationship grew so tight the operator, Joyce Thomson, became a close friend. Fear visiting her regularly until her death.
The oven cleaning formula proved lucrative. Fear won the European distribution rights, mixing the formula himself in a lock-up. Aged 19 he sold the business for £100,000.
In his twenties Fear developed a rather clever method of helping US firms crack Europe. “I would hunt down UK targets and buy into them. Then I would sell them to American firms wanting a manufacturing base or distribution base in Europe. I would buy, upgrade then sell.”
This model taught him to value businesses in any and every industry, developing his appetite for wild diversification. Not that he needed the encouragement, even back then he tried his hand at everything.
“I was hyperactive,” he says. “I managed the bands Blue Side to Midnight and Radio Java, who had a bit of success. They got to number six . One of the guys in Radio Java went on to join Stevie Winwood.”
Carpet fitting was one particular hit. “I copied Allied Carpet’s idea of a colourscope, but in mobile form. I went to estate agents and put them on commission to recommend us to anyone who bought a house. We had a call centre with three agents and guys in a van who would sell and fit.
“Our USP was that the people who sold the carpets also fitted them. Kept costs low.”
One reason Fear isn’t famous is because of this low overhead, low key approach. “The big mistake people make is to make a bit of money and then rush off down the BWM dealership, convincing yourself you are going to make money in the future. Cars devalue!
“If you want to impress people then just buy a flashy set of keys to put on the table. Better to invest in staff, machinery and someone to do the books.”
Now 58, and running his empire with his son Leon, Fear is hungry to get into his new role at the British Library. There are two reasons to think that he’ll be a hit.
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The first is that he’s an obsessive. He tells me: “If the government said everyone is going to get 10 grand, and that’s all you can earn, I would still do deals. I just love it,” he says.
He starts the working day at 6.30am, staggering his workload according to the world time zones (Asia, first, then Europe, then the US and South America). His passion for new deals and ideas is undiminished (green energy and electric cars are getting him excited right now).
Second, he loves analysing and improving businesses. This is abundantly evident in the way he takes firms over. “Normal due diligence is disruptive. The management take their eye off the ball. My way is to get involved with a business with an option to purchase. We come in, look at the business, make recommendations and improve it.
“We ride as a white knight running alongside the business. Even if we don’t proceed they, if anything, have benefitted.”
In short, he’s perfect for the job.
At the Business & IP Centre in the British Library, Fear is on hand to talk to anyone with a business. “Not just start-ups, but businesses of all size. We ask anyone who is interested to make an application through the BL website.
“The amount I can see is limited. The library chooses the ones they think will benefit most from my advice.”
Usually he’ll spend a hour with each candidate. The contact continues after the meeting through ongoing emails and phone calls. He emphasises that he’ll tackle anything, from how to incorporate to how to crack an export market.
So that’s your man: committed, knowledgeable and with the sort of track record to make Rachel Elnaugh look like a GCSE business studies student.
Now you just need to work out what to ask him
Fear on Boris versus Ken
“I’d have to go for Boris. Boris has a certain charisma which is good for London. He has a very powerful intellect. There is nothing about Boris which is a buffo
on. You are talking about a very serious player.”
Fear on the stock market
“The reason I don’t play the stock market is because I don’t feel I am in control. Other people are managing the businesses”
Fear on Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice
“I don’t like the idea that a young person comes in and you run them down and ridicule them. I’ve been a young man and the last thing I wanted was someone shouting at me gruffly. Doesn’t appeal to me”