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The media entrepreneur Nigel Barklem has an unusual relationship with his bank, Barclays. Never having taken out a loan – either to fund a new venture or to buy his 14ha, alpaca-studded estate near Henley – he has had no need to impress the bank with bullish business plans.
“I’m not a borrower,” he confides. “It’s the cautious side of me, I guess. It’s hard enough growing a business without spending resources justifying everything you do to a bank.”
His conversations with his current contact at Barclays Wealth, John Macleod, tend to centre on investment ideas, as well as the odd business tip. Barklem praises Macleod for striking the right balance between “hassling” and staying in touch.
The entrepreneur’s natural caution affects his investment choices, and for all Macleod’s ideas, he has nothing “too racy” in his portfolio. The small business projects he seeds, grows and sells through Henley Media Group, an umbrella organisation he founded in 2004, are all the risk he needs.
Small businesses’ plight during the recession proved to be a major government concern. But independent of banks and with an extremely diverse portfolio of projects – ranging from medical tourism to sampling and sports magazines – Henley Media is having a good recession, Barklem claims.
“We’ve renegotiated our office space really, really cheaply,” he says. “We’re getting quality staff at a reasonable rate. People are working a bit harder. It’s a great environment for us to grow the kind of business we’re in.”
Before setting up Henley Media, he tried to manage businesses outside the media, including helicopters and restaurants. But he discovered this was not his strength – the restaurant trade was a “nightmare”, he says. His only remaining asset in the field is his pub in Henley, which he owns with television chef Antony Worrall Thompson.
The one non-media company he warmed to was an e-commerce venture that offered car insurance to people with holiday homes in Spain and Italy. With a low claims rate, no stock, 24-hour access and only four staff, Barklem says it was “the perfect business”.
He sold it to insurance group Towergate two years ago – just in time, as the Mediterranean holiday market was hit soon after by the recession and the weak pound. The timing was partly caution: Barklem is wary of hanging on to successful businesses in case they sour.
“Once a business is up and running and on the radar, I like to cash in and put away what I’ve done,” he says. “I’m reasonably good at running businesses up to profits of £1m-£2m ($1.5m-$3m) a year, but then I like to move on.”
But he admits the timing was also down to luck. “If things happen at the right time, it makes things easier, doesn’t it?” he laughs.
Timing proved critical when he sold the Columbus Group to Highbury House Communications in early 2000 – close to the FTSE’s all-time high.
He spent the early stages of his career at Columbus, which was then a small travel publisher. Then, following a management buyout, he set about rejuvenating and diversifying the lossmaking enterprise. A merger, a flotation on the London Stock Exchange and numerous acquisitions later, he sold it on.
But Barklem says the £59m deal was not made with an eye on the rocketing stock prices – in fact, he felt “pretty silly” plodding away at print publishing when online was the talk of the City. He complains his job as chairman had become more about schmoozing with investors than about what he really enjoyed: growing businesses.
He has more freedom to do that now, as owner-chairman of Henley Media. The “beauty of publishing”, he says, is being able to “pick and choose” sectors.
Barklem has high hopes for his venture in the clean-energy sector. Henley Media runs a number of business journals, an awards ceremony and an exhibition – all focused on solar panels, which have seen explosive growth in Germany thanks to government support.
Another high-growth project is National Family Week. Henley Media has organised events and competitions aimed at families – and, of course, at corporate sponsors. The first week took place in May 2009, but with family values now an electoral battleground, Barklem expects this year’s event to be bigger and more profitable.
Is it another case of exemplary timing? This time his secret was to keep his ear close to the market. The idea came from his sampling business: when the company gave out goody bags, the team noticed particularly strong demand for bags filled with family-friendly products. Barklem concluded companies could do with marketing access to families and promptly launched a dedicated event.
What other qualities have forged his success? Barklem, who still flies a helicopter in his spare time, confesses to not being a “details person”. “That’s probably a good thing for me,” he says. “Looking at the slightly larger picture helps if you want to be an entrepreneur – believing that anything’s possible.”