I have always believed that opportunity comes knocking for almost everyone. The difference is that only some choose to open the door and welcome opportunity inside.
In certain cases, the breakthrough is an idea for an acquisition. For some, it is an invention or a new product; for others, it is the forging of a partnership, a second chance, an escape route; and for others, it is simply a meeting that provokes them to become an entrepreneur.
For Tiny Rowland, that chance came when Angus Ogilvy asked him to become joint managing director of the London and Rhodesia Mining and Land Company – “just a ranching company with a couple of tin-pot mines”. Mr Rowland persuaded the sleepy board of what became Lonrho to swap £200,000 worth of their shares for some car dealerships he owned. Within 20 years, his shareholding had multiplied in value 1,000 times, and Lonrho was one of the most famous businesses in Britain.
In the case of William Procter and James Gamble, their defining moment came when they met – because they courted and then married sisters Olivia and Elizabeth Norris. Their father-in-law suggested that the candle- and soapmakers should merge their business interests, and so on Halloween 1837, the legendary Procter & Gamble Company was born. It is now perhaps the most admired business in the world.
Sir James Goldsmith set out to get rich after leaving the army. He developed a modest pharmaceutical concern that went well for a while. But he over-traded, and by late July 1957 the Paris-based business was on the edge of going bust. Late one Thursday night Sir James went to bed having run out of time and money. Yet the following morning, opportunity presented itself when a bank strike was announced: it meant his loans were not called and the fledgling tycoon had time to refinance – and continue his ascent.
I mention Sir James partly because he provided inspiration to me about a quarter of a century ago. As a restless young man I sought his advice, and he invited me to tea at his grand house in Ham, near London. Small children were running around – one of whom must have been Zac Goldsmith, the new local Conservative MP. Sir James told me in no uncertain terms to stop working as an employee and go into business on my own account, which I proceeded to do.
Last week I attended a panel discussion for the Prince’s Trust about entrepreneurs. Sinclair Beecham, the co-founder of Pret A Manger, the sandwich retail chain, was a fellow speaker. He told the story of how he was encouraged to go into enterprise by a businessman who came to speak at his school. It was such an uplifting lecture that the teenage schoolboy wrote to thank the visitor. Mr Beecham can still remember the man’s name, and even his address, decades later.
Another billionaire who influenced me was Sir Richard Branson. A friend and I arranged to interview him aboard his canal barge for a student newspaper when we were 18 years old. It seemed like Sir Richard was having a lot of fun, and did not have to answer to any boss. That conversation helped stimulate us both to work for ourselves, building companies for a career, rather than becoming doctors as planned.
Likewise, Sir Richard has said that one of his heroes when he was young was Sir Freddie Laker, the pioneer of low-cost airlines with Skytrain, which was launched in 1977. Sir Richard took up Sir Freddie’s original licence to fly from Gatwick Airport to New York in 1984 to start Virgin Atlantic.
Estimates say that about one in 10 people becomes an entrepreneur. For many, that spark lies latent until it is ignited by an unplanned meeting or a lucky opening. That is all it can take to light the fuse. To take advantage of such situations, one must be alive to possibilities, willing to take risks, and a believer in the motto Fortis imaginato generat casum – a strong imagination begets the event. In previous eras, the young were inspired by explorers and adventurers. Today, I hope their role models are not just reality TV stars, but entrepreneurs who build real companies and create jobs – to trigger more defining moments.
The writer runs Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm, and is chairman of the Royal Society of Arts