10 Great British Entrepreneurs and What They Achieved

It’s fair to say that Britain is not usually thought of as a country of entrepreneurs.

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If you think about the top ten most famous British people around the world – past and present – you’re likely to think of writers, musicians, military leaders, inventors, a host of scientists and probably a monarch or two. Entrepreneurs don’t really feature. Yet the same culture that produces so many great writers and musicians, with its spirit of creativity and invention, is also fertile ground for entrepreneurial spirit.
In this article, we look at a range of British entrepreneurs from a variety of different walks of life, industries and routes to success, to see what they achieved and how they achieved it.

1. Simon Cowell

It’s arguable that Simon Cowell became an entrepreneur because he wasn’t much good at being anything else. He had a privileged start in life, attending the independent Dover College, but didn’t leave with much by the way of qualifications (his Wikipedia article says that he “passed English Language and Literature” O-levels, which doesn’t say much for his abilities). In the menial jobs he had subsequently, he chafed against his bosses, ultimately relying on his father’s connections to get a job at the music recording company EMI, where he also struggled to get a promotion. When he left EMI to form his own record company, the company failed to survive and he nearly went bankrupt.

Cowell with co-presenter Cheryl Cole on the set of the X Factor.
Cowell with co-presenter Cheryl Cole on the set of the X Factor.

But Cowell refused to be beaten and set up a new company, making some smart signing choices. His real triumph came with the idea for Pop Idol, created by Simon Fuller (another British entrepreneur) and pitched to ITV by Fuller and Cowell. The first few episodes in October 2001 didn’t meet with huge success, but by the time of the final, the show was being watched by 13 million viewers, and the nature of the music industry had been changed for good. Cowell launched his own version of the same idea in 2004, in the form of the X Factor, which at its peak in the UK was watched by more than 19 million viewers.


2. James Dyson

It may surprise you to learn that Dyson is a person, as well as a brand name. He is the inventor and entrepreneur behind the brand, and his route to success started with frustration that his hoover didn’t work better. He realised that the more dust it picked up, the less effective its suction became – and as a seasoned (though not, until then, particularly successful) inventor, he came up with a solution.

More recent innovations include the Dyson Airblade hand dryer.
More recent innovations include the Dyson Airblade hand dryer.

Getting a working prototype took several years and 5,127 versions along the way, and like Cowell, Dyson was lucky to have supportive people around him. In his case, this was his wife, who supported the family financially while Dyson worked on his vacuum cleaner. Even then, the path to success was rocky: British vacuum cleaner manufacturers wouldn’t buy the patent even after the product had sold well in Japan, so Dyson set up a company of his own.
Since then, Dyson has been knighted, has bought more land than the Queen, and has amassed a personal fortune of around £2.8 billion. The company Dyson founded has more than 1,000 engineers, and is committed to maintaining its market position through constant research and development.

3. Victoria Beckham

Although, if we're honest, we'd like to see a few Spice Girls outfits reinstated.
Although, if we’re honest, we’d like to see a few Spice Girls outfits reinstated.

What’s Victoria Beckham’s job? You might think of her immediately as a former Spice Girl, a model, or even relegate her to “wife of David Beckham”. But despite everyone’s predictions when her label first launched, Victoria Beckham is now a well-regarded and successful fashion designer. She has guest-edited Vogue, and her label makes profits of £1.5 million annually. And apparently, it’s what she always wanted to do; she is quoted as having said, “It wasn’t until after the Spice Girls that I could really knuckle down and I was in a position to do what I really wanted to do. Which was fashion.”
Other celebrity fashion labels have been significantly less successful, so beyond using her existing brand, what did Beckham do right? Articles suggest that the answer is unexciting: she’s simply quite good at what she does. She used her celebrity from the Spice Girls to get attention, but after that, the quality of her designs spoke for itself. It seems the world of enterprise agrees: in 2014, she was named Entrepreneur of the Year, and her personal worth is around £210 million.

4. Denise Coates

Some entrepreneurs resist pressure to join their family’s profession. Denise Coates embraced it, and to huge success. Her family ran a bookmaking firm, Provincial Racing, and she worked her way up through the family business until she was running their chain of shops and even acquiring a neighbouring chain. But she became increasingly convinced that the future of gambling was online, and when she failed to raise money from venture capitalists, she persuaded her family into a high-risk gamble of their own: remortgaging their chain of betting shops and putting the money into launching bet365.com.

The company makes £35 billion in bets each year.
The company makes £35 billion in bets each year.

It was a good risk to take. Bet365 is now the largest private-sector employer in Stoke-on-Trent, with a staff of 1,900 and bets made totalling £35 billion a year. Coates herself has been awarded a CBE and has a personal fortune of £2.7 billion, putting her comfortably in the top thousand richest people in the world. Bet365’s charitable foundation has also donated £100 million to charities in the UK and abroad.

5. Richard Branson

No discussion of British entrepreneurs is complete without a mention of Richard Branson, and his memorable rags-to-riches journey to success. He dropped out of school at 16, and set up a magazine, then a mail-order record business that led to Branson running a record shop on Oxford Street at the age of 21. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though; Branson was questioned in connection to selling records intended for export, and his mother had to remortgage the family home to help pay the resulting fine and unpaid tax.

From records to planes and even spacecraft; the Virgin group has staggering reach.
From records to planes and even spacecraft; the Virgin group has staggering reach.

But this was a stumble, not a fall. Building on the success of the record shop, Branson set up a record label, Virgin Records, and the first artist he signed was a smash hit. He was willing to sign groups such as the Sex Pistols, who other record labels wouldn’t touch for fear of controversy. From the music industry Branson branched out to an eclectic collection of areas: Branson’s Virgin group now includes Virgin Airways, Virgin Holidays, Virgin Megastores, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Active, Virgin Trains, Virgin Media and – arguably the most exciting – Virgin Galactic. All of this has left Branson with an estimated net worth of £3.6 billion.

6. Mahmud Kamani

boohoo.com sell young, affordable pieces.
boohoo.com sell young, affordable pieces.

Mahmud Kamani’s family came to Britain in 1968, fleeing war in their native Kenya. They had little money (Kamani jokes that they settled in Manchester because the flight to London was more expensive), but Abdullah Kamani, Mahmud Kamani’s father, took advantage of the fact that mill closures made property cheap and used his international connections to import clothing. Abdullah Kamani was worth millions by the time he passed his fashion empire on to his son.
But it was Mahmud Kamani who took the family’s fortunes from the millions to the hundreds of millions, by launching online retailer boohoo.com. It targets 16-24 year olds, competing chiefly with Asos, and sells to 100 countries around the world. In 2014, the company was floated on the stock market, where it sold for £700 million, netting Kamani over £200 million for his share. Despite his fortune, he claims he’d rather go to work than relax, saying “this is my hobby.”

7. Stelios Haji-Ioannou

Like Richard Branson, Stelious Haji-Ioannou has invested in a wide range of businesses. Haji-Ioannou runs easyGroup, which includes easyJet, easyCar, easyBus, easyPizza, easyHotel, easyOffice, easyProperty, easyGym and easyFoodstore, all run on the same basic principle of no-frills, low-cost options.

Cheap and cheerful: easyJet is a low-cost option for many.
Cheap and cheerful: easyJet is a low-cost option for many.

Haji-Ioannou was already an experienced businessman by the time he founded easyJet in 1995 (the first of the easyGroup companies). Unlike other entrepreneurs on this list, Haji-Ioannou did not work his way up from nothing; when, aged 25, he founded his own shipping company, Stelmar Shipping, his father gave him £30 million to help out. Three years later, he founded easyJet, which now carries 60 million passengers annually. Though a British citizen and resident in Monaco, Haji-Ioannou is originally from Cyprus and his charitable foundation has worked to alleviate some of the suffering caused by the financial crisis there.

8. Philip Green

Philip Green has been in the news recently, and not for anything good. He is the chairman of Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop, Topman, Wallis, Evans, Burton, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, and Outfit, and is worth £6.2 billion. He left school at the age of 15 to work for a shoe importer, then, with £20,000 from his family, set up his own company 6 years later, and worked his way up from there.

Topshop's popularity has gone from strength to strength in recent years.
Topshop’s popularity has gone from strength to strength in recent years.

But he has been criticised recently for Arcadia Group’s treatment of BHS, a British retailer that is going into administration with the potential loss of 11,000 jobs. Green bought BHS for £200 million with the aim of turning its fortunes around, but ultimately the challenge proved too great and he sold the chain for just £1. Yet the dividends from BHS have contributed over half a billion pounds to Green’s already considerable wealth all the same. The Labour MP John Mann has even called for Green to be stripped of his knighthood if he does not repay £400 million so that BHS can afford to pay its staff’s pensions. Sir Stuart Rose, another British businessman, has described Green as “absolutely pre-eminent in his generation in terms of his financial nous and ability”, but in this instance, it seems that Green’s instincts for making money have triumphed over his ability to judge the public mood.

9. Margaret and Helen Barbour

Barbour began before Margaret Barbour was born, let alone her daughter Helen. It was founded as a market stall in Newcastle in 1894, selling waterproof jackets. It expanded at a steady rate, and by 1964, it had a turnover of £100,000 and had begun the move into the country clothing market. This was when Margaret Barbour became involved, by marrying John Barbour, the great-grandson of the original Newcastle stallholder. She says she never wanted to be a businesswoman; she was a teacher, and has been quoted as saying, “I just wanted to have children.”

Barbour jackets are traditionally associated with the British countryside.
Barbour jackets are traditionally associated with the British countryside.

But John Barbour died suddenly four years later, leaving Margaret Barbour a widow with a 2 year-old child, Helen. Margaret Barbour turned to work in order to escape her grief, and it turned out she had a certain genius for the job, taking Barbour from 100 to over 1,000 employees. Barbour became a household name, worn by celebrities from Princess Diana to Lily Allen; James Bond even wears a Barbour jacket in Skyfall. In 1997, Helen Barbour became vice-chairman of the company, and 2001 Margaret Barbour was made a Dame, an honour that she described as “not just for me, but for the company; everybody in my hardworking force in the North East of England.”

10. Edwina Dunn and Clive Humby

In 1989, husband and wife Clive Humby and Edwina Dunn quit their jobs in IT to start their own company, which they called dunnhumby. Their big break came in 1994, when they came up with the idea for what ultimately became the Tesco Clubcard. Humby was approached by Tesco to trial dunnhumby’s ideas after speaking at a conference, and the effectiveness of the dunnhumby approach for gathering customer data was immediately evident.

Best enjoyed in a bubble bath?
Best enjoyed in a bubble bath?

It seems obvious now, but at the time the idea of an electronic clubcard was relatively new, and its worth needed demonstrating. A clubcard doesn’t just reward customer loyalty; it also provides the company with data. For instance, if the clubcard logs that a lot of customers buy both bubble bath and ice cream, that suggests to the company that it might be worth putting the two closer together, and perhaps running a “hard day at work?” promotion to boost sales of both. After the initial trial, Tesco’s chairman at the time said, “what scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years.” Dunn and Humby are now worth £90 million, and no major retailer would do without their loyalty card scheme.

Image credits: cowell; dyson airblade; race horse; virgin aeroplane; strawberry shorts; easyjet interior; topshop exterior; bowl of ice cream; tower bridge; piece of cake.