David Spencer-Percival

Once you start something, you have to finish it

David Spencer-Percival launched his business after a chance meeting in a car park. It gave him a taste for entrepreneurship and he is now on his third business, the No. 1 Rosemary Water. David tells Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame how it’s proving his most challenging project to date.

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David Spencer-Percival believes entrepreneurship is in his DNA, even if he claims he’s never doing another one. That said, some might consider he had earned a break after building recruitment group Huntress, energy group Spencer Ogden and now drinks brand, the No. 1 Rosemary Water, in quick succession.

He didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. He left school at 16, worked for Lloyds Bank and a designer boutique in Covent Garden. He was making a name for himself in recruitment at the time a chance meeting in a car park set him down the road to running his own business. His boss had given him an Aston Martin DB7 as a reward for hard work. It caught the attention of a private equity investor, who had just sold his business. The pair got talking, found they worked in the same industry, met for lunch and then launched a technology recruitment business – Huntress Group.

David says: “It turned out to be incredibly hard work. I took no holidays for years, but the business did well and made the Sunday Times Fast Track three times. It launched in the period following the technology crash. While it was a brutal time to set up, there were perks, such as cheap offices.” He believes the timing helped them in the end. “Start-ups take market share off their bigger rivals. It doesn’t matter what happens to the wider market as long as you can get a piece of it.”

By 2007, Huntress had 500 staff and annual sales of almost £78m. It was bought by Japanese bank Nomura for £50m. At just 36, David wasn’t done with entrepreneurship and decided to replicate the Huntress model, but in a different industry.

The new firm, Spencer Ogden, launched in 2009. David owns it with Sir Peter Ogden, one of the founders of Computacenter and Dealogic. The business specialises in recruitment for global energy, engineering and infrastructure groups. It has 12 offices across the globe with a £120m turnover and is now sufficiently well-established that David has turned his attention to another start-up, but this one is very different.

“The No. 1 Rosemary Water is a complete departure for me. I found a village in Italy where they live healthily to 100 and they attribute it to eating rosemary. I knew nothing about the food and drinks industry, but raised £9m to start a global drinks company. This one is easily the most difficult I’ve done so far. We launched it eighteen months ago and it’s now sold at 600 outlets across the world. In the UK, it’s in Waitrose and M&S. We have an alliance with Goop in LA and we’re starting our European rollout. It is targeted at the high-end health market. We are looking at the example of groups such as FeverTree. It has been quite a lot journey and it eats money, but it is a very different proposition and quite exciting.”

What has he learned in his near two decades of entrepreneurship? “Once you start something you have to finish it. Everyone has ideas; the application of that idea is what creates success and wealth.”

David found it relatively easy to hire graduates the first time round. For his second start-up, he had “an incredible business partner and a bullet proof team”. The third start-up is proving more of a challenge, particularly as he has to hire younger staff. “Today, I am hiring millennials, who are quite a different proposition! Millennials tend to think it’s easy to do a start-up and that is quite challenging. That said, they make up for any short-comings in creativity. I find that I have to bend to their way of doing things, but then business is business, so we meet in the middle.”

Even if entrepreneurship is in his DNA, where he is most at home and most happy, he’s not sure he’d do three businesses in a row again. “My boredom threshold is very low, but I’d rather have the discipline to do just one rather than three. Never underestimate the effort of doing a start-up. I’m not doing another one!”

 

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