Entrepreneur Glen Manchester became a self-made millionaire in the middle of a recession
Winner of the UK's Entrepreneur of the Year award, Glen Manchester is a self-made multi-millionaire who started his business from scratch - right in the middle of a recession. Tracy Cook went to meet him at his stunning home, on the top of Ranmore Common, near Dorking, to find out how he did it
Of all the things that could be troubling a man with his own multi-million pound company to worry about, bats are not the first thing that spring to mind. But for Glen Manchester, he can think of little else right now.
"We might have bats living in our barn roof and they're a protected species," he sighs. "So, until I've had a bat survey done, I can't proceed with planning permission to build my new house and guest rooms!"
We're standing on the top of Ranmore Common, with rolling Surrey hills and woods all around us. Across the other side of the valley is the beautiful house at Polesden Lacey, and apart from that it's just miles of countryside. The air is blissfully quiet - just a few birds chirruping in the trees. It is a stunning spot, all one hundred acres of it, and one that Glen, 44, has recently bought.
"I just love it here, and now I can't wait to start building the new house, which will also be a working farm," says Glen. "It's going to be Georgian in style, designed as a sister house to Polesden Lacey, that will be built with original stone by world-renowned architect Robert Adam. We've designed it with a verandah and a cupola on the roof! It's going to be amazing and I hope around for hundreds of years like its Georgian relatives."
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But he wasn't always to the manor born - it's been an incredible journey that culminated in the self-made multi-millionaire winning the UK's Entrepreneur of the Year at this year's Growing Business Awards.
Ever since leaving school at 17 with few qualifications, he has defied the odds, working his own way to the top, and even setting up his award-winning software company, Thunderhead, in the middle of a recession. It has taken the business world by storm.
"I think I won the entrepreneur of the year because I put my money where my mouth is," he says. "I used my own money to start my company in the last dot com recession. Recession breeds necessity and necessity is the mother of invention. I had to come up with something that was 50 per cent better than anything else that was around or else why bother?"
His big idea was to see a gap in the market for a simple way that companies could communicate with their customers in a very personal way and invent the software to do it. If you have had an e-mail, statement or credit card bill from a bank or insurance company recently, chances are it's been produced using Glen's software. A simple idea, but one that is cleaning up all over the world.
No wonder then that his company Thunderhead also won the Deloitte Fastest Growing Business award for 2008 for its astonishing 28,000 per cent growth. And yes, there are that many noughts. With a �16 million turnover, he has customers ranging from the AA to the Insolvency Service in the UK, and has also opened offices in Australia, Singapore and Zurich.
"We're one of the few British technology companies selling into America," he says. "That's very important to me."
He was presented with the Entrepreneur of the Year award by William Hague at a ceremony attended by the likes of Theo Paphitis and Paul Smith, following a Dragons' Den style interview with a panel of judges including dragon Duncan Bannatyne.
"It was great to meet him. He didn't grill me, he asked perceptive business questions - why do you do this, why don't you do that? I enjoyed the crossfire," he chuckles.
And the winners are...
But Glen nearly had a Kate Winslet moment at the awards ceremony itself.
"We were sitting having dinner and I said to my guests, 'I presume I haven't won - let's just enjoy the evening'. I hadn't had a tap on the shoulder or a phone call from the organisers to warn me to make a speech, and as the evening went on, the other award-winners were getting up and making these eloquent speeches.
"Then up on this big screen came all the pictures of the finalists and there I was and it suddenly dawned on me... what if, freakishly, I did win? What would I say? And then William Hague called my name! I was really flattered, but really shocked! He whispered in my ear: 'Congratulations. You're last up, you can say as much as you want...!' Luckily, I managed a few words and it seemed to go quite well," he laughs.
That he took the whole thing in his stride is testament to his charming manner and sense of humour: but they belie a driven and determined individual with a canny business sense. "If I can do it, anyone can," he exclaims at one point, but I don't think so. His is a real-life rags to riches story.
Secrets of success
Raised in Bexleyheath, in Kent, he was brought up by his aunt and uncle and attended his local comprehensive where he says he was 'unfocussed'.
"When I left school, what I really wanted most was to be independent. I knew I needed to make money. I realised I had an appetite for work, but I had no direction," he explains.
After a stint as a ghillie, or deerstalker's assistant, in the Highlands of Scotland, ("I needed my Boy's Own moment," he laughs), he settled in Weybridge and talked his way into being the youngest non-graduate recruit at Rank Xerox. There he discovered software: and that he was never going to be a corporate man.
"I realised I wanted to do things my way, to have control over my own destiny. So I decided to run my own business. This was back in the Eighties, and it struck me that software was the way forward. I could see customers needed technology that wasn't available in the UK and were buying from America. So I took a holiday there.
"It was a bit of a spying mission really. I bowled up to these American companies, I was only 23, and told them I was setting up my own company and tied up the agreement to represent them in Europe."
And so Geneva Digital, Glen's first company, was born - which he later sold for millions in 1999 at the height of the technology boom. Then, as the great IT crash struck in 2001, Glen came up with his big idea and started trying to develop it.
"I set up a team of engineers in Hertfordshire and I worked over my garage in Cobham (where he had moved by then). It was a lonely three years. I had no income coming in, no idea for sure if this technology would really work, and I was spending my own money on it. I felt a bit like the man pretending to go to work and having sandwiches on the park bench on his own every day," he smiles.
The gamble paid off. Now this recession holds no fears for him. "My business was born in a recession, it sells a product designed to work in a recession. There are a lot more markets we can tap."
But for now, he is all too happy to turn his attention to developing his farm for himself and son Jack, ten, to live on with their pointer dogs, Chester and Macy.
"We're going to get pigs, chickens, a cow. We want to try to be self-sufficient - we've even got a well. We're going to have a kitchen garden so we can grow our own food, too. I want to push it as far as I can... "
At home on Ranmore
Divorced, he is a devoted dad to Jack, picking him up from Parkside School in Cobham as often as he can, and relishing Jack's involvement with the Oxshott Royals football club and Stoke d'Abernon cricket club.
Bats permitting, he hopes to start building at the end of the year. "I've always wanted to live in the Surrey Hills. And now here I am - miles from anyone." Truly independent; for Glen, it is a dream come true.
For more details about Glen's company, see www.thunderhead.com
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: The Good Earth in Esher. Jack and I love going there.
Shop: The Art of Living in Cobham. I love cooking, especially Asian food, and they've got some really great stuff.
View: From here, from my house. It's a fantastic panorama - we're the second highest point in Surrey after Leith Hill, and I can see all the way to the City and Canary Wharf. At New Year and firework night, it's fantastic - you can see all the displays between here and London!
Place to visit: I love the Surrey Hills - anywhere round here really.