The first thing you notice when you walk into Andy Scott’s rather cramped office is the desk; that’s because the desk is the main reason his office is cramped.
Imagine something the size of the thing that Huw Edwards sits behind to read the BBC News at Ten, or Captain Picard on board the Starship Enterprise, then double it.
This white and beige plastic-coated piece of Seventies kitsch dominates at least a third of the floor space.
“It’s horrible, isn’t it?” grins Scott, the serial entrepreneur perched behind it, who could barely get the thing up the stairs to his office near Oxford Circus in three parts. “At least it’s a talking point.”
But the desk, which came with an equally grim set of matching cupboards and drawers, is as good a metaphor as any for what his business, REL Capital, does. “I saw it online — it was a cancelled order. I got £5000 worth of furniture for 500 quid. That’s why it’s here, I’m a dealmaker.”
He loves a deal. Scott smells out value in unloved companies which have run into trouble or whose owners have had enough, and turns them around to get them motoring again.
The 39-year-old, who’s been in business for more than 20 years, had a “rough awakening” in Portsmouth and didn’t much care for school. He worked on the doors of nightclubs but fell into property development when he was left £5000 in his grandmother’s will; he bought a two-up two-down and doubled his money, timing the housing market well.
He’d be helping his mother run a guesthouse, going to a building site, then onto the nightclub door. In his twenties, he was a millionaire several times over after developing hundreds of houses and a chain of hotels. He had the yachts, and the private jet, but he was over-exposed when things turned sour. Come 2008, his lenders Royal Bank of Scotland and Anglo Irish (“all the bad ones,” he laughs) pulled the plug and Scott was done for. He suffered a bout of depression, capped when he broke his legs in a serious road accident in Australia.
The near-death experience made him reappraise life and he returned to his roots in property, partnering with a pubs group to develop surplus land. The profits from that have gone into buying distressed small businesses. REL’s bought a dozen in just two years, and another five are with the lawyers. They range from haulage firms to recruitment agents, to artist booking agencies and two venues in Chelsea, the Pig’s Ear and the Chelsea Lodge.
His Contraband agency has Rita Ora on the books and recently booked Simply Red for a Russian client paying £500,000. “The previous owner lost interest, it was losing £100,000 a year,” he said. But the one he’s most proud of is the crewing agent, Contraband Crew, which works on virtually every major music festival in Europe. “It went into administration and we bought it for five grand. It was the deal of the century. We didn’t know what we were buying, it was three people and a database. Now it’s turning over £2 million.”
Once he’s done the deal, he hands over to the management team. “For me as long as they’re growing there’s no need for me to change anything,” he adds. When he spots an opportunity he tends to move quickly too. “The beauty of business is it’s not like buying a house, you can say ‘we’ll pay you X on day one and then over a number of years’. The business is paying for itself in effect.” Alongside a good price, he’s looking for firms where the owner isn’t the business (“second-tier management is key”) as well as “boring stuff which has been running 10 years-plus, because they must be doing something right. Only about 4% of businesses get to their 10th birthday.”
The turnarounds tend to take a year to stabilise but Scott is looking to add to the empire and his phone buzzes five times a day on average with potential opportunities. And when he’s not working, the deal junkie gets his adrenaline hit from flying, paddleboarding and white-collar boxing, “getting hit twice a week for charity”.
Scott’s taken his share of punches, but boxing clever in business has served him pretty well.