In the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine, Stephen White spoke to ‘The Phonebox Millionaire’ Stephen Fear about his remarkable entrepreneurial story.
An entrepreneur once told Stephen Fear that they wanted to buy a BMW to impress clients and customers. Stephen told them to forget about the car; go to BMW instead and pay a few hundred pounds for a branded blank key. “Put that down on the table at a business meeting and they’ll think you have a BMW. Buy a banger and if that breaks down, get it repaired,” he said. Maybe not the answer the would-be highflyer was hoping for, but it reveals an element of Fear’s character that has been crucial to his success: the ability to see through what’s not important.
“I was brought up in a one-bedroom flat in Bristol with my dad. He never had a bank account; I didn’t know anyone with a bank account until I was 17. There was never any chance of borrowing money and there were no credit cards. We had no car, phone, carpet or fridge.”
What Stephen did have were tenacity and acumen beyond his years, and while other 14-year-olds were following lessons at school, he was forging educational paths of his own.
“I used to buy colouring books. There were two girls on my estate who were really artistic, so I’d get them to colour in the pictures and sign them. I’d cut the pages out, put them in frames and I’d have 49 pictures to sell. I made a terrific amount of money out of it.”
Through his teenage years, Stephen saw opportunities all around him. “I felt that if you have something of value that the market wants, and you can deliver the product, then you can find a way,” he says. The ‘way’ appeared in the pages of Exchange & Mart that Stephen would avidly scan, and an advert for oven-cleaning fluid which could be used on ovens without switching them off or waiting for them to cool – a great product to sell door-to-door, he thought.
Stephen – 15 at the time – headed to the phone box at the end of his dad’s street to make his first business call. “That’s when I discovered that you dial 100 to speak to the operator first. She said the number I wanted was in America,” he recalls.
The operator, Joyce Thompson, told Stephen how much he needed to put in the slot before connecting him to a firm in New Jersey, where bosses assumed the operator was Stephen’s secretary. With an ‘out-of- order’ sign on the door, Stephen would sit outside his commandeered office waiting for incoming calls.
Having set up his business as Easy Clean, Stephen took three months to persuade the cleaning agent manufacturers to let him create their product in his factory – “a series of derelict tool sheds” – on the council estate where he lived. Soon he was trading with a number of industrial companies, and he sold Easy Clean four years later for £100,000.
“They had done one ad’ from the States and put their phone number on it. They never expected a scruffy kid from a council estate in Bristol to end up being their agent here,” Stephen reflects. But all along he’d kept the important things in focus.
“My overheads were very low,” he says. “While I had Easy Clean, I was able to build up capital rapidly. I was wholesaling the cleaning fluid besides retailing it, and using it within my business. It was very cheap to produce, so the profit was huge. I anchored most of it in property. As I was too young to drive, I hired a friend of 18 who transported people and goods for me. I paid him one-and-a-half times the going rate,” Stephen says in an article with the Financial Times online.
It’s this tried-and-tested success that informs his advice for budding entrepreneurs. “I always tell people not to worry about where you’re working from, whether that’s from home, meeting people in a cafe? or a hotel; it’s cheaper and it’s flexible. You’re better off spending your money on marketing, maybe limited PR. Work out how you can get more exposure for your business and get to your customers. It boils down to the fact that with no sales, you don’t have a business.
“In my day someone told me that to want to get rich was ridiculous. You had to win the football pools to get rich quick. I always believed that if you had a good idea and you could sell enough of it, it was inevitable that you were going to become rich. I still believe that profoundly. My overriding advice is ‘just go for it’.”
There is something of Stephen’s past in this. “My mum used to say that you’re as good as anyone, but remember you’re not better than everyone. I’ve lived by that throughout my life,” he recalls.
By contrast, his father wasn’t so supportive, and always asked when his son was going to get a proper job. “Even the Bentley I was driving years later was ‘a bit big’ to my dad,” he says.
Keen to keep up momentum after the sale of Easy Clean, Stephen bought a five- storey Georgian property and rented out ten of its rooms while running his business from the basement flat. By the age of 27, the boy who began with nothing was worth several million pounds thanks to a number of firms and an ever-expanding portfolio of properties.
Today, the Fear Group has an annual turnover of over £100m through interests in hotels, key worker accommodation and affordable housing.
If tireless hard work and talent have created great wealth for Stephen, then this success has also been used to help break down barriers for others in society.
“Entrepreneurs should never be ashamed of making money and wanting good things for themselves, but we owe it to society to give something back to allow others to come through, so that wealth benefits more people,” Stephen says.
He is Patron of Lucy Air Ambulance for Children, a charity dedicated to delivering air transfers for seriously ill babies and children in Britain, and is a former patron of Heropreneurs, a support service for Armed Services personnel and their partners aiming to set up themselves up in business after leaving the armed forces.
In 2014, Stephen became Patron of Emmaus, a charity that has established 24 homes nationwide where the homeless can find sanctuary, community and employment.
“I also think we live in a more thoughtful business era, and I hope this will continue. I believe that we need to create wealth as a society,” he says.
This year, Stephen will be helping to nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs when he joins the judging panel of the Great British & Northern Irish Entrepreneur Awards. So, what does a self-made multimillionaire and philanthropist look for in a business, its products, and the personalities behind it?
“When I’m judging, I’ll ask if the product or service is of real benefit to society, as well as to the person. Is the entrepreneur thinking uniquely of making money, or are they thinking that their efforts are great for everyone as well as themselves?
“Resilience is crucial, because things don’t go right all the time. You have to do a lot of cold calling to bring customers around to your business. Also, someone who doesn’t want to go out and just spend money they don’t have before it’s earned. “I’m looking for someone who doesn’t want to be too flash too quickly, someone who’s thought through the financial and marketing models of their business – looking at how they’re going to achieve their plans.”
For all their relevance today, glamorous awards ceremonies are a far cry from the council estate in Bristol where Easy Clean was founded, and Stephen is well positioned to reflect on how barriers to business have fallen in the years since, while support has flourished.
“Communication now is far simpler – you can go into a cafe? with your smart phone and ring or email someone. We couldn’t do any of that; it’s much easier today in many ways. People say the banks aren’t lending, but banks are lending; there are lots of ways to finance your business, such as crowdfunding.”
Stephen is often introduced these days as the Phone Box Millionaire, in tribute to the way he accessed customers in those spartan early days. The moniker stands out against today’s complex business landscape in bright testament to just how much you don’t need in order to succeed, so long as you are willing to roll up your sleeves.
Or could it simply tell the story of an entrepreneurial superhero? Stephen Fear, who went into a phone box as a boy, and came out a businessman.
You can take a look at a full, digital version of the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine here.