Tony Goodwin, Entrepreneur of the Year for London and South East

The winner of the Ernst & Young prize on how he took his recruitment company Antal from dotcom disaster to €45m turnover

“We had to go from 22 offices to 11, and from 423 staff to less than 150, in less than six months,” winces Tony Goodwin, chief executive officer of Antal International. “I sold four properties; I sold three cars, including my Aston Martin.

“And then I presented my wife with the forms to remortgage our home… our family home. Home to our four children.”

We’re sitting in one of many boardrooms in the basement of Antal International on Baker Street. Goodwin is celebrating on his second consecutive win of the London and South East round of 2011’s prestigious Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition.

The business turns over €45m, but Goodwin says he is not winning awards for the sheer size of his company. Rather, Antal has been recognised because of its innovation.

The room sings success, its paintwork almost hidden by mounted certificates. The chest of drawers at the back of the room creaks under the weight of trophies.

Yet the conversation has drifted back to 2001, when Goodwin’s fortunes looked like they were heading down a rather different path. Entrepreneurship, after all, is about taking risks. “You’re either brave or stupid,” he concedes.

So what went wrong?

“I took a fairly large gamble and it paid off. Antal really took off in Eastern Europe. I’ve been working in all of the most interesting markets that exist in the world today. From 1993 to 2001 it was good times”

In 1992, sick of competing with recruitment giants such as Hays and Michael Page in London, Goodwin boarded a plane to Eastern Europe believing that the ex-Communist nations would need recruitment services.

Despite not speaking any Slavic languages nor being familiar with the markets, Goodwin endeavoured to provide those services. Initially, things went well.

“I took a fairly large gamble and it paid off. Antal really took off in Eastern Europe. We continued on into China, Russia and India. I’ve been working in all of the most interesting markets that exist in the world today. From 1993 to 2001 it was good times,” he says, quietening – knowing what’s coming next.

“In 2001 the dotcom bubble burst. Fifty per cent of our recruitment was in technology. We took it very badly.”

While the dotcom burst was hardly his fault, and no amount of good decision-making could have prepared him for what happened, Goodwin is willing to admit his mistakes.

“I had over-expanded,” he says, shaking his head. “Too many offices, too quickly, and didn’t have the right people around me to withstand the maelstrom.”

I suggest to him that UK entrepreneurs should follow the example of those in the US and wear their failures like badges of honour: testament to their experience and lessons learnt.

“Out of adversity, great ideas are born. With our backs up against the wall, we finally came to the idea of franchising. And it has revolutionised our business”

“No badges of honour,” insists Goodwin. “There’s a nice analogy about rowing across the ocean. You are hit by a storm halfway and you lose all of your supplies. What do you do? You’re halfway there, so do you keep rowing? Or do you try to row back? You might as well go forwards as there’s no point in going back.

“Out of adversity, great ideas are born. With our backs up against the wall, we finally came to the idea of franchising. And it has revolutionised our business.”

Antal International is now a hybrid company working with two models.

“I own about 15 offices, and the other 82 are franchised. The capital investment comes from the franchise owner. We give all the intellectual property, the brand, the training, the support – they put in the capital. It’s much less risky.” He smiles.

But with the franchise arm going out in 2002, why is he winning awards in 2011? “We are still coming up with innovative ideas and clinching ground-breaking deals,” Goodwin replies.

Antal is planning to boost its presence in emerging markets, and move towards IPOs in Poland and China. Goodwin also plans to increase Antal’s franchise presence in India: “We have done a deal but are not satisfied with that. So we have thought about how we can apply that [model] in a creative and innovative way into the other markets as well.”

Goodwin’s success speaks for itself. When the next round of the Entrepreneur of the Year award comes around, I wouldn’t be surprised if he clinches the national title too.

So now that things are looking up, what of the Aston Martin? “If I brought an Aston Martin home again, my wife would think I wanted a divorce! I’ve got eight kids. I drive a mini-bus!” he says with a grin.

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