How one man took his business from zero to £77m in four years

David Spencer-Percival’s recruitment firm on course to make £80m gross profit by 2018

Five years ago, David Spencer-Percival sold his classic car collection and country home to set up a new business.

In partnership with Sir Peter Ogden, Spencer Ogden was founded. In just four years, Spencer Ogden has become one of Britain’s fastest-growing international businesses. It is now one of the world’s leading specialist recruitment companies, serving the fast-moving energy industry.

With a turnover of £77m, it has more than 400 employees and operates out of 15 offices around the world, with major satellite operations in Houston, Singapore and Dubai… So, what time did you get up this morning?

David: I get up at 6am every single morning, and I send out the deal board to the entire company – the sales board.

Bizarrely, whenever I’m travelling abroad, I seem to get up at 6am whatever the timezone is. I’m a 6am guy. I’m certainly a morning person – aggravatingly so – by nine o’clock at night I’m falling asleep.

You were already successful with your old company Huntress, why stop?

I think every project has its lifecycle. We don’t really have jobs for life anymore. I spent nine years at that company from start-up until we sold it, and we took it through the recession – so I was exhausted by the end of it.

Was there a particular moment?

Yes, there was. I seem to remember I was on holiday and decided that I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore, and that’s the point at which you really should look at doing something else.

Spencer-Ogden was founded just after the financial crash, how did you raise finance?

Well, I sold my cars and house, but in terms of the money raising I was very fortunate in having employed Sir Peter Ogden’s son in my last company. And his father [Sir Peter] really just came along at the right time and said “let’s do something”, and that was a pretty brave move from him at the time. But he believed in me. When I look back, that was the one thing I got absolutely right – having a solid backup.

Was the decision to sell your cars and house a psychological trick as much as a financial necessity then?

I think it was a bit of both. There was financial necessity behind it, but psychologically I think it was incredibly important not to be lumbered with all these possessions and things. I wanted to reduce my outgoings because I felt that I needed to not take a salary for a couple of years; if I wasn’t taking money out then I was putting it in. I wanted to put money in. So psychologically it was definitely the right thing to do.

Why did you select the energy sector for your recruitment business?

I was restricted from competing with my old company, and they were working in quite a few sectors. So I did some research and settled on energy because it seemed there was a gap in the market, and I was subsequently proved right. It was a bit of a backwater.

How did you land your first clients?

Just good old hardcore cold selling – nothing more exotic than that really. It was hard.

That must have been a shock to the system

D: Yeah, massively. But I can’t tell you how cathartic it was. I really enjoyed it. I got a bicycle and was cycling to work and I was turning up back at the coal-face which was something I hadn’t done for seven or eight years. I felt rejuvenated and really enjoyed it. And I definitely got fitter and lost a bit of weight.

It also made me realise that being in a start-up company can be the best bit, before it gets big and complicated. But time just zooms by.

How has the fall in oil prices affected business?

We grew by 50% last year, but I think the oil price collapse will slow us down a little bit this year.

Oil companies, predominantly upstream – that’s the explorative side of oil and gas – are not really taking on more people. But you see a lot of sensational headlines. When BP cuts 10,000 people, it would be like us cutting five people. The numbers in oil and gas are gigantic, so it can be deceiving.

How has the rising cost of exploration affected you?

Well it’s been rising for five years and the cost of both drilling and of the staff has been going up, and of course it’s getting more difficult to find and extract oil because they’re having to drill deeper in more difficult places, so the whole thing has gone through a bit of a bubble over the last five years and now the correction has been so sharp that people have suddenly said: “OK, let’s cut costs now”.

What’s your stance on fracking?

That’s a loaded question! Well, obviously, we’ve seen that fracking in America has been successful, but America’s a very big place, and is not that densely populated. The key thing about fracking in America is that if you own land, then you own it to the core of the earth, whereas here that’s not the case. So my view is that it does work, but I don’t think it’s going to work in this country particularly successfully.

Is the green energy side of things growing?

I was originally going to start Spencer-Ogden up as just renewable energy recruiting, but I don’t think it’s been as successful as we’d hoped. Compared to a nuclear power station, wind farms don’t take that many people to build. So from a staffing perspective, it’s a much smaller industry. Solar is predominantly manufacturing in China and then just sales and distribution. So for us it’s not as big a market as we’d like, but it is the future. At the moment it’s a fledgling industry. Oil and gas is so big. It’s just enormous!

With the election coming up, what should prospective governments be looking at?

Well, the next government will do what the last two governments have done about energy policy – not a lot. They were supposed to be building 10 new nuclear power stations, but they keep getting kicked into the long grass. It’s pathetic. There seems to be no coherent policy. It doesn’t matter which government’s in charge, it seems to be too big and too difficult to deal with. But it is a looming problem.

Do you see the election as a risk to your business?

I think the Scottish referendum was worse, because the North Sea was completely on hold until they worked out whether they were going to be independent or not. But overall, our business is global, and we’re relatively small in the UK. So it won’t affect our business per se, but I’d like to see a government with an energy policy.

Where are you hoping to see growth?

We want to take more share from our competitors, particularly in America and Asia, where there’s huge growth. Less so in Europe, where the economies aren’t particularly strong. In Asia, the state-owned oil companies aren’t held at the whims of shareholders who want to cut costs, so they look good.

What’s next for the company?

We have 400 staff now, and we want to try and get to 800 people by 2018, reaching £80m in gross profit and £200m turnover. So basically we want to double everything over the three-year period. And by the end of that time we want to become less reliant on oil and gas, and more involved in the other sectors.

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