There’s the one about quitting his comfy corporate career to run a similar business but better. There’s the one about running an online business from his university dorm room. And there’s the one about the financial crisis stifling trade.
But here is another tall tale. It’s about a young graduate trying to mint his first fortune in the hostile marketplace that is Hong Kong. Ben, currently studying an MBA in Bath in Britain, is the bright spark behind international removals firm Relocasia.
In less than nine years in Asia, the fledgling founder grew his start-up to rake in $10 million in revenue, and expanded into mainland China, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. By the time he sold the company in March last year, Ben employed 60 people and had a fleet of removal vehicles and warehouses spanning at least six different cities.
He might have carried on carving up the market with Relocasia had an Indian conglomerate not struck a deal to buy the firm, and provide lucrative returns for Ben and his co-founder.
“They bought a controlling stake. It was a larger return,” smiles Ben from his new base in Britain. He refuses to divulge any details. “They offered us something of a significant return on our investment. It provided financial security,” says Ben, who co-founded the firm in 2004.
It was not his end goal but it marked a glorious exit window for the British graduate who spent most of his life growing up and working in Hong Kong –Ben’s family moved to China when he was four.
His success was not surprising. He has always had a passion for the entrepreneur’s way of life. When he moved from Hong Kong to Bath to study an undergraduate business degree, he was the only member of class who set-up their own business as part of the job placement module.
Justin King, the former chief executive of 10 years at British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, was at the time running the alcohol department at rival Asda, which is owned by Walmart. Ben’s first placement was a job under the retail supremo. Not a bad start, all right.
Some of the boss’s stardust must have rubbed off on him – when the second job placement rolled around, Ben set-up his own company which sold mini-discs.
“I was just taking advantage of the price differential – they were cheaper to buy in Hong Kong,” he says. “I recognized the opportunity to set-up a web business that didn’t need to have any stock.”
After graduating and jetting back to China, he landed a job at Allied Pickfords, one of Britain’s biggest international removal firms, in Hong Kong. Two years later, Ben and his boss left to set-up a similar removals business.
“I thought: Why am I doing this for someone else, when I can do it myself and better?” he laughs.
Setting up a removals firm in the UK requires a huge capital investment, he points out, but in Hong Kong he could set up a company for relatively little money and no debt.
In May 2004, Relocasia was born. The business grew fast. Ben spread his fleet into Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Dubai and Abu Dubai over about five years.
Part of the reason was the company’s location. “The speed at which entrepreneurship can happen can be a lot quicker in the Far East,” he says. The barriers to activity are generally lower in Hong Kong – the government encourages growth.
Within the region, he says, it’s easier to build a “niche” removals business which focused solely on international operations. “In international removals, the international capabilities usually come as an offshoot from the domestic ones.”
Even the global financial crisis couldn’t slow his flying removals fleet. Companies move out of regions when business dries up – Relocasia helped them shut up shop. It was like a “perfect storm”. “We did a lot of work with Lehman Brothers,” Ben laughs.
And when markets returned to normal, companies wanted to relocate back. But the crisis lasted much longer than in times past, and trade began to slow. “There wasn’t that replenishment,” Ben says. He adds: “At the time its heart wrenching to go through those experiences.”
There were more hiccups. When expanding into Dubai and Abu Dubai, troubled brewed with the region’s appointed manager. They had different ideas of how to run the operation.
“We learnt the hard way in terms of the investment we made,” he says. “We ended up getting burnt with that. We had to get rid of that operation,” adds Ben.
Two months after he launched Relocasia, he was married. By the time the company was approached by a suitor, he had two young kids. “The energy levels required at start-up-phase are very different when you have a young family, and your motivations are different as well,” he says.
The exit seemingly proved too good an offer to refuse. Ben and his co-founder sold the business, in 2013, just as revenue exceeded $10 million.
As a Brit, married to a Brit with two Brit kids who have never really lived in Britain, he laughs, the couple felt it was the right time to relocate to the UK.
Cue the MBA program at the University of Bath School of Management. “The course was pitched as having an entrepreneurial vent which was attractive to me,” says Ben, who started his MBA in September last year. “It represents an opportunity for me to tie up the knowledge I’d gained as an entrepreneur.”
He is moving onto new ventures. “The UK gets a real bad reputation for not having a tremendous amount of innovation – that’s absolutely wrong,” he says, frustrated.
“There’s a huge amount of small businesses that are doing amazing work – and there’s one I think I’ll be moving into. By nature of looking into different markets, it [an MBA] gives you the confidence to knock on doors, and open doors.”