The fast lane: Spencer Ogden co-founder David Spencer-Percival talks medevacs, detoxes, the youth of today and why banks get a hard time

 
Harriet Green
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David Spencer-Percival
It is unlikely that David Spencer-Percival, co-founder of Spencer Ogden, will be reading this any time soon. On Saturday, he and his wife embarked on a caffeine, alcohol and tech detox in an Ibizan forest. “I feel frazzled. Our offices are end-to-end in terms of timezones, so I just never stop. You have to have a lot of confidence to take time out like this, but I’m 100 per cent confident in my team.”
It might sound slightly zany, particularly for someone who heads up a global energy recruiter growing like billy-o, but Spencer-Percival’s reasoning makes sense. He’s got a two-month window before the company hits “phase two” of its growth plan.
Ranked the UK’s twelfth fastest-growing company in The Sunday Times Fast Track last year, in five years, the end-to-end recruiter has reached revenues of £76m, with over 400 staff across five continents. Despite the slump in the oil price, it still grew by 53 per cent in 2014. But with 60 per cent of its business in the oil and gas sector, this relatively more subdued growth (down from 80 per cent annually) has provided Spencer Ogden the opportunity to “catch up with itself”. “When you’re growing so fast, you tend to do more for speed than long-term efficiency. We used the opportunity to take stock and make sure our processes matched the business.” Come September, phase two will arrive: “we’ve got a three-year plan to double the size of the business. We’re ready to go for more investment; we feel we can go further”.

EMPIRE-BUILDING

Since being established in 2010, the firm has been funded by Sir Peter Ogden, co-founder of the Computacenter and Spencer-Percival’s business partner. “I couldn’t have done it without him. It would have taken a lot longer. We needed £12m, and banks just were not lending.” Having left school at 16 with no qualifications, by 2000, Spencer-Percival was in the founding team of global recruiter Huntress. But after 10 years at the top of his game, he was ready for a new challenge. He famously sold his classic car collection to help get Spencer Ogden off the ground. I ask him how he feels about that now. He laughs: “well, I’ve got most of them back!”


Spencer Ogden's London office

Unlike many entrepreneurs, Spencer-Percival is quick to defend banks. Spencer Ogden uses invoice factoring with HSBC, and with 67 bank accounts across 14 currencies to manage for the firm, he thinks the bank does a fantastic job. “I think they [banks] get a hard time. They were pummelled in the crisis, which means they’re more careful now about their criteria for lending. Anyone who argues that they don’t support businesses is categorically wrong.” He’s always felt supported by banks, despite, he quips, “working in some pretty weird and wonderful places.” Spencer Ogden provided the workforce to build a power station in Trinidad and Tobago, puts drillers on the Iraq border and regularly medevacs workers off rigs.
Weird and wonderful wouldn’t be far off the mark if you were looking for a description of Spencer Ogden’s offices, either. Unless you also work in a workplace carpeted with astroturf, with giant union-jacks, bulldog statues, meeting booths straight out of a diner and a black cab for good measure, the offices Spencer-Percival has created for his staff are something to behold. There’s a great atmosphere, but his staff are working hard – walking around while on remote headsets. And they’re young. “We mostly hire grads – very bright, ambitious people. But the problem with them is that starting work is a massive shock to the system. They have high expectations – which is fine when they’re good. They want to work somewhere cool. But then, none of us wants to work in some grey, gloomy block, do we?” Despite the hyper-trendy office and avid support for sabbaticals, Spencer-Percival “fundamentally disagrees with working from home. Look what happened to Yahoo – no-one has that kind of self-control. We have a great working environment, and people do long hours”. For him, it comes down to working hard and playing hard.

VIRTUAL REALITY

Despite being full of praise for his young workforce, Spencer-Percival has one major bone of contention: the dearth of new subcultures we’ve seen in the last couple of decades. He started going to Ibiza in the 1980s, as house music took off. “I’ve moved further up the island – you do as you get older. But the young that come are doing what I was doing 20 years ago. You don’t see anything new or novel anymore. It’s just depressing.”
Spencer-Percival puts a lot of this down to the online, digital world we now live in. He has something of a love/hate relationship with it. His firm is very technologically savvy, and he has a soft-spot for Instagram, but he thinks emails are a lazy way of doing business, and the idea of going on a tech detox stems from feeling “clogged up” by an always-on culture.


The offices Spencer-Percival has created for his staff are something to behold

Yet Spencer-Percival is convinced the internet will be “the defining moment in humanity. In the history books, there will be people who lived pre-internet, and those who lived post”. And if you ask him what business he most admires, the answer is instant: “Apple. I’m in awe of it. It’s one thing to be able to design, another to be able to distribute like that and be that profitable. I don’t think we’ll see something like that again.”
Although Spencer-Percival is quick to highlight just how far ahead the US is when it comes to tech entrepreneurship, he is a vehement defender of London and its abilities. “We have everything here; the skills we have are amazing. Other cities across the world see us as very bright, entrepreneurial, extremely good at finance. We’re seen as very cool.”
“Cool” is certainly a word you’d use to describe Spencer Odgen – and probably Spencer-Percival too. But as he says, “underneath this punchy, funky brand is an incredibly well-oiled machine. I had to go into this with the complete conviction that I would succeed. I put everything on the line, I pushed as much as I could and it was so hard. But the real skill to running a business is making it look easy – even when its not”.

DAVID SPENCER-PERCIVAL CV

Company name: Spencer Ogden
Founded: 2010
Turnover: £76m (2014); £100m (projected)
Number of staff: 415
Age: 44
Born: Buckinghamshire
Lives: Chelsea
Studied: N/A – left school at 16
Drinking: Bordeaux
Eating: Italian
Currently reading: Pure, by Andrew Miller
Favourite Business Book: Never read one
Talents: Table tennis
Heroes: Margaret Thatcher
First ambition: To be a millionaire by the time I was 30
Motto: “Move fast and break things”
Most likely to say: Bring me solutions not problems
Least likely to say: I’m voting Labour
Awards: Entrepreneur of the Year, National Business Awards, 2013; 12th on The Sunday Times Fast Track, 2014; The Queen’s Award for Enterprise, 2014; Best Oil & Gas Recruiter and Growth Company of the Year, Recruitment International Asia, 2014

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