School and me were never the best match. The problem was that I enjoyed breaking rules far more than I liked adhering to them,” says Geoffrey de Mowbray, founder of African mining supply chain provider Dints International, before adding, “I suppose my entrepreneurial nature shone through a bit even then”. By “a bit”, he means that, as a “quite techie” teenager, he was already working fixing computers for high-net-worths in Kensington and, when his dad retired from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and his mum’s UN job took them both to Cameroon, an 18 year-old de Mowbray decided to go with them, opening up his world and his entrepreneurialism.
De Mowbray initially did up old computers from Europe, which were meant for students. But many of them didn’t work, so he trained the students to fix the machines. “I remember Mum had this huge room which was intended for large gatherings, but I filled it with 700 computers. On the back of that, I got similar work from other places, and it became my first registered company.”
Visualising the future
This formative period crystallised de Mowbray’s attitude to business. “I saw the country through Mum’s development eyes, but I also saw business springing up among abject poverty and corruption. Every night, when the sun set, the bats would fly one way and the crows the other. That was my most poignant thinking time. I’d watch that and think, ‘there must be a way of rebalancing this’.”
The niche was spotted easily: “demand was all in heavy industry. At the time, I had some fairly strong-beliefed friends. Activism is all very well, but the only way to solve problems is by getting in and working with all stakeholders.” De Mowbray started sourcing machine parts for construction firms and, aged 19, he found himself with a steady deal flow.
Four years later, in 2005, he returned to London, turning to his other great passion, property. Setting up Dints Interiors with two friends, the idea was that the deals from Africa (under Dints International) would fund property investments. Unfortunately, the scheme didn’t work – de Mowbray came a-cropper when a big client didn’t pay up and one of the friends messed him around. He ended up losing £300,000.
The experience dented the young entrepreneur’s confidence significantly, and he didn’t return to Dints in earnest until 2009. Although he grew his business from £2m turnover to £10.2m between 2009 and 2013, he’s still quick to admit other challenges he’s faced. “The real shocker was between 2014-15 when turnover went from £10.2m to £4m. The market had changed, and we recognised that but I didn’t move fast enough to put our plan into action. I wasted a lot of money buying in people who I thought would know better than me. I felt like a rabbit in the headlights and the whole thing put me in a doubting mode. Since then, I’ve not been chasing turnover and profit.”
De Mowbray has successfully been keeping the business ticking over while building a new, innovative model. Prior to its profit drop, Dints was doing straight trading. But de Mowbray realised that, to make the company more robust, he needed to go further. The answer lay in offering financing options to clients, who were frequently completely hamstrung by lack of capital in their supply chains.
Now, Dints operates across 17 African countries, with projects in development in a further 12, and international clients, like industry giant Gold Fields. It works with banking partners and UK Export Finance to advance upwards of $25m to clients, based on their balance sheet (rather than Dints’s). De Mowbray works predominantly in the mining industry, but also in quarrying and construction – and he has got UKTI on board. “Our model is built on using UK Export Finance to fund projects, super-size our business and create quantifiable opportunities for UK businesses.”
Dints helps with all elements of the supply chain – even down to training. As the “shop front” for clients, it sources goods, ships them, replenishes supplies and manages warehouses on site. By aggregating suppliers in one place, the firm makes life a lot easier for clients, and for small UK businesses that want to export but might not have the capabilities to do so. And the business’s established relationships mean that its clients are willing to test new products, opening up opportunities for our small firms. “If they’re getting some widget from a US supplier, we can look at substituting that for a UK SME selling the same thing.”
UKTI has a target of £1 trillion of exports by 2020, along with on-boarding 100,000 SMEs. “That trillion simply is not going to come from the likes of BAE and Rolls Royce. It’ll come from small businesses.” But de Mowbray, who has just been appointed joint chair of the British Exporters Association, says he has a “fundamental issue” with the inefficient idea of training SMEs to export. “You want to take a model similar to ours” – a one-stop shop that capitalises on economies of scale.
I ask de Mowbray what he thinks about CSR and international aid. After coursing through a few expressions including “lip service” and “no-one has cracked it yet”, he explains why he’s always pushed for Aid for Trade, which preferences using aid money to bolster recipient countries’ capacity to trade. “Business is always the right tool for development, yet there is still some further alignment needed between government and the private sector.”
As we talk, de Mowbray keeps returning to his “biggest problem. I’m a big thinker. I’m always thinking of more things to do, and maintaining focus has always been a challenge for me.” He cycles through things like trying to tack charity arms onto the business before he was really ready. But as an outsider peering in, you wonder if this is such a bad thing.
Mining is just the pilot industry for Dints – “mines are like small cities – they need everything from huge machines to tomatoes and loo roll – and that makes them a great place to test the model”. And the more de Mowbray talks about his business, the more obvious its replicability becomes – it could work for any market. “You have to start with what matters to the mines, and that’s shareholder value. But my aim is to fundamentally change the way international trade is done. It has to work for everybody, and there are ways of ensuring it can.”