business, general communication

Smooth operator – Stephen Fear, phone box millionaire

Cardiff University’s latest Innovation Network event presented Stephen Fear, a lifelong entrepreneur who set up his first company in 1969, aged 16.  He bought a cleaning formula from an American company advertising in the Exchange & Mart, after claiming a council estate phone box as his personal office for transatlantic calls.

Stephen Fear calmly took to the lectern on an unsettled autumn evening which blustered and spat outside.  His was a sturdy and unflashy presence: smart business suit, no tie, a gentle West Country lilt to his voice suggestive of the Bristol roots.

There’s no small irony in the name of Fear, because it would seem that he has never exhibited any.  From an early age he went about his work with a tenacity, industry, energy and fearlessness.  From an even earlier age he was inquisitive and fearless in deliberately blending himself with families on train platforms in order to travel, getting all the way from Bristol to London in an attempt to see the Queen, aged 7.   

He spoke candidly about his parents’ difficult relationship and how they were ‘ill-equipped’ to be parents.  The insinuation was that it was precisely because they were ill-equipped to be parents that Fear became the person he did.  He was left alone for long periods to read astonishing amounts of wide-ranging texts, educating himself almost entirely in the process.

His hyperactivity combined with such periods of isolation might have promoted a lack of self-awareness which helped in doing business, in asking questions, in not being fazed by people, in developing relationships by being cheeky and persistent.

The always engaging story he told indicated that everything seemed instinctive to him. Although this isn’t to say there was a lack of thought or astute consideration behind his actions.

A teenage Fear conducted his first major business deal using a council estate telephone box in Bristol which he effectively privatised for himself using masking tape and an Out Of Order sign.  His relationship with a telephone operator was as important as his relationship with a hard-talking New Yorker and owner of the cleaning formula.

Fear laced his talk with nuggets of practical, real-world business advice.  The few I noted.

  • Most businesses fail through a lack of knowledge.
  • Have integrity and carry through on doing everything you say you will do.
  • When exporting, insist the contract is written in English, so any nuances are in your favour.
  • Test advertising on a small scale first. You can’t tell what will work.
  • Never push deals.  Have patience.
  • Borrow money to make money, not to improve your lifestyle.
  • You can learn to do anything if you focus.

The introductory presentation slide didn’t move until the Chair of the evening resumed afterwards.  Fear had no presentation, nor any cue cards.  He opened his mouth and talked in much the same way you suspected he did his early business, based on that self-styled instinct.  It worked.

However, we didn’t learn much about Fear’s work after the age of 25, which is some gap.
The programme notes said:

“He spent most of his career in the property and corporate sectors, focusing on property investment and development, as well as company takeovers, mergers and acquisitions.  He is Entrepreneur in Residence at the British Library (a role previously held by the late Dame Anita Roddick) where he helps businesses evolve into major enterprises, and an Ambassador for the British Library.

Stephen has been a contributor to many prestigious magazines and international newspapers including The Financial Times and The Times; he also writes a monthly column for Business Matters Magazine and Urban Times Magazine; has a blog and has appeared on both TV and radio. Stephen runs the Fear Group with his son and business partner Leon. They both actively support the military charity Heropreneurs, (Stephen is a patron), which helps people who find themselves facing a new life enter into the world of business.”

Entrepreneur or not, Fear’s story seems to advocate being open to the idea of a number of different careers over the course of a lifetime, even if education and careers services advocate that we concentrate on one area at the beginning.

Vocational openness can feel challenging when there’s such emphasis placed on considered, step-by-step structure and strategy these days, on clear categorisation through titles and roles and hierarchies, on business courses and CPD, on relevant experience as much as relevant knowledge.  Even in start-ups.

Could you seize the initiative in an organisation of any size today, as Fear did with relatively little experience, and not rub senior figures up the wrong way?  It’s likely to be tricky.

My personal sense of the small business world in the 1960s and 70s is that it was much smaller and more pliant.  With less stringent regulation and fewer people packed onto the British Isles, there was greater business scope, especially if equipped with a hyperactive drive, the appetite for knowledge and the application of focus Fear had.  Whereas today there might be a little more red tape and much knowledge is freely available at the touch of a button.  My sense is that people admired pushiness, tenacity and barefaced cheek, in a way they might not now.

(I might be wrong.)

Asked afterwards if he would have greater or fewer opportunities as a ten year old boy today, Fear said more, indicating today’s instant global communication as the reason.  No need to tape closed a phone box today, perhaps.  But growing up immersed in a heavily saturated digital world, and working in highly regimented and regulated business arenas, it’s possible that his brand of early entrepreneurialism might be tougher to pull off.

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