David Brownlow gave his last published interview in 2005, when he won The Sunday Times/EY Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year. Over 10 years later, Matt Wright of The Business Magazine met with the founder of Huntswood and The Havisham Group to catch up on the intervening years

The reason for this article therefore is not one of self-promotion or vanity but, in Brownlow’s own words, “to provide motivation for others who want to give it a go”.

Huntswood – the early years

“Look after your customers, be good at what you do, and leave everybody else to be good at what you’re not.”

Huntswood began life as a recruitment company in 1996, founded by Brownlow and his then business partner Philip Eaton. The company specialised in particular niches – for example, it dominated the job market in management consulting recruitment – and within two years had surpassed the market’s established players.

From there, Huntswood has grown to become “one of the most respected companies in the industry” (The Sunday Times Best Companies Award 2016, Most Admired Thames Valley Business 2016, The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 2016) with profits of £50 million on a turnover of £300m and over 4,000 employees.

The Havisham Group

Having handed over the role of CEO in 2011 and taken more of a backseat, Brownlow began to suffer from self-doubt: “I wanted to prove Huntswood wasn’t a fluke … so I started a new business.” Hence, The Havisham Group was formed, an investment vehicle dealing in diverse global assets ranging from property building and renting, recruitment, pubs and restaurants and education technology to film-making, based in London, Reading, Shanghai, Sydney and Singapore.

Promoting talent

“You’re only as good as the people around you.”

Brownlow’s way of building a business has been to promote the right talent at the right level, and to nurture and retain that talent within his family of companies. So, an employee who started off as a recruitment consultant in the late ‘90s was promoted to head of HR within 10 years, since that was the best fit for her skill set.

It is this meritocracy, this drive to encourage colleagues to fulfil their potential that marks Huntswood out as an employer of choice. As Brownlow notes: “Imagine a game of snakes and ladders … but without the snakes.”

Tips for budding entrepreneurs

“Not everyone can be an entrepreneur – you need to understand the DNA, possess the talent, have the appetite for appropriate risk …”

By his own admission, Brownlow has both an ambitious and a competitive streak. These are apparent in his work as well as his leisure life; for example his passion for horse racing. He says: “I hate coming second, it’s worse than coming last.”

Hard work though, is always a pre-requisite for succeeding as an entrepreneur – “It’s not just about personality, it’s about ability” –the ability to take tough decisions, whether it be for the development of the business (expansion into new markets), or for the maintenance of that business (redundancy and restructuring).

The bigger picture

“It is important to be driven by something other than ROI.”

Brownlow’s philanthropic approach to business can be best seen through the David Brownlow Charitable Foundation, which he funds privately, which has awarded £8m in six years to a wide range of causes, varying from the high-profile (Dumfries House) to local support of individuals and community.

This passion for supporting the disadvantaged or providing opportunities to those with potential is a common theme throughout Brownlow’s businesses, be they charitable or multi-million-pound corporations.

“You need to have happiness and purpose in your life. It is important as a successful entrepreneur to make a contribution, to make a difference to people’s lives – that is what gives me the most satisfaction.”