Ambitious leaders with fresh thinking
5 Oct 2022
The volume and quality of submissions this year surpassed all of our expectations. We’ve been struck by the way business leaders have overcome challenges and adversity to run fast-growing and successful companies, proving that difficult circumstances can become a significant driver of ambition.”
Inspired by adversity
Take Sunny Araf, who needed to support his family, so sacrificed his dream of going to university. He worked at Burger King to put food on the table at home, before getting an opportunity to join the police force. He eventually started security and support personnel business ISA Support Services with his cousin in 2011. “For the first five or six years of the business, I was working two jobs, pretty much living off four or five hours’ sleep,” he says. “I’d be in the office in the day and working security at night.” ISA Support Services is now a multimillion-pound business that employs more than 300 people.
Father of four Araf has tragically lost two of his children – son Ismaeel and, more recently, daughter Khadijah, both from health complications. “Khadijah changed our lives,” he says. “She made us realise that there’s much more to life. That’s when we formed the ISA Foundation, our own charitable organisation to help those going through tough times.”
Byron Dixon, who spearheads a company that makes an innovative anti-mould spray, grew up on a council estate in Leicester with four siblings. He says: “Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s was quite tough, especially on a council estate and with my mum a single parent. We didn’t have a lot.”
But despite the odds, chemist Dixon worked his way up at companies such as ECCO shoes, before creating his own antibacterial product, Micro-Fresh, which is now used by more than 50 retailers to help products stay fresher for longer. “I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs who are from similar backgrounds to me,” he says. “And we have this natural fight in us but we’re also not afraid of losing because we’ve been through it all before as kids.”
The LDC Top 50 is full of business leaders bringing innovative and game-changing new products, such as Micro-Fresh, to market. This year’s entrepreneurs are not afraid of going the extra mile. They are also not daunted by the prospect of international growth.
Nima Beni and Nagma Ebanks-Beni, the brother and sister duo behind family business Prima Cheese are perfect examples. Founded in 1996 by their Iranian father, Behroz, Prima Cheese is a pizza-cheese processing company that had never sold outside the UK until 2010. Wanting to boost sales without diversifying their product, they looked at markets overseas.
“We earmarked Dubai as our first export target. It was booming with trade, and tourism was going through the roof,” says co-CEO Ebanks-Beni. “Our success within export was quite rapid. We had a really good blueprint to work from but we adapted and evolved very, very quickly.” Prima Cheese now supplies 55 countries worldwide.
We earmarked Dubai as our first export target. It was booming with trade, and tourism was going through the roof. Our success within export was quite rapid. We had a really good blueprint to work from but we adapted and evolved very, very quickly.”
Beyond growth, one thing many of The Top 50 agree on is the importance of looking after their people – creating nurturing environments where people feel empowered and appreciated. In a post-Covid world, with a huge increase in remote working, this issue is front and centre for our business leaders.
Emma O’Brien founded her digital transformation consultancy, Embridge Consulting, after being made redundant. She wanted a job that would give her enough work-life balance to enjoy time with her kids – this is still a priority for the entrepreneur now that she has 100 people on the team. “We’re very flexible – if people want to work term-time only or spend three months a year in France, we’ll see if we can make that work,” she explains.
Embridge Consulting is proud to be an inclusive workplace. “We’re a Disability Confident Employer,” O’Brien explains. “Our youngest child is disabled, he has drug-resistant epilepsy, so obviously it is quite personal to me. We have some people in the team who have disabilities and often those disabilities are hidden – so we look at how we can support them.”
Some founders are embracing the freedom of working from anywhere. Join Talent founder Katrina Hutchinson O’Neill has created a fully remote company to give employees the flexibility she didn’t have in her earlier career. “I was on maternity leave when I got headhunted by a major bank, but that came with the requirement that I had to move to Scotland,” she explains. “We relocated there and left our dream house behind in Northern Ireland. It was daft. You didn’t actually have to be in the office every day. At Join Talent we’ve been fully remote from the start.”
For some leaders however, supporting teams means getting them together. Chris Roberts, CEO of technology consultancy Nimble Approach, wants to maintain a great geographical spread of offices across the UK. With offices in Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, he’s opening a Bristol branch and aims to have 10 locations eventually. “Even if people are in the offices an average of two days a week, we’re creating little communities in each of those areas. It’s about getting together, spending time with like-minded people, problem solving as a team, being able to read body language in a room and making sure everybody has a voice.”
Fighting fit for the future
Against a less than perfect economic landscape, The Top 50 have proved that not only are they innovative and growing fast – they are doing it responsibly by building people-first enterprises with an eye on the future. As each of this year’s leaders illustrates, ambition comes in many forms, including from adversity, innovation and a drive to do things better. “Once again, The Top 50 evidences the crucial role ambition plays in solving challenges our economy faces,” says LDC’s Garner. “While the true impact on business from major economic events remains uncertain, we can take comfort and inspiration from the confidence these leaders have shown to take advantage of new opportunities and react at great speed.”