David Sanger: entrepreneur, the skills you need for success
David Sanger founded Rollover in 1991, which grew to become the UK’s largest hot dog company from its origins as a sandwich bar chain. David has set up a range of other successful businesses, including ScentAir UK and grown others including Instant Offices and Riverbank IT Management. He tells us what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur.
Why did you start your own business?
I have always disliked taking instructions from other people, and I don’t like obeying rules!
I worked at accountancy firm Ernst & Young for three years, and realized that being part of a huge organisation wasn’t for me. I also worked at an advertising agency for a couple of years, which was fun but I wasn't free to take the decisions I wanted to. So I decided to start my own business. I don’t mind taking risks, and I back my own judgment.
You are a very successful entrepreneur. What does it take to make it?
It takes someone who is fiercely competitive. You need drive, determination, passion and commitment. You need to be a good leader, and instinctively know how to get the best out of your team. It is also important to be a good communicator who can motivate and inspire people. Another key characteristic is to know your strengths and weaknesses. Recruit other people to do the bits you are weaker at, or just don’t like doing. The ability to listen to your customers (and staff) and to understand what they want is key. But working hard is probably the most important quality of all.
I was determined to make Rollover a success. I realised there was a gap in the market for upmarket hot dogs in Britain. So I added these to the menu in my twelve Rollover sandwich bars and then we started wholesaling our hot dogs to a wide range of business customers, to whom we loaned free equipment.
In 2003 I thought it would be beneficial to make our Rollover branded frankfurters available in supermarkets. It was a difficult challenge, but I was determined. I rang all the buyers every day, and sent faxes, letters and emails but didn’t get replies. Finally I reached the Asda chilled meats buyer and he recognized our brand from Liverpool Football Club. A presence in Asda was quickly followed by Sainsbury’s and hot dog carts at Tesco. It took two years to gain supermarket access but we got there in the end. By the time I sold the business to Piper Private Equity in 2006 Rollover had exclusive-supply contracts with 79 of the top 90 football clubs, 27 of the largest 30 theme parks, just about every zoo in the UK, and over five thousand other sites including the national stadiums: Twickenham, Murrayfield, the Millenium Stadium and Croke Park in Ireland.
How do you come up with business ideas?
I am always looking for new opportunities. You look around and evaluate if you could do something better.
I read in Forbes magazine about a company in America called ScentAir Technologies providing air scents to businesses, with the same business model of loaning free equipment. Inspired by this, I started ScentAir UK in August 2008 and the company grew rapidly, using the Americans as our key supplier. Impressed by our growth and profitability our American supplier made an irresistible offer to buy my company in July 2014.
I like to have lots of interests, with involvement in several businesses as a Non-Executive Director, spending two or three days a month working on growth and strategy. When you’re young running your own business can be all-consuming, but now that I am a bit older and more experienced, I don’t want to be obsessed by one business.
The UK has voted to leave the EU. How do you think this will impact entrepreneurs in the UK?
I think that we have just taken a massive step backwards and years of uncertainty lie ahead. I think the EU may be punitive in its dealings with an exiting UK to dissuade other members from leaving, and apparently we don’t have skilled negotiators for difficult global trade negotiations.
However, the UK remains a fantastic place to do business. My 20-year-old son, Daniel, and many of his University friends want to go into business and make money in an entrepreneurial way.
As an entrepreneur you have to ignore macro economic issues and focus on your business and your customers. If you can manufacture or provide a great service in the UK, there is opportunity.
Do you feel the need to mentor or help younger entrepreneurs?
If I had had a mentor when I was young it would have been an easier journey – but along with wanting to help younger entrepreneurs I enjoy working with capable, driven and ambitious people.
I can help young companies with strategy, sales processes and ways to reach decision makers at prospects and with team structure. I can keep them focused and determined and help them to avoid pitfalls, such as begrudging paying high commission to top performers.
I have chaired the Advisory Board at Roehampton University’s Business School for the last five years. This year I sponsored an award for one of the most promising graduates, including a cash prize and a year of monthly mentoring. I haven’t yet found a Roehampton start-up to invest time and money in, but I definitely feel motivated to help the next generation.
Do you spoil your children?
One of the worst things you can do as a parent is give your kids too much money too young, and/or a sense of entitlement. You take away their motivation and self worth so I have been careful to teach both my sons the value of money.