Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Jim Hart, founder of Europlus Direct

WHEN Jim Hart’s older sisters married successful businessmen, he gained more than brothers-in-law. He gained mentors.

One sister walked down the aisle with a co-founder of the Original Factory Shop, a discount retailer. The other married the owner of a popular hotel and restaurant in Harrogate.

At family gatherings, talk often turned to business, stirring Hart’s interest. “Setting up my own company wasn’t such an alien concept,” he said. “It was familiar, possible. I knew I could do it.”

In 2004 he founded Europlus Direct, which provides support and maintenance for companies that use IBM computers. The Leeds business has 45 employees and expects to report annual revenues of £7.5m this month, with profits of £553,000. This year it won a second Queen’s Award for Enterprise.

Hart, 47, grew up in Guiseley, West Yorkshire. His mother was a school secretary and his father a chartered accountant. As a child, he had no career plans. “I thought I’d go into something arty — filming or photography maybe.”

He was, however, inspired by a holiday at the age of seven, when the family visited relatives in New Zealand via Denmark, Thailand, Hong Kong, Australia and Hawaii. “That trip stayed with me. Every year I would look back at the pictures. I knew I wanted a life with travel and languages at its centre.”

After sitting his A-levels at Bradford Grammar School, Hart spent two months with a pen friend in Germany. He then travelled to Venice to work as a tour guide. On his return in 1984 he studied French and German at Nottingham University, with a year in France.

After university, he made sure he could always use his language skills at work. “That kept my passion going.”

In 1988 Hart moved to London to work in overseas marketing for Ibis, the software publisher. Two years later he began his second trip around the world, this time working to pay his way. “I was a ski rep, then an English teaching assistant,” he said. During 18 months abroad Hart also worked in a department store in Sydney and as an English teacher in Chile.

Back in Britain, it was time to focus on his career. “I had to start at the bottom again,” said Hart. In 1992 he took a job selling translation software at Interfunction (later Connections Plus). When the Yorkshire company won a contract to sell maintenance services with Hewlett-Packard, the American computer giant, he became involved in European distribution.

It was this job that provided the inspiration for Europlus Direct. Hart was made redundant less than six months into a new job with a marketing company and, at the age of 39, decided the time had finally come to go it alone.

“I approached IBM, offering to sell their services to distributors, as I had done for HP,” he said. “They knew I had extensive experience; the IBM model is very similar to what I worked with before so it was straightforward to get going.”

Hart won a contract with IBM France. With a £4,000 loan from his parents and brothers-in-law he employed two French sales staff and kitted out a small office in Bradford. “We received money upfront for most contracts so we had a positive cashflow,” said Hart. “I was lucky enough to repay those loans within six months.”

He has not always been so fortunate. In 2008, as the recession took hold, Europlus Direct secured larger premises. “Sales in that year flatlined,” said Hart. “I was thinking, crikey, we’ve just rented a much bigger space when growth is poor and costs high. But we cut costs and managed to pull through.”

The company expanded in western Europe and Australia. In 2010 the opportunity arose to sell IBM maintenance contracts in sub-Saharan Africa and this year Hart launched his American operation with an office in Las Vegas.

“We sell to 120 countries so more than 95% of sales are made overseas,” he said. “Sales in Britain are healthy but for the next 12 to 24 months the biggest growth will be in America.”

Hart is also developing his other business, One Global, a multilingual recruitment company that was established in 2008 to help companies to expand internationally.

“One Global also provides a translation service for company websites and manuals,” he said. “I would like to develop the international marketing side.”

Hart lives in Bradford with his wife Claire, a teacher, and children Reuben, 6, and Lily, 8. He offers this advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: “You need passion but also a clear vision of what you want to achieve in five or ten years. Alter your strategy but don’t deviate from that vision.”

Link to Sunday Times website

PDF – How I Made It Europlus Direct

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