The Accessory People: Nasa Khan
An inspirational business leader, he built his first company into a £750m turnover business and now has the ear of government and young people alike
A teacher once confided that on starting out in the profession she was advised that the more keys you accumulate the more senior and eminent you are. Nasa Khan, by virtue of his over-burdened key ring, is a very important man.
His sleek Hugo Boss suit would burst at the seams if he attempted to pocket his trusty gate openers. So instead he clutches them as if all too aware of their standing in his life. After all, he's probably the only one in the building able to evade the tight security. And when your business has a turnover of £750m a year, you've obviously got something worth protecting.
If you scan entry 751 of the annual Sunday Times Rich List, or read various write ups of industry awards, Khan is the son of a Surrey bus driver and newsagent owner, which incidentally is where he took his first job.
Before he was out of short trousers, he was flogging diaries bought from his Dad's shop to fellow pupils. Today it's mobile and palm-top computer accessories. Most prominent among his company's products are the vibrantly coloured phone fascias, which have helped make The Accessory People (TAP) the largest virtual manufacturer of such things in Europe and a real global player.
When we met he was clearly not content with what he had achieved by the age of 31. He spoke about his new ventures and his ever-burgeoning role with government. It was noticeable that he discussed at length his proposed new chauffeur business and a restaurant chain he was starting in Spain. You couldn't help but get the impression that, while TAP would be the long-term source of revenues, he would seal his place at the top table of UK entrepreneurs through one of the others. “TAP is the kingpin. But some of the new ventures are potentially larger and have bigger outlooks. These other companies will reach maximum height in two years and that's when we'll have to exit. But the profile we'll get will be far bigger, which TAP won't have or might never get,” he said.
However, only four weeks after the interview, during the final fact check for this piece, his enthusiasm for those two enterprises had evaporated, and both deals are dead.
You could put this change of heart down to youthful exuberence, but with his volte face Khan is in good company. The tendency to commit body and soul to something while it's uppermost in their mind is a common trait of the successful entrepreneur, as much as their ability to drop it dead in the water when something else gets their creative juices flowing.
For the record, Khan had said that his chauffeur business would amount to eight limousines initially, with a two-year expansion plan for 100 vehicles operating in the London area. And his Spanish hospitality venture was going to target the Beckhams and rich retirees of this world with expensive English fare, a beach bar and 180 sunbeds. His reasoning behind such diverse interests was clarified by his assertion that: “If I can't find a company doing something excellently then I'll invest and create it”.
And that opportunism, drive and willingness to take educated risks helps explain why mobile phone addict Khan has achieved so much, so young.
In 1995 mobile phones were largely a business tool and still too hefty for the average pocket. Accessorising and personalising such a bulky device was unheard of. Yet Khan sold his Mercedes, his house, everything to pursue his pipe dream. He cajoled hard up friends to part with £2,000 in total, secured himself some office space and got going.
Now he is a serial award winner with accolades from both the DTI and Bank of England as their Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He also has the wealth to match with a personal fortune estimated at £45m, including a £12m property portfolio and that must-have garage filled with a Porsche and a Ferrari.
In short, Khan's bet paid off. Despite being a self-made man he works as hard as ever. He still runs the TAP group on a day-to-day basis, but doesn't want to be seen as a onetrick wonder. Perhaps it was this subconscious need to prove himself again that led him to buy Reuben Singh's failing online office equipment supplier Group Trade, and he appears eager to establish himself as a turnaround specialist to prove his entrepreneurial pedigree. Philip “BHS” Green and Theo “La Senza” Paphitis have made their names and millions like this and won respect from all quarters.
Group Trade, says Khan, was a good model until “somebody took their finger off the pulse. It had 22 directors and only eight staff”. He's currently in the process of bringing it out of administration.
Timing is everything
Surprisingly, for somebody who appears restless and impatient to reach greater heights, Khan is actually in no rush to take TAP public. A few years ago an AIM listing for TAP was a goal that he spoke publicly about with gusto. But he and TAP didn't go to the market in the end, because he chose to bide his time, getting things absolutely right, when the demise of the dotcoms napalmed the scene.
“If we'd gone a year earlier we'd have probably raised X millions,” he says. “But there are two ways to go: walk or run. I prefer walking, pacing myself and having a stable foundation. I know my ability and to me that's more important as I don't want to be king of every castle, but I do want to go where I can be the best and number one.”
Khan goes on to cite the growth of TAP as proof of this approach. In communications, he says, there were 15 or so companies doing incredibly well a few years ago, but now there are only three. And in Europe there were about 50 at one stage, whereas today there are just 10.
As with his forays into corporate rescues, Khan relishes the challenges that TAP presents. “I believe we're on a ship and that it's never going to be plain sailing. We will always come across rocky waters. But where we have problems I ask how we can make it better.” He doesn't involve himself in the detail and says that if he concentrated on every part of the business he'd never move forward. “This is why other people are not entrepreneurs. They are business people, directors, managers, but they are not entrepreneurs. Their mind frame doesn't expand to the next level,” he says.
This awareness of his role in business, and his attitude to those who don't see their company as a pension plan, extends to his involvement with government. When he represented entrepreneurs at a recent summit it frustrated him that there was little understanding of what it's like to take risks.
“The people in charge at BA and Shell didn't start those companies, yet they're still happy to say that if someone fails in business, it's their fault. These guys have had a silver spoon in their mouths all their lives and have never had to worry about finances or anything else. It's a shame because if they thought beyond themselves we would have a stronger climate.”
Greater support needed
To this end he points to the success of the US. Patricia Hewitt wanted to know how entrepreneurialism in the UK could be better fostered. He asks before answering himself: “The UK is officially number 13 in the world, yet is so close to the US's ideology, so why are they way ahead of us?”
“I said that if someone fails in America they pick them up, dust them off, give them more money and tell them to get on with it. Putting bankrupt on your CV is effectively a positive. If you do it here, they run a mile.”
He argues that while bankruptcy shouldn't be encouraged, with the right guidance and support it shouldn't happen in the first place. The message seems to have got through if recent remarks made by small business minister Nigel Griffiths are anything to go by. He uses the line that bankruptcy is proudly displayed like a battle scar in the US and we need more of that conviction here.
Lack of linear thinking is a bugbear for Khan and fortunately his input appears to have been heeded. When the DTI initially announced a £50m fund from the Bank of England to invest in ethnic businesses, they attached a list of sectors they wouldn't be using the fund for. Among them were cab stations and restaurants. The reasoning, says Khan, is that they're already heavily associated with Asian or ethnic backgrounds. This made no sense to him. “If you come from a background where food is all you know then you're discriminating against their knowledge.” He suggested that, by giving them the right support and limiting the numbers per area, the fund would strike the right balance. A simple solution.
Providing the right motivation
He also discouraged the government from giving budding entrepreneurs grants for computer equipment, suggesting that lending equipment and expecting some sort of payback further down the line would provide more motivation. “Give them money on a plate and it won't work. Some of these guys don't have a clue about how funding works. They throw money at a problem and it ends up going to the wrong quarters.”
Khan doesn't want to make things harder for the younger generation and spends much of his time mentoring them. But he feels others should have to make sacrifices, just as he did, and have a sense of purpose instilled in them. He has around 100 young people who look to him for some form of inspiration. Some work for him at TAP, while others are involved with an incubator company he's associated with in Kingston-upon-Thames. He also has positions with the Prince's Trust, the Bank of England and the Conservative Party.
“It's important to mentor people. Often just one piece of motivation or guidance can mean the world from the right source, whereas others might have told them to give up and go back to the nine-to-five life.”
For a man as passionate about entrepreneurialism, letting talent slip back to employee status would be a crime.