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Cool Running

Business, bobsleighs and Battersea Park have got Mergermarket founder Caspar Hobbs where he is today, discovers Charlotte Eager

Business, bobsleighs and Battersea Park have got Mergermarket founder Caspar Hobbs where he is today, discovers Charlotte Eager

Starting a successful business is no walk in the park, although don’t tell that to Caspar Hobbs. For it was while on an otherwise mundane stroll through Battersea Park that the former Scots Guard came to set up Mergermarket.

‘It is probably the only moment in my life when I have had a bizarre coincidence,’ admits Hobbs. ‘I had loads of ideas. I just wanted to set up a business.

‘I thought it would be a good idea to sell to clients with deep pockets. Information was one of the things I dealt with in the army. I realised there was a whole load of deep pockets whose lifeblood was information. I sat down with 20 of them and asked them what they didn’t have and they told me. And that was it.’

The next step was to find the money man. Enter Gawn Rowan-Hamilton, an investment banker. Or, more to the point, an unemployed investment banker who bumped, literally, into Caspar during a walk through Battersea Park the day after he had resigned from Schroders.

Gawn, now 38, described how he had been wandering through the park with his children, pondering what on earth he was going to do now he had resigned, had five children, a wife, and a castle in Ireland to keep up, when suddenly the figure of Hobbs bombed round the corner. ‘Then Caspar turned up – and he looks a bit like a pit bull,’ says Gawn.

Caspar adds: ‘I was running, thinking I must find myself an investment banker. My dog Rommel knocked over one of his girls. I said, “Gawn, I need a CFO, a banker”, and Gawn said, “Caspar, I’ve just left my job”.’ Charlie Welsh, a financial journalist, completed the Holy Trinity following that chance walk in the park.

‘It’s fun working with friends,’ says Caspar. ‘I knew Charlie and Gawn, but they didn’t know each other. We didn’t go out drinking every night together, but when you work with people you become friends anyway.’

This summer the three of them sold out to Pearson (the group which owns the Financial Times) for more than £101 million. Caspar won’t say how much money he made, but he says the business was split pretty equally in thirds between the partners, the venture capitalists and share options to the staff. If you do the maths, Caspar must have pocketed at least seven figures.

The website, www.mergermarket.com, is one of those classic internet businesses. Describing itself as ‘an independent Mergers and Acquisitions [M&A] intelligence service’, it relies on instant communication to whiz facts to clients all over the world.

‘I always dread it when people ask what I do,’ says Caspar. ‘It’s journalism, really financial journalism. We provide forward-looking intelligence to the financial services market. Ideas generate profit.’

Hobbs is obviously wary about being interviewed, possibly because he’s in the information business himself. As a former military intelligence officer (he served in Northern Ireland and the Middle East) he knows the power of information at its most crude.

When Mergermarket first started it was just the three of them working from a basement, with Caspar trailing a suitcase all over the world. Now the company has offices in Hong Kong and New York and staff in 37 countries.

Mergermarket took advantage of two current booms: first was the internet, which allows unlimited amounts of information to be quickly disseminated. ‘In old-fashioned publishing you see what is put in front of you, the pages are in numerical order. In electronic publishing, we have no limit on pagination or print runs,’ says Hobbs.

The other boom was the vast demand for commercial information, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and booming markets in Russia, China and India. Corporate intelligence companies, like Kroll or CRG, have made fortunes in the past few years (quite independently of their security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) and have seen their image change from grubby men in mackintoshes to besuited gurus ushered into the boardroom.

In a way, Mergermarket is like an off-the-peg version: instead of bespeaking your Kroll report, you buy a service which you think will surely cover what you need. ‘But we are bespoke as well, because we can send thousands of words a day and the user only pulls out what is relevant to them,’ says Hobbs. ‘People use it in an incredibly specialised way.’

It would be tempting to think that, the deal being done, Caspar was putting his feet up and heading off for the nearest yacht, but he looks utterly bewildered at the idea of slowing down.

‘I am working harder these days. I know there is an assumption that you can draw a huge breath, give a sigh of relief and go “phew” but it’s not like that. I’ve got a reputation and I don’t want to lose it. The people who built it up with me are still there. People talk about deals as though they are the end, but actually they are a great opportunity to create something bigger.

‘If anything, the tempo of what I do has increased – I never thought it would. We’re part of a big organisation. We’re launching new products. Besides, there is a deferred element to the transaction. It is reliant on us achieving pretty ambitious goals, so we have an incentive to continue to grow.’

So the money won’t make any difference? He looks blank. ‘I picked up all the bad habits I have already, like shooting or the Cresta [the Cresta Run in St Moritz, of which Hobbs is member and an avid fan] He says he lives in one of the dodgier parts of south London, but won’t let me say where, with his wife (a lawyer) and their two children.

‘I could have moved out years ago, but I love it. The high street on a Saturday has got incredible energy. I love the city as much as I love the countryside. The great advantage is that none of my friends will come so there’s much less entertaining.’

When I say I’d heard he was thinking of buying an estate, he is quick to answer: ‘I have a house in Northamptonshire already where we go for weekends – although I spend most of my life on an aeroplane. The business has been doing well for a few years and not everything was financed out of the business anyway.’

Although appearances can be deceptive, Caspar’s background – Scots Guards and Rugby boarding school – implies a certain amount of affluence: his family had a brewery in Africa. After they left Kenya, they moved to South Africa where his father worked in gold.

What about school fees? He looks blank again. And that of course is a teller that the money’s kicking in: most people wince at the very thought. ‘Certain things become easier – there are certain costs associated with having children – but the concern to make money does not go away.’

What’s true is that £10 million or so doesn’t go particularly far these days when a London house can easily cost more than that. But Caspar says: ‘I’m not sure that I’d be in the private jet league even if I made hundreds of millions. I’ve got everything I wanted and I was doing it all before I sold the business. Maybe there are people who have bought houses in St Tropez, but I’m not one of them. I’ve been to St Moritz every year of my life, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d like to go. Except Scotland, and I go there anyway.

‘The ‘Cresta’ is my passion. One of the problems of running a business is it’s terribly difficult to maintain fitness. Many years ago I played a lot of sport. I was very fit when I was in the army, you couldn’t avoid it. But the Cresta is an excellent sport for someone like me as the stiller you are, the faster you go. It would be lovely if I could get more time to ride it. Some years I’m the worst member.’

It turns out Caspar’s earlier fear was because, like a good information man, he’d looked me up and read a demolition job I’d written on a women trafficker and conman. ‘I got a bit worried,’ he admits. ‘But he was a criminal!’ I point out, and Caspar visibly eases off.

‘Anyone who is an entrepreneur is terrified of boredom,’ he adds. ‘If they sat back after they sell a business, in 24 hours they worry they’ll suddenly be bored. All entrepreneurs get ill when they go on holiday. It’s like men dying when they retire.

‘I really love business. It’s incredibly good fun. That would be the case if I failed. I have friends who failed in business and have such respect for the way they have dusted themselves down and started again. It’s interesting to create something of value to people.’



 

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