My first boss: Simon Dolan, businessman and investor

Simon Dolan focused on an accountancy niche to make his fortune. Photo: Sam Pearce/
Simon Dolan focused on an accountancy niche to make his fortune. Photo: Sam Pearce/

Simon Dolan's childhood obsession with numbers gave him an idea, and with a £10 advert in the local paper, he set up SJD accountancy, becoming the only accounting firm in the UK top 100 owned by an individual rather than a partnership.

The UK’s largest firm of contractor accountants was acquired in 2014 along with accounting practice Nixon Williams by Sovereign Capital for over £100m.

My mum came home one day saying she had found me a Saturday job. I was 14 when I started working on a tiny little stall in Chelmsford market for Mark Reardon, who sold six varieties of cheese and one lot of eggs. When I left as an 18-year-old he was pretty successful.

When you look back on your life you are always grasping for a narrative; these are the things that I did and therefore must have had some impact on me. I learned a lot from Mark, the most important thing was that somebody who was young could start a business. He was 21 at the time and it felt conceptually easy but long hours ensued.

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He had been a buyer for Danish bacon and thought he could do a better job on his own. He purchased a stall with some green grass on top, smiled and waited for the customers. He was soon earning £1,000 per week in his pocket and this was the early 1980s.

We wore white coats and had the chat. I was shy at the time and so it helped being thrown into the deep end. If you do it long enough – I also worked twice a week in the school holidays – you get good at your job and get positive feedback.

There was one time when I turned up 10 minutes late for work and Mark said if I wasn’t going to turn up on time then I was of no use to him. It was nothing personal, just matter of fact. I can’t stand being late for things to this day.

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We never sat down and talked about business. There were no management lessons or business planning, we would literally stand in front of people and offer something at a price they wanted to pay, which we could sell to make a profit.

I later worked for a local accountancy firm for 18 months after leaving school to go to college. My boss had no impact on me whatsoever other than the fact that he had identified a niche of business that I later made a fortune out of. He had inadvertently given me what was soon to become SJD Accountancy.

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I set up in 1992 and sold out in 2014 but never made any real money for the first eight years. This modern belief that you can build a business really quickly and sell out for a fortune is totally wrong. The trick that I had, coming from a sales background, was working month to month and developing a business with foundation. Every month my aim was to do more than the previous one, which I did consistently for 22 years. I wasn’t planning that but it worked.

Like the market stall, we were cheerful, personable, friendly, worked hard and gave people what they wanted. Most accountants aren’t like this on the whole.

In 1997, we were a general accounting service before we focused on a niche and started ramping up. With a niche it was identifying what I was doing to a very specific group of people who I could then target advertise to.

Chelmsford Essex town centre covered market with goods on display along pedestrianised pavement below multi storey car park structure England UK
Simon Dolan started his working life as a 14-year-old cheese seller in Chelmsford. Photo: Getty Images (Justin Kase zninez)

Rather than advertise generally for anyone who needed an accountant, I went to one particular magazine where I knew those people would be and professed to be a specialist in that area. In turn, it made us more attractive to those looking for a specialist service provider.

That market doesn’t have to be enormous. When I started there were about 100,000 customers in the UK and when I sold we were four times bigger than anyone in the same field and ended up with 14,000 clients out of around 200,000 plus. It was a reasonable chunk of a small marketplace but that’s where the value lay.

It wasn’t self belief but desperation to succeed and I had nothing to lose at the time. It was a shot to nothing, whereas if I had a reasonable job there would be more to lose to start something on your own.

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It doesn’t really matter what it is but I’ve always enjoyed the process of business. And that goes back to the market, taking a block of cheese and selling it to somebody for more than you purchased it for. That’s pretty compelling for me.

In 2014, I had a film made about me when we won the Le Mans 24-hour race. The film premiere was in Leicester Square and a chap came up to me who said he used to work with Mark on the stall and said he was the second best Saturday boy he had. I was pleased about that. I asked him what he did now and he said he’s a hedge fund trader in the City.

I'm still investing and always looking for the next big idea.

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