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When NatWest lent Niall Holden £5,000 to start up a microphone stand and cable sales business, the first thing he did was to book a holiday to Rhodes for himself and his business partner.
The pair spent the next three weeks lying on a beach on the Greek island. And when they got home they each bought a company car. With only £128 left in the bank they had nice tans but little else to show for their efforts.
One of four children, Holden was born in Glasgow, where both his parents were doctors. The family moved to America when he was three and his father became governor of St Louis General Hospital. They stayed for eight years until Holden’s father was threatened by gangsters and the family moved back to Britain, to live in Liverpool.
Returning was a culture shock. “I was a spotty, bespectacled kid and I had an American accent. It took a while to settle in but it was character-building stuff,” said Holden.
He left school at 16, dreaming of playing guitar in a band. After completing a higher national diploma in mechanical engineering, Holden moved to London to live in a tower block with his brother.
He spent the next few years playing in bands, drifting in and out of low-paid jobs. He was unemployed for 10 months and once had to hitchhike back to his parents’ house to borrow £100 to get the electricity turned back on.
At 25 Holden became a van driver for a company that hired out equipment to pop bands. After 18 months he decided to try doing this himself, using an Italian supplier.
That was when he burned through the £5,000 loan. Returning home from Greece, Holden came to his senses, bought a card index, got on the phone and started selling keyboard and microphone stands and cables. “I wanted my dad to be proud of me,” he said.
One of his first orders was from the Eurythmics for 36 microphone stands: “We made £16 profit and we were over the moon.”
After a few months the business moved into an industrial unit in Camden, north London. It started to take off when Holden and his business partner, Marcus DeFigueiredo, became the sole UK distributor for Klotz, a German company that makes cables and accessories. Within 18 months the business was turning over £200,000.
The arrangement ended in tears when Holden discovered that Klotz had set up its own distribution company. “It meant that for about a year we were competing with them. I was furious.”
Holden started searching for another supplier and eventually found a firm called Van Damme that specialised in making high-quality cables. He became its exclusive distributor and began to develop new products under the Van Damme brand.
In 1994 Holden decided to buy out his partner. It was not an acrimonious split but he was afraid his partner might set up in competition. So he gave DeFigueiredo £170,000 in cash and 83 post-dated cheques for £1,000 each — to be cashed in at the rate of one a week.
“My reasoning was that if I could hold him off for 83 weeks, by then he would have found something else to do,” said Holden. “I told him that I would cancel the rest of the cheques if he did anything with cables.”
In 1997 Holden bought a large warehouse in King’s Cross, north London, that had been empty for years. “The place had been used for raves for three years. It was disgusting. All the pipes had been pulled out and there were graffiti everywhere. But I thought it had potential. We were becoming a big small company but I wanted to become a small big company.”
Now the business has 50 staff and is expected to have sales this year of £6m. Its customers include Take That, the BBC, Big Brother, the television programme, and the Glastonbury festival.
Holden, who is 48 and married with three children, thinks the secret of his success has been attention to detail. “I don’t stop thinking about work — it is with me all the time. I never take my foot off the gas. I drive my wife crazy.”
He has this advice to give budding entrepreneurs: “Always make yourself look bigger than you are. If you need to spend money on letterheads or your corporate identity, then do it. You have to be aspirational and always going up the ladder and looking forward.”