BQ Newsletter
David Harper

The lad’s got talent

David Harper left school with no certificates but now through other talents he owns a fast-widening group of firms bedrocked by education and job training, as Brian Nicholls reports.

His laughter fills the glass and chrome reception area even as he enters HarperCo offices, apologetically telling how a traffic snarl-up has delayed him. Effusive David Harper, whose cheerfulness must be cherished in these trying business times, could brighten even worst-case scenarios.

He’d have been a soul-lifting MC aboard the Titanic for example – coaxing couples to last-waltz on its listing ballroom floor, former dancing champion that he is.

His nimbleness at the immaculate Monkton South Business Park in South Tyneside instead, is evident more in his head than in his toes now as he leads HarperCo to £10m sales in its first decade – and maybe £100m by 2014, though he doesn’t underestimate the challenge. The workforce has just risen by 42 to 100 though, and he’s relying on a mixture of growing the existing businesses, diversifying their products, and making strategic acquisitions and partnerships. HarperCo already prospers diversely. It can hack bureaucratic procedure down from 12 weeks to one day for instance. And its skills in training and consultancy can draw clients such as Asda, Harrods and DHL. No Titanic this, despite its motley management crew. Besides Harper, the former UK Latin American dance champion, there’s group finance director Mark Hargreaves – novelist, erstwhile male model and chartered accountant – who hates numbers but was a notable managing partner of Grant Thornton in Newcastle for some years.

There’s contracts manager Graham Howard, fast-rescue and lifeboat coxswain, one time safety manager of a Norwegian cruise liner, and for 30 years before, a marine engineer in nuclear ballistic missile submarines. There’s also contracts manager Stephen Dean, eager to meet Muhammad Ali, preferably outside the ring. But these are their experiences and idiosyncrasies, not their skill sets that Harper – himself still only 30 – values in driving the business forward in training, vetting and screening, digital learning, lean production and consultancy in carbon efficiency.

Harper left school with no paper credits. But he’s twice been apprenticed, once to House of Fraser and later, through mentoring by other North East entrepreneurs. He met the first, George Hayden, in 2001 when Hayden was about to grow a national training firm also involving Gateshead College, Express Engineering and former North East Business Executive of the year Chris Thompson.

Harper had experience enough to take on development and sales. That company, Talent Training, which is now lead operation for HarperCo, sold apprenticeships years ahead of Labour and Coalition governments. By 2007 Harper had been managing director for three years, now earning half the equity. He virtually acquired 50% of the business.

The firm by then was contracting directly with the Government to deliver base learning solutions in the private sector. Asda, Harrods, Argos, and the NHS all came in then. Growth continued for the next two years under the then government’s Train to Gain scheme. In 2009 Harper saw his “golden opportunity”. He bought Hayden out, recalling in his cleanly cut Glasgow accent: “I had visions to take it to a bigger scale again. The market was changing. I thought some strategic acquisitions could exponentially grow our turnover and size. We had seen how the Government then was procuring services.

“I now had Talent Training and a chance to branch into other opportunities. I met Mark Hargreaves, an absolute gem in this company now. I asked, ‘How do I find opportunities to invest in and take part in?’ He said when the business was ready people and opportunities would come anyway. Sure as hell, I was involved with one of them only yesterday.” Others came in between. So HarperCo was created as an acquisition vehicle, not only to buy out a partnership but also to introduce a trading vehicle, a holding company to make investments and engage with organisations in need of growth and leverage.

“I’ve effectively created new start-ups,” Harper explains. “We’re not a venture capital house, but my passion is finding fledgling businesses, rare opportunities and people with real talent, then working with them to grow their organisation.

“For example, I came across a business in Glasgow, Junction 18 – very niche, very specific. They delivered and developed e-learning solutions. I was impressed. The firm was using computer games and technology to deliver learning because, typically, learning can be mundane – left screen, right screen, next step... You know.

“They were using 3D interactive technology to make it exciting. Often small businesses have great product, great ambition, but don’t know how to take it to market. I negotiated with them and set up HarperCo Digital and growing that very successfully.

“We in turn can diversify our offering, and with the technology go with the market. Ideally, we grow a company like that to a certain size, make it attractive and one day find a potential buyer. We either buy the company or set up a new business with it, a joint venture. Ours is a flexible model working for the other party and for us also. HarperCo Digital is a joint venture.” Harper also studied in his forte – education – the need to monitor staff working with young people better.

“Applicants have to be checked against criminal records,” he says. “The system as it stood took up to 12 weeks to get a record back. I thought that unacceptable. NHS employees and supply teachers couldn’t start till they’d been cleared. Also the services suffer. I spent time with interesting people who’d spent 10 years developing technology that could interact with government agencies. The labour and manual process could be taken out; technology put at the heart instead. We can now deliver checks within one business day – a complete file on clients’ desks, and more cost-effectively.” HarperCo did it by acquiring The Vetting Solutions Centre in Hemel Hempstead, now rebranded as HarperCo Vetting.

“Their great product has been taken to a market where they can shout about it,” he says. When HarperCo recently decided to relocate from Newcastle, South Tyneside was the only local authority in the region so pro-active in understanding his aims.

“They really supported us to find the right location and infrastructure,” he says. “Now, we’re proud to say we’re growing our business from South Tyneside because the borough has a real spirit, a real buzz and a community of business people eager to support each other.” Businesses, having learned from past mistakes, no longer axe training and development in hard times.

“They recognise that if they want to achieve more with the same staff on less they have to upskill or multi-skill,” he says. They’re also realising that apprenticeships help find them future leaders. HarperCo practices what it preaches and has eight apprentices. Talent Training, specialising in apprenticeships, remains the biggest activity and Hargreaves, besides being group financial director, has been running Talent Training as managing director. Now a successor is nigh, freeing him to grow the group instead.

Two acquisitions are in the sights. David Harper’s service flair surfaced as a youngster in the Maryhill district of footballmad Glasgow where one of his parents supported Rangers, the other Celtic. He remembers: “I was in the middle and thought, ‘I’m not going to follow football – too complicated’.” Instead, on match days he traded outside nearby Firhill, home of Partick Thistle – better known to Billy Connolly as Partick Thistle Nil. He offered to mind fans’ cars for a quid.

“I was never one of the boys who damaged the cars of fans declining the service,” he hastily adds. The family moved to Prestwick when he was 14. By then he clearly wasn’t academic.

“I never engaged with school or education then,” he says. He left before he was 16. Luckily his parents had got him involved in dancing.

“I started training... thought I was brilliant as teachers and trainers in Scotland told me I was of a certain standard. I came to England for a trial with a world champion then realised how bad I was. It was cut-throat. My coach in England said, ‘Son, you can’t dance but train hard and you could be very good’.

“I had an option as my mum and dad drove me back; pretend I was very good and stay in Scotland, living in that little pond, or work hard and achieve something. I trained hard and achieved international standards and national championships. That took five years of blood, sweat and tears, training like an athlete. It brought me to Newcastle to dance with a champion and compete in world championships. I won an international championship. Dancing took over much of my life. Somebody asked: ‘Do you ever see yourself not dancing?’ I said ‘Never’. But you turn corners and things happen.

“Having achieved this standard, I decided I had to start earning money. Dancing was costly. My mum and dad believed in me and backed me. They remortgaged their house three times to support me. They handed me £200 a week – a lot of money from two people on minimum wage.” He worked for Kentucky Fried Chicken briefly to help repay them, but he had to move to Newcastle to train daily. So at 17 he entered a retail apprenticeship at House of Fraser in Gateshead. “I took dancing as far as I could,” he says.

“The arena became quite political. You have to pay to get on. It became untenable. But passion for dancing and music will always be in my heart.” He later saw an advertisement saying: “Are you Scottish? Can you sell?” Answers of “yes” and “I think so” got him his first “proper” interview.

“I hadn’t a suit to wear,” he says. “I went in a bright green shirt and Mickey Mouse tie. The guy took a punt. He must have seen a willingness, even a rawness.” Thus Harper sold advertising for Mansfield publishers W and J Linney, within an office in Sunderland.

“Selling space is the best training ground you could wish for to gain commercial awareness in sales,” he says. “If you can sell advertising you can sell most things. It was high pressure, high volume, fast pace, lots of activity. “And if you can sell recruitment advertising it’s the best training ground you can wish for. I learned key values. The harder you work, the luckier you get. I’ve heard someone else quote that. If you made more phone calls than colleagues you got more appointments, sold more stuff.” Then at 21 he met George Hayden. Harper says: “George offered real opportunity – I suppose an apprenticeship with mentors like him and some other phenomenally successful business people. Surround yourself with successful people and you’ll always do all right - I’ve heard that said too. It’s true.”