“the city is starting to recognise what technology is all about” — hugh campbell, gp bullhoundBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
It’s 1999, and the oily, colourful expanse known as the dotcom bubble has reached its limit. It hovers, lazy and expectant, its kaleidoscope skin stretched to the edge of curved existence, ready to pop.
Hugh Campbell, aged twenty-six, is about to quit his job at Goldman Sachs in London. His plan: to start a company with his father, in Beijing. He doesn’t know it yet, but in less than two years that company will fail. He doesn’t know it yet, but the dotcom bubble will burst with the sound of a million champagne glasses hitting the floor of a marble foyer.
In 1999, he doesn’t know that, one day, he’ll be helping to create unicorns from an office on a street called New York in Manchester.
At 1 New York Street, in a building that looks like it’s made from glass Jenga blocks, is the Manchester office for boutique investment bank GP Bullhound. In 2016, this is where Hugh Campbell works when he’s not working from GP Bullhound’s offices in London, San Francisco, Stockholm, Berlin or Paris. This is where he works when he’s not working in Beijing or Tokyo or Dubai, or somewhere in between in the clouds.
Hugh Campbell, aged forty-four, is a moderately tall man with a tall-man presence; he occupies space with a quiet confidence, with the stature of someone who has looked good in suits all his life. He has light hair and light eyes; he looks like someone who enjoys winter sports regardless of whether or not there’s an après-ski.
Hugh exudes the formal ease of an international entrepreneur. He looks like the kind of person who goes from plane to Uber to boardroom to a lounge, for a beer or two, to relax after the million pound deal he just made after a sixteen hour flight. Hugh probably has some kind of local in most major cities across the world. He is probably as polite and unpretentious to the bartender as he is to his clients, family, colleagues and friends; as he was to us, on the day we met him in Manchester.
Hugh talks a lot about Europe, and about being European. His family would spend their holidays at La Chapelle, a farmhouse they bought in Loir-et-Cher, France. When they weren’t in France, they were in Knutsford — a town fourteen miles from Manchester — where Hugh grew up.
Hugh studied at Manchester Grammar School, an independent day school with a generous record of successful alumni, colloquially known as the school’s ‘Old Mancs’. Hugh’s father, Nigel, was an academic at Manchester Business School with a keen interest in China. His mother, Freydis, trained as a physio. In 1979, Freydis and Nigel began Pastest, a medical book publishing company of which Hugh is now Chairman. Hugh has one brother named Gillon, who is a strategist for his own design company in London.
Hugh talks about having an entrepreneurial family, but it is also a literary one. His mother’s family owned John Murray Publishers, an English publishing company founded in 1768 in London. Seven generations of John Murrays ran the family company; John Murray the first was born in Edinburgh, worked as a Royal Marines officer and published the English Review, a London literary magazine. He was preceded by his son, John Murray II — the most notorious John Murray — who transformed his drawing room at 50 Albemarle Street in West London into a meeting room for his authors, including Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Washington Irving and Sir Walter Scott. When Lord Byron died, John Murray participated in a famously destructive act of literary sympathy: burning Byron’s memoirs to save the poet’s reputation from their scandalous content.
In our interview with Hugh, in his office on New York Street, he doesn’t mention John Murray II. He does tell us that the company published Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species; when we looked into it later, we learned that the credit for that is due to John Murray III, who also wrote and published a series of travelling guides under the title Murray’s Handbook for Travellers.
Hugh studied Philosophy, Physiology and Psychology at the University of Oxford. He calls them the “P.P.P’s”; he tells us he dropped philosophy “pretty quickly.”
“So I was more scientist than artist,” says Hugh. “Psychology and physiology was great — it’s really around brain and behaviour, which is really good when you’re working with entrepreneurs.”
When Hugh graduated from Oxford he moved to London. He talks about being “a bit like Dick Whittington,” and about the draw of the capital city to an entrepreneurial young man from Knutsford.
“I spent very little time in London growing up, and it seemed to be the place where, as least as a graduate, you went straight away,” says Hugh.
“Of course, it wasn’t as expensive as it is today.”
Hugh wanted to begin his career, and make money, right away. “My degree was very interesting, but it wasn’t a career degree,” says Hugh. “It wasn’t accountancy or finance or law. And so I went on the milk round.”
Dressed in his best suit and tie, with CV in hand, Hugh met with accountants, consultants and investment banks, trying to convince someone to give him a job. He got one offer (“So, that makes your decision easier,” he laughs) from Citibank, where he joined their graduate programme. For the next two years Hugh worked in the centre of London, near London Bridge, and learned how to become an investment banker.
After two years, he was hired by Goldman Sachs.
“I was very lucky,” says Hugh. “It was the dotcom boom, and lots of businesses, mostly tech businesses, were floating on the stock market. Goldman Sachs floated themselves in 1999, and although I was very junior they gave me some stock options in the firm.
“Enough for a little nest egg, which was great.”
Hugh was 26. He decided to resign.
It’s 2001. The filmy, effervescent world of dotcom dreams is slowly melting away like a puddle of diesel draining through the gutter.
Hugh Campbell, aged twenty-seven, has just returned to London from Beijing, where he co-founded his first company with his father — a digital marketing business, matching Chinese students with MBA programmes in Europe. Despite their combined efforts and experience, it’s failing.
“Through that process I experienced firsthand what it was like to be an entrepreneur, to go out and try and raise money; maybe made even more difficult when you try to do that with your father,” says Hugh, laughing. “It was good fun but it didn’t work.
“The result of that was we made a pitch to Gorilla Park.”
Gorilla Park was an Amsterdam-based, pan-European technology incubator, founded in late 1999, back when the proliferation of new tech companies seemed unstoppable. In 2001, when Hugh made his pitch, the world was different. Gorilla Park didn’t like Hugh’s pitch — but they liked Hugh.
“They called me up the next day and said, listen: this isn’t going to work. This business of yours isn’t fundable,” says Hugh. “At that time the dotcom market was turning, the crash had begun, all of the dotcoms were fading away to obscurity. And they said, listen: what we really like is that you’re entrepreneurial and you know about finance and deals. And what we really need at Gorilla Park right now is somebody to help us work with the investments we’ve made and either close them down, raise money for them or sell them.”
It was at Gorilla Park that Hugh met Manish Madhvani, another twenty-something entrepreneur, with investment bank experience at Barclays. Together, they decided to start their own investment bank. Less than a year later, they met with two twenty-something Swedish investment bankers, and GP Bullhound was formed.
“We didn’t have any dependents, I don’t think we had any mortgages; so in that sense we were footloose and fancy-free,” says Hugh. “I think we felt that we’d been very well-trained by the big banks, particularly in the US, and we felt like this was our time. This was a huge opportunity to have a massive impact on the European tech ecosystem.”
The company began in an office off Brick Lane. The four co-founders made cold calls and attended conferences; they even bought fake glasses to make themselves look mature in an old world of finance and investment.
“People didn’t know us,” says Hugh. “Ultimately in our industry it’s a trust-based decision. Entrepreneurs hire us because they trust us. They trust that we’ll look after their company and deliver the finance or the transaction that they really need.
“In some ways we were a bit lucky, because at that time in Europe, there were no homegrown investment banks focused on tech. The people that had been advising entrepreneurs had been from the USA, and after the crash they were either very discredited or they went bust. The European entrepreneurs who had been busy coding away, building their companies, needed a new firm. They needed a new brand with new blood: Europeans, to help them grow a successful business. And that’s what we were: two Brits, and two Swedes.
“And now we’re thirteen languages and ten nationalities, but with Europe very much at the centre of what we do.”
It’s 2016; the forecast for the tech sector is one thousand Lush bath bombs dropped from a spaceship on a rainy day. Everything smells good and looks better and we’re all taking photos and the future looks prismatic and bright. GP Bullhound is an international investment bank with offices all over the world. They’ve worked with million and billion pound clients like RealityMine and Spotify; they’ve helped entrepreneurs sell their companies to Facebook, GoPro and Snapchat. In January GP Bullhound will be opening their Hong Kong office, their first headquarters in Asia. And they’re helping companies become unicorns.
We ask Hugh to tell us his role in this, and he says, “Part deal maker, part psychologist, part consultant and part emotional supporter.
“We help people with what is an emotional journey,” he explains. “It’s not a quick journey either; it takes ten to fifteen years to grow a truly successful business in the technology space. You never become an overnight success.”
Hugh says there are four things GP Bullhound does to help entrepreneurs; and then he leans forward, like he’s going to tell a story. If it was a story, we imagine it would be titled something deceivingly easy, like: The Four Things.
Thing One, or what Hugh calls: the first piece.
“That first piece is about research and events,” says Hugh. “We write about the company in research, and run a whole load of events so that entrepreneurs can become better plugged in.”
Entrepreneur is connected, they’re getting their name out there. Check.
Thing Two, GP Bullhound helps a pretty big company get the funding they need to get bigger.
“We help them when they’re about to break out,” says Hugh. “In many cases the entrepreneurs are looking to internationalise their business; maybe it’s to the Far East, to the US, into Germany.”
When we say magic we meant really meant magic, because Thing Two is helping our entrepreneur pal raise ten million pounds; if they don’t need ten million, they’re not worth working with.
“So that’s quite a financing round,” says Hugh. “This company has probably proven that there’s something about them, and they want to put fuel in the engine.”
Thing Three: or what Hugh calls “The Other Piece of the Puzzle,” happens five to ten years later, when the entrepreneur is looking to sell their successful company. And GP Bullhound is there to help.
“At that point many of the entrepreneurs we work with become quite wealthy, which in many cases isn’t why they started the business,” says Hugh.
“But it’s a nice product of success,”
Thing Four: our dear entrepreneur is rolling in it. But they aren’t satisfied.
“And we say to them listen, this isn’t the end of the journey,” says Hugh. “For many of our entrepreneurs, they’re between thirty-five and fifty-five years old; they’re young to be so successful. And they’ve got a lot of energy and passion and many of them want to do it again.
“So we say, why don’t you take a little bit of your fortune and put it into our fund, and through that fund we can give you exposure to new investment opportunities and new career opportunities.
“So for us there’s a bit of a virtuous circle here that I’m trying to paint. We write, research and run events to build profile. We help them raise the money they need to expand. At five to ten years later we help them sell the company and crystalise their wealth, and then through that we help them invest that money back into the tech community that they are so passionate about.”
But GP Bullhound does more than that; what it really wants is to help create unicorns.
“The definition of a unicorn is a company that’s worth over a billion dollars, that has been created since 2000,” says Hugh. “The phrase was coined in Silicon Valley by a venture capitalist back in 2013 to explain to people in a very simple way, mainly in the media, how successful the technology industry was.”
Some of the world’s top unicorns include brands like Snapchat, Pinterest, Dropbox and Uber. Many of the world’s best-known unicorns are American; GP Bullhound is trying to change that.
“We do a piece of research every year, mostly focused on European unicorns, which of course is a sector in the region that we’re very passionate about. And what that tries to do is raise the profile of successful technology business in Europe today. When we published the research two years ago most people thought there were maybe five unicorns in Europe, and actually today there are over forty.
“We haven’t created as many unicorns in Europe as they have in the US, and I think we’ll always be in catchup mode there. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t successful. And to have created forty businesses that are worth a billion dollars in the last fifteen years is tremendous success.”
When Hugh co-founded GP Bullhound, he didn’t imagine that his international offices would include a building on a street called New York in Manchester.
When we ask Hugh about his move back to Manchester, he reminds us not to be too sentimental; “I mean, we would not have opened an office here and moved back here if we didn’t feel we could make it into a significant economic success for the whole of GP Bullhound.”
That puts Manchester in the company, and client-base, of tech cities like San Francisco, Berlin, Paris and Hong Kong. But it’s not just Manchester; Hugh and GP Bullhound are interested in the other cities in the UK making a name in the tech scene.
“Across the north now I think there are thirteen companies worth a billion dollars in technology,” says Hugh. “And that’s a very unknown fact. Great companies like Boohoo over here in the North West, Sky Bet in Leeds, and Sage in Newcastle. We have a truly exciting ecosystem that’s just at the beginning.”
But tech cities in the north aren’t coming together as a whole, which Hugh believes would help create a stronger northern tech ecosystem that would bring in even more investment to the region.
“The individual cities are building but they’re not connected together. And so we set about trying to change that; not just by doing deals and making investments, but actually building assets to help entrepreneurs.”
GP Bullhound built a Northern Tech Map; a digital map that helps users find tech companies in the north. They’ve also created the Northern Tech awards, an annual “Oscar ceremony,” says Hugh, for the best tech companies in the region.
“It brings together the fifty most successful private technology businesses, and puts them on a pedestal for the world to celebrate,” says Hugh.
But there’s a reason that out of all of these cities GP Bullhound picked Manchester; and it’s not sentimental.
“I think Manchester has a tremendous opportunity to become a top five city in Europe for technology,” says Hugh. “If we think about the transport infrastructure, you can get a direct flight to Beijing, San Francisco, Boston, New York. And this is a fantastic opportunity for entrepreneurs here to have access, not just to London and Leeds but to a much more global community of customers.”
Hugh tells us about the successful tech entrepreneurs in Manchester; the aspirational figures a place needs to inspire others to give it a shot. He talks about the university; the scientists, engineers and maths students who will continue the tech story. He talks about the youthful dynamism of the city, a place full of cafés and bars; a place that didn’t look the same when he first left it.
“And then of course we have a strong public and private partnership in the city, with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority,” he says. “That’s very exciting for entrepreneurs. The city is starting to recognise what technology is all about and starting to implement policy and structures to help these companies succeed.
“What we have a bit of but we always need to get more of is investment. A lot of the money still sits in London, and we need to work hard as a group to get that money on the move, whether that’s in New York or in Hong Kong or in London. They need to know there are great companies being built in the city today.”
Today, in 2016. Hugh Campbell, aged 44, will help open GP Bullhound’s office in Hong Kong. He knows what it feels like to help an entrepreneur become a multi-millionaire. He knows what a billion dollar company looks like, before it’s even hit ten million.
And he knows what it will take for Manchester to become a top five city in Europe for technology. He’ll help do it in a building that looks like it’s made from glass Jenga blocks, on a street named New York in Manchester. A place where some of the north’s best tech companies go, in the hopes that one day, they’ll become unicorns.
Originally published in The City Talking: Manchester — issue 04