Stephen Fear’s story is an old-fashioned success story: the kind of inspirational example one might use to motivate young people. In fact, Fear is living proof that neither social disadvantage nor age and inexperience need be obstacles to success.
Now a multimillionaire, Stephen Fear was just 15 years old when he embarked upon his business enterprise. A chance encounter with an article in the Financial Times prompted him to make a telephone call to an American cleaning product manufacturer. That call, made from a red phonebox on the council estate where he lived, was the first step towards establishing his own commercial oven cleaning business. It was also the origin of the nickname he acquired some time later, The Phonebox Millionaire.
That tale of Stephen’s early foray into business has entered into the canon of entrepreneurial legend, along with Victor Kiam’s being so impressed by an electric shaver that he bought the company, and Jobs and Wozniak building early Apple computers in a garage. However, the anecdote does prompt one question: what was a 15-year-old boy from a Bristol council estate doing reading the FT?
“I always read anything I could get my hands on, so it was natural that I would read the papers I was delivering on my paper round. I have been an avid reader of the FT and The Economist since I was 12 years old because the standard of journalism on both is outstanding. I also used to speed read most of the other papers in my bag, including the Daily Mirror, The Sketch, the Daily Mail and the Express. An unusual one was the Morning Star which is the socialist newspaper. I always felt it important to be informed in a balanced way and, thanks to my mother teaching me speed reading techniques at a very young age, I am able to process information quickly.”
A few years later, Stephen sold the cleaning business that had grown from that initial phonebox deal. The profit he made from that sale enabled him to invest in property. Subsequent success in that sector provided opportunities to diversify and expand. The result of that growth is Fear Group, an international organisation of which Stephen Fear is chairman. The business, run by Stephen and his son, Leon, has interests in multiple markets and sectors ranging from green technology, hotels, residential care and manufacturing, spanning the UK, Europe, North America and Asia Pacific.
The acquisition of such a broad portfolio must have involved some deep thinking. The association with green technologies suggests that perhaps Fear Group’s activities are not driven by profit alone.
“Our business decisions are based on balancing commerciality with ethics. We consider whether society will benefit, as well as ourselves. If the two match, we move forward to the proof of concept stage.”
Social issues occupy a significant part of Stephen Fear’s attentions. He is patron of Emmaus, a charity that seeks to reduce homelessness by providing not only accommodation but also employment. Furthermore, the charity recycles large qualities of furniture and household items that it sells in its retail outlets, thus making a significant contribution to reducing landfill.
“I had lunch with HM The Queen and HRH Prince Philip during Her Majesty’s Jubilee Year and afterwards, I met Dr Richard Pendlebury who was CEO of Emmaus at the time. I knew that Terry Waite, the former envoy to The Archbishop of Canterbury, was president of the charity and, of course, that The Duchess of Cornwall was Royal Patron. Richard and I got on well immediately and through the evolving friendship, he asked me to be a patron. Homelessness is an issue close to my heart so I readily accepted. Emmaus is a wonderful charity which helps homeless people to help themselves.”
Through nature, nurture or both, Stephen’s son Leon has inherited his father’s flair for business. Another early starter, Leon’s first business venture was buying and selling mountain bikes and bike parts while he was still at school. At weekends, he would go out with his father to view plots of land that were being considered for purchase. This seeded an interest in the property side of things and, at the age of 19, Leon joined the family business. Initially working in construction, Leon later worked in property management and development. He now oversees the group’s property interests. Like Stephen, Leon regularly writes business articles for magazines and newspapers.
Another interest common to both father and son is personal car registrations. Stephen’s Mercedes SL500 AMG Sport bears his 831 SF number plate, while Leon’s Mercedes AMG C63 displays 45 LF.
“I have always loved cars,” says Leon, “so I decided to buy 45 LF, almost 12 years ago for the BMW M3 that I bought a month after my 21st birthday, just having concluded a successful property deal. My mum and step mum also have personal number plates.
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