Magazine article Management Today

Stepping out Alone without Treading on Toes

Magazine article Management Today

Stepping out Alone without Treading on Toes

Article excerpt

If you want to quit your job to start your own business, it's best to play fair by your present employer, says Nigel Cope. Check your contract and be sure to leave on good terms

Everybody, or virtually everybody, fantasises at some point about breaking out from the constraints of salaried employment and setting up their own business. For most potential entrepreneurs it is the ultimate commercial dream. It offers freedom, control and excitement. It can also offer the chance to make some serious money.

It is natural, too, for these individuals to start up in the same line of business as their former employers. After all, it's the industry they know, in which they have useful contacts and commercial expertise. But how do you strike out on your own without alienating your former employer or, worse still, landing yourself in a legal minefield? How can you manage the process of departure so that the transition is relatively smooth and painless for both parties, while avoiding the heartache of broken friendships and bank-breaking solicitors' fees?

Early planning and professional advice can help, says Penny Christie, partner with legal firm Bird & Bird. 'There are a lot of things that need to be borne in mind. Non-compete clauses are the obvious one and are very common in the service sector in areas such as advertising, recruitment and so on. But people also need to be sure they don't jump the gun, either during their notice period or before. You have to be patient and not start work on your own business while you are still working for the old one.'

These are issues of which Stuart Hopson Jones is all too aware. A serial entrepreneur whose previous business interests include salmon wholesaling, fashion Sales and music management, he is now a successful restaurateur. But the floppy-haired, former Gordonstoun pupil did not skip happily down the path to entrepreneurial success without a few stumbles on the way.

Restaurants have proved the 34-year-old's passion. Helped by a friendly recruitment consultant, he landed a job in the early 1990s with Sir Terence Conran's restaurant group, which had already opened Le Pont de La Tour by London's Tower Bridge and was busy working on its next project, Quaglino's.

Hopson Jones was taken on as assistant to the managing director, with a brief that included the organisation of new sites, undertaking feasibility studies, co-ordinating budgets and so on. 'I said to them at the time that I would want to set up on my own. I have always wanted to run my own business.' But he ended up staying for nearly five years.

Then Hopson Jones and his younger brother, Angus, bought a potential restaurant site in Clapham Old Town in south London and his dream developed a darker edge. 'They found out what I was doing and sacked me just like that,' says Hopson Jones. 'They said that if I was going to open my own restaurant and hadn't handed in my notice, that meant I was going to do it all on company time.'

Hopson Jones pressed on while pursuing an industrial tribunal case for wrongful dismissal. Friends and family rallied round and, by chance, he met a Salomon Brothers trader, who after a brief chat wrote him a [pounds]30,000 cheque on the bonnet of a car. Fourteen weeks after Hopson Jones left Conran, the two brothers had opened the Polygon Bar and Grill to warm reviews.

His dispute with his former employers ended when the Conran Group settled for an undisclosed sum just before the industrial tribunal date. But the problems didn't end there. When setting up Polygon, he found that some of Conran's suppliers would not do business with him. '1 thought it was a bit petty, but I just had to accept it and go elsewhere,' he says.

Any rancour now seems to have faded. 'I still see Sir Terence occasionally. I wouldn't go as far as to say that he is supportive but I think he understands.' With hindsight, Hopson Jones stresses the importance of trying to manage the departure well in order to reduce the chance of unnecessary aggravation. …

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