Going off-piste

Andrew Foyle was one of the few entrepreneurs to make a fortune before the dotcom bubble burst. Now he's building a new business, as well as a chalet in the Alps. Nick Britton reports.

For a brief moment in 2000, Andrew Foyle was hailed as one of the richest under-30s in Britain. His business, Argogroup, a networking specialist with clients including Vodafone and China Telecom, had just received an investment of £11 million from private equity investor Apax Partners, leading to talk of a nine-figure valuation for the company.

‘I was featured on various rich lists, but fortunately I never believed my own hype,’ says Foyle, who was smart or lucky enough to sell off most of the company to his investors before a sickening plunge in the Nasdaq heralded the dotcom crash. ‘I’m not claiming that I foresaw the crash, but I always feel it’s easier to sell when you’re climbing the ladder than when you’re falling down it.’

The decision has enabled Foyle to fund an affluent lifestyle, with regular trips to a chalet he owns in the French Alps, as well as start two new businesses. But he’s not entirely without regrets. Following Apax’s investment, Foyle was elevated to the role of technology evangelist, ‘moonlighting as a diplomat’ as he travelled across Asia, working with the British Council to promote UK interests. Though a pleasant enough role, it meant that he was a step removed from Argogroup as a new CEO was hired to run the day-to-day business.

‘If I hadn’t allowed that to happen, the company might have ended up in the same position, but I would rather have made the mistakes myself,’ he says.

Going it alone

Foyle left Argogroup in 2002 and founded Big Bus, providing educational content to schools. It didn’t work, but it did give him the idea for Black Lion Investments (now BLi Education), a consolidator of companies like Big Bus that would exploit economies of scale and offer educational institutions a more diverse range of products.

Foyle isn’t one for taking himself too seriously. A self-confessed bon viveur, his leisure interests centre on skiing, travelling and good food and wine. The skiing dates back to his childhood, as Foyle senior, a top executive with publisher J Wiley & Sons, used to take the family to Austria.

‘I still love off-piste skiing, down the backs of mountains,’ says Foyle. ‘It’s amazing how quickly you get away from anything, especially if the snow’s been falling and everything’s pristine and untouched. It’s hard to believe there is any civilisation anywhere near you.’

That said, he also admits that as he gets older, the appeal of skiing is much enhanced by the excellent food and wine that can be enjoyed at the end of it – ‘preferably sitting somewhere with a view of Mont Blanc’.

The chalet, which is in Megève near Chamonix, was purchased soon after the £11 million Apax investment in Argogroup. Naturally, it is fully wired up with broadband and is still a pleasant retreat for a few weeks each year, though Foyle and his wife are having a larger place built now that their 20-month-old son is on the scene. Foyle’s property investments in France, which also include a home he bought for his parents in the north of the country, are now worth more than £1 million – ‘It’s stopped me buying businesses that don’t work,’ he jokes.

A rolling stone…

Though France has a special hold on Foyle, he enjoys all travelling. ‘I still love airports – not the security, but the excitement of going somewhere,’ he says. For his honeymoon in 2005 he went to visit a Masai village in Kenya.

‘We went fishing in Lake Victoria and ate what we’d caught in the evening,’ he recalls fondly. ‘That was probably the most off-the-beaten-track I’ve ever been. Having said that, there was always someone wearing a Manchester United hat – it’s difficult to go off the beaten track without encountering one of our Premiership teams somewhere.’

Foyle has less time for leisure activities since the birth of his son, while BLi ‘is on a very significant upward curve’, with annual sales of £7 million. He doesn’t rule out retiring to the chalet if he successfully sells the company, but suspects that the lure of business would persist.

‘It probably wouldn’t be long before I’d start thinking, “I wonder if I could buy this bar and run it better” or “The queues here are always so long – there must be a better way of doing this!” I’d find something I could meddle in.’ 

Nick Britton

Lexus Ernser

Nick was the Managing Editor for growthbusiness.co.uk when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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