The first time Penny Streeter tried to set up her own recruitment agency it went horribly wrong. Buoyed by her success as a branch manager working for another agency, she borrowed £30,000 to rent luxury offices in Croydon and confidently set up in business with her mother. But it was 1989 and within three months of opening, the recession hit, and demand for her services dried up, leaving her heavily overborrowed and spiraling into debt.
She says: ‘I took very expensive offices and fitted them out from top to bottom with everything I could possibly get. Fancy photocopiers, big desks, designer chairs – you name it. We tried to work as hard as we could but I had over-extended on cash from day one, so when the business started to go backward my cash flow projections went right out of the window.
It was just a vicious circle from there on.’ She struggled on for two years but in 1991 had to close the business, losing every penny of the £30,000 she had invested, including £10,000 she had borrowed from her mother. Streeter says: ‘We lost everything. It was terrible.
It was basically due to having a lack of business experience. I thought that because I had always been a success I would continue to be a success. But the reality was somewhat different.’ Born in Zimbabwe and brought up in South Africa, Streeter came to England at the age of 16 and went to work as a trainee in an office before becoming a beauty therapist.
She soon realized it was not for her, however, and when she walked into a recruitment agency she was offered a job on the spot as a consultant. Streeter flourished and was quickly promoted to branch manager, recruiting her mother to run the other agency owned by the company before deciding to go it alone. When their business failed in 1991 Streeter briefly returned to South Africa to help her sister run a cabaret restaurant. But when her youngest child caught meningitis she came back to Britain to build a new life here. This time, however, it was in different circumstances.
She says: ‘I came back to the UK absolutely penniless. I was at complete rock bottom.’ After months of struggling she decided to get a job in recruitment. But after being interviewed for several positions she realized she wanted to try her hand at starting up her own agency again. ‘My mother told me not to be ridiculous. But I knew I could do it. I felt that I had nothing to lose.’
This time around, however, Streeter did things differently. Instead of swish offices and luxury cars, a friend who ran a motor business lent her a small desk in the corner of his office. She explains: ‘I had no money and I didn’t want to go to the bank because I thought they would laugh me out of the door.’ She and her mother worked alternate days so that they could share the care of her children, and in the first few years money was so tight that to make ends meet they worked every weekend as DJs at children’s parties.
They started off offering secretarial recruitment but as the business grew they expanded into supplying staff for the financial services sector. Streeter says: ‘The difference this time was that I was very cautious about what we were doing. I made sure we built up strong relationships with the people we were recruiting for and listened to exactly what they wanted.’
She also ran the company in a very different way. She says: ‘I learned not to waste money. The company was run with maximum cost control.’ In 1996 she decided to move onto the high street and changed the name of the company to Ambition. Then one day she was asked to supply care assistants to a nursing home and suddenly realized that the company had stumbled on an untapped market. Streeter explains: ‘It is absolutely essential for a nursing home or residential home to have access to good staff and that they are able to get them immediately because they are like a hotel that never closes.
Streeter, 41, puts her success down to sheer hard work. She says: ‘Successful people are the ones who don’t switch off from their business. They are the ones who are continually thinking of new ways to move their company forward.’