Features
6 Oct 2016 08:30am

Member profile: Simon Gordon

Simon Gordon inherited London’s oldest wine bar, but has pinned his hopes and fortunes on a facial recognition security system called Facewatch. He talks to Nick Kochan about his twin careers

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Caption: Why owner of London's oldest wine bar pinned his fortunes on a high tech venture

Owning and running a wine bar might appear an attractive business when the company pours out profits and is as established as Gordon’s, the legendary London establishment beside the River Thames near Embankment Tube station (clients include many PwC partners and staff, as the firm has a large office just around the corner).

But for Simon Gordon, one of six brothers, running the family business was not initally an attractive proposition. So, as a young man, he approached the finance director in his father’s wine importing business and asked him what he thought about the idea of training as an accountant. The colleague, a chartered accountant himself, said: “It will be too hard for you, it’s not your scene.” Gordon recalls: “That was enough to make me all the more determined to train and enter the profession.”

Other than helping his father in the wine bar, his only previous work experience had been as a mechanic. So he took a foundation course at Brighton Polytechnic before qualifying at Midgley Snelling in Holborn and then moving to Deloitte.

It has been incredibly hard to get it to this stage

“I enjoyed working for a small firm because you got to see the whole company and you did a little bit of everything,” says Gordon. “I really enjoyed the tax stuff and I came out with a lot of experience. Working for a big firm on fixed assets, I was just ticking boxes, it was a hell of a difference. I left after two years, the day after I got my practicing certificate.”

It was at City bank Arbuthnot Latham where he developed a fascination with technology. As a financial controller and then financial director for fund management companies linked to Arbuthnot Latham in the Channel Islands and Luxembourg, he was part of a team that devised and sold personal equity plans, the forerunner of ISAs. “It was a hugely exciting time, we were innovators and the products were going out the door. We were very successful,” he says. “I joined Skandia Life in 1990. It was a great time – we were breaking new ground and it was exciting.”

But when he was laid low by a number of bouts of severe depression, Gordon eventually decided to leave. He is frank about his illness, believing it may assist others in facing it. He explains: “I have had depression every three years in my life, now thankfully I don’t have it because I take medication. I am happy to talk about that stuff because I think it helps other people.

“You don’t realise it is happening to you and it is always triggered by a stressful incident. I left Skandia because I realised that I couldn’t work as a finance director when I was ill. I had managed to get through on previous occasions but all the time I was thinking, ‘I hate work’ and it made me nervous. When it came again, I realised what was happening and realised I had to change something. I couldn’t keep going. Two of my brothers had committed suicide. It really is a purely chemical thing you cannot escape.”

The family was looking for candidates to run the wine bar as Gordon’s father had recently died and, at his mother’s suggestion, he took over. When the local licensing officer drew to his attention the rising amount of theft from the premises and ordered him to install additional lighting outside the bar, he saw that his business could be at risk. Customers tended to congregate under umbrellas on the pathway outside – harsh new lighting would ruin the romantic vibe. But Gordon also saw an opportunity.

He wanted to trace the thieves and deter them. “I got fed up. I sat down one afternoon and went through every crime on the system for the last two years. I realised that the victims were not in our outside area but actually inside. The thieves went in one door and out the other. So I closed one of the doors and we have a security guard at the back door when it is busy. It has practically eradicated crime. These are really simple things. I have realised you can design out crime quite easily.”

I have something that is going to be absolutely huge

Gordon was inspired to set up a business aimed at eradicating retail theft. One problem was the length of time police took in responding to a crime report, as they insisted on collecting video footage from the premises where it had occurred. Even the police agreed that the system didn’t work. “I actually got the police to help. I sat down with the head of CCTV at the Met Police and I said: ‘It seems like a complete shambles. We give you CCTV but we never hear anything back.’”

Gordon wrestled with the problem for six years before launching, in 2010, an online programme called Facewatch. It enables a retailer to use the internet to send details of the theft to the police and to other retailers connected to the system in the area. “It provides a complete case file to the police, including a witness statement and video of the incident, and this is sent electronically.” More recently he has added facial recognition to his platform. Gordon has just applied for the global patent to be the central database for facial recognition worldwide and says the system has now been bought by Brazilian police.

Facewatch is approved both by the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. It is also used by many businesses and even museums. Harrods uses Facewatch, as does the Southern Co-operative Group, where crime in its 240 stores has fallen by 40%. Gordon says the system “creates a good relationship between the police and business”. Both Theresa May, when home secretary – “I spent 30 minutes with her and she was enthusiastic” – and Sir Bernard Hogan Howe, the Met commissioner, have seen it in action.

Gordon says £5m has been invested in Facewatch, much of it his own money, although he has been backed by James Macpherson, the CEO of Blackrock, and Nick Fisher, a former CEO of Dixons International. Non-executive directors include Lord Jonathan Evans, the former head of MI5. In March 2015, Gordon used Crowd Cube to raise £1.5m. He retains 60% of the shares.

“It has been incredibly hard to get it to this stage. I invested all my cash, I mortgaged the house, I had outside investors. But when this is out there, the data that we will have will be like no-one has had before. I have something that is going to be absolutely huge.”

The company is expected to move into profit at the end of the year. A good time, then, to dive into the family wine bar and open a bottle of his favourite red, Chateau Talbot, a nice Bordeaux with “old and savoury flavours”.

Career in a nutshell

2010: Chairman and founder, Facewatch UK 2003: CEO, Gordon’s Wine Bar 1990-2003: Group accountant, Skandia
Life UK Group

1986-1990: Finance director, Royal Trust Asset Management

1983-1986: Group accountant, Arbuthnot Savory Milln Holdings/Royal Trust International

1981-1983: Staff accountant, Deloitte Haskins & Sells

1977-1981: Accountancy trainee, Midgley Snelling & Company

1974-1976: Bar staff, Gordon’s Wine Bar

Nick Kochan

 

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