How I Made It
STEVE SIMS was not the most obvious candidate to become the head of an American luxury concierge service that caters for the whims of business executives and celebrities.
Born and brought up in Ireland, he left school at 14 to work for his father’s construction firm. From the age of 16 he went to technological college but still spent three days a week on a building site.
His leisure time was devoted to motorbikes, fighting with the British kickboxing squad and “going down the wrong path”.
One day, however, his girlfriend told him he should change his ways and Sims realised he wanted to do more than fight, build and drink beer.
He managed to get a job in the financial-services division of American Express, but was told that, as the only non- graduate, his starting salary would be a third of that paid to other new recruits. He supplemented his wages by delivering cakes to supermarkets in the morning before going to work.
His next job was as a runner for a London stockbroker — where he spent a large part of his time fetching sandwiches and coffee. So when a colleague was offered a job in Hong Kong and turned it down, Sims decided to ask for it.
He got the posting, but the day after he arrived in Hong Kong the company was taken over and he was out of a job. His new boss offered him a position in Bangkok, so that was where Sims went.
He became a successful banker and started wooing clients by getting them tickets to exclusive parties or events. It went so well that he started a club for clients and friends, sometimes giving them silly passwords to get into functions.
He said: “A very wealthy person would turn up and have to say ‘Sponge Bob Squarepants’ at the door. We had guys worth billions walking up and whispering ‘Green Fish’.”
Looking for a change of scenery after Bangkok, Sims moved back to Britain but didn’t like it. He had visited America many times to see clients and decided to try his luck there. He headed for Florida, got a work permit and started a Palm Beach company offering personalised travel, transport and restaurant bookings.
He said: “My move to America was a retreat at first, yet many clients I had helped before asked me to do more for them.”
At that time, he said, there were no concierge companies to compete with. Starting his business required little capital, and he could rely on his networking skills. He decided to call his company Bluefish — a password he had once used to get clients into events.
Sims started by providing services to bankers, but soon had celebrities, athletes and chief executives as clients. They would call him if they wanted to go to the Cannes film festival, for example, or after-show parties in private lounges and catwalk shows. He would organise the flights and extras such as providing borrowed Cartier jewellery for a night out.
As his company has grown, so have his clients’ demands. One spent $500,000 for eight people to play golf in Scotland. Others have asked to hang out with Formula One drivers in the pits.
One client wanted to fulfil her husband’s ultimate fantasy and turn him into James Bond for the day. Sims arranged for the husband to be flown to Nice, where he was picked up by an actor playing the villain, and taken to the Hermitage Hotel where 007 has stayed.
“We used Monaco as a backdrop, and had people shadowing him the whole time. In St Tropez he was kidnapped by sexy women in black latex outfits, with plastic guns and taken to the harbour and onto Octopussy.” The client was eventually rescued by US Navy Seals.
Sims, 38, attributes his success partly to realising early on that if “you want to catch fish (and clients) you have to go where the fish feed. It’s a simple idea, but many people didn’t do it,” he said. “In many ways we are the ultimate travel agency, rental-car company and ticket brokerage house combined into one because we can secure impossible reservations at the finest restaurants, set up VIP access to the hottest clubs and events or line up private charter flights in every city round the world.”
Unlike other reservation companies, however, Bluefish is not membership-based. Sims said: “If we don’t like you, we are not working with you.”
The strategy has worked. Bluefish now has 75 employees in America and 250 consultants worldwide. It is expected to make a profit of more than $1m on sales of $5m this year. Sims plans to open an office in London in November and expects that business to match the American operation eventually.
Sims, who still owns 100% of the company and ended up marrying the girl who told him to change his ways, said his advice to others starting out was not to give up too easily. He said: “People fold too early. They listen to the bluff and think they need to walk away, especially if they are under financial strain. But my advice is, you don’t always have to go forward. You can sometimes go sideways.”
Sunday Times, London August 15, 2004
Concierge firm caters for every whim of the rich