By Richard Bell in entrepreneurship on 16 Nov 2015

Peter Done has decades of experience in business. In the late ‘60s he co-founded Betfred, the Warrington-headquartered bookie chain, but today he stands at the helm of Peninsula Business Services, helping thousands of companies across the UK strengthen their HR and health and safety departments.

Peninsula saw its beginnings in the early ‘80s after Peter identified a gap in the employment law market.

“A business that we were running at the time had an employment tribunal,” Peter explained. “We duly employed a solicitor and followed his advice. At the door of the court, we were advised to settle the case for a considerable amount of money, which really disappointed us, as we believed we’d followed the procedures to the letter.”

“To rub salt into the wound, we then received a large bill from the solicitor, for what we considered to be poor advice.”

He added: “So we knew there was a gap in the market. From this second-rate experience with a supposed expert in his field, we set about devising what became the Peninsula system.”

25 years later I’m still there and absolutely love the business

For Peter, the experience at the tribunal stood as an example of how SMEs need ongoing, consistent help in this area.

“So from installing contracts of employment for SMEs,” he continued, “to ensuring compliance (in other words, getting the base right); from providing 24-hour employment advice at no extra charge, to offering a complete guarantee that if a business has an employment tribunal, we advise, hold your hand every step of the way and cover the cost of the litigation and any potential awards; that’s basically the Peninsula model in a nutshell.”

Peter put the firm’s immediate success with SMEs down to its simplicity and a genuine need for its services.

Since its inception more than 30 years ago, Peninsula has grown to encompass 30k members employing over 1m people. The business itself has 1,700 members of staff and now boasts offices in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Australia.

Going back to Peter’s time at Betfred, I asked how the experience of founding one of the best known bookmakers in the country informed what he does today at Peninsula.

“I moved across from Betfred originally through necessity,” he told me. “We’d invested in Peninsula but the initial plan was to run it at arm’s length. However it became clear pretty quickly that the people we employed to run the business needed some extra ‘hands on’ help, particularly in the sales and marketing area and in making strategic business decisions. So I was seconded there for six months to put the business on a level footing.

“And 25 years later I’m still there and absolutely love the business.”

The experience he brought with him from Betfred, he said, was “invaluable”.

It’s a brutal business if you don’t get it absolutely right

He went on to explain how running a large bookmaking organisation is, in his eyes, one of the most challenging business experiences possible.

“It’s a fantastic grounding for any entrepreneur,” he said. “You learn a bit of everything, across the commercial arena, and it’s a brutal business if you don’t get it absolutely right. A fantastic training ground.”

The basic principles underlying entrepreneurship are the same no matter what size business you’re running, and the same is probably true for staff wellbeing and health and safety. But do the methods in which businesses address these issues differ from startup to corporation?

When I asked Peter, he said: “The major differences are that the large organisations have in-house expertise; for example an HR director on site, a business safety professional and in many cases, occupational health specialists. But small businesses have exactly the same problems with their employees.

“The only difference is that they can’t employ a dedicated team of professionals to deal with these issues.”

This, he said, is where Peninsula comes into the equation, serving as the equivalent of an in-house team for SME clients.

Right now, the business’ main challenge is simply to improve its services, something which Peter said is “absolutely key in what is now a very competitive market”.

He added: “We do that by incremental improvements, day in, day out, and we continually review our policies, procedures and personnel to encourage that pursuit of ongoing improvement.”

Looking ahead, it seems Peninsula has a number of interesting developments on the horizon. In June this year, the firm bolstered Health Assured, its EAP (employee assistance programme) company, by acquiring the EAP business of professional services firm Capita plc.

Of that transaction, Peter said: “We are still in the process of integrating these businesses and this has effectively doubled the size of our EAP business.”

In other developments, Peninsula recently launched Bright HR, its new HR software service geared towards small businesses.

“We envisage [Bright HR] will be market leader, both in the UK and potentially worldwide in the HR field,” Peter said with confidence.

In May, before I joined Bdaily, I read about Peninsula Business Services hiring for 50 graduate roles. I was interested in knowing more about the recruitment drive, so I asked Peter what led to the decision to take on so many graduates.

“We prefer to start and train our own people in the Peninsula way,” he said, “so that the commitment to service that we believe in is part of their mind-set from the very start.

The Australian business has been a tremendous success so […] we are expanding into the New Zealand market.

“We have found through past experience that when we recruit young, energetic, intelligent graduates and put them through with our extensive training programme, then tend to stay longer with us and add a huge amount of value to the company and its culture.”

I’m not surprised by Peter’s claims concerning staff retention. Last week, I reported on Peninsula’s glowing status as one of the best finance and consultancy employers in the UK, according to a new ranking from the Financial Times and employee review website Glassdoor.

Peter continued: “We’re doing the same thing in Australia now as it’s been so successful here and also, on the business safety side, we’re hiring an intake of graduates from that field reflecting what we’ve done in employment law.

“We’ve expanded our office in Hinckley and, to deal specifically with Scotland and Scottish employment issues, we’ve opened an office in Glasgow. The Australian business has been a tremendous success so from April 1 [next year] we are expanding into the New Zealand market.”

Given the company’s solid growth strategy and Peter’s passion for his business, I’ve no doubt that the next few years hold a lot in store for Peninsula.