After Hurtwood… Nik Goncharov, Entrepreneurial Businessman (from security hardware to escape rooms)
So, it’s an extremely dreary and very wet early October day, with secondwave COVID-19 lockdown threats very much in the air, what a joy it was to catch up with the charismatic and highly focused Nik Goncharov. Despite a patchy signal (‘I’m in the countryside’, he tells me) we have a great chat which is optimistic and inspirational, and an extremely comforting affirmation of all we try to achieve at Hurtwood.
Before we get down to the details of Nik’s journey, we fill in a rough sense of his ten years since leaving us in 2010, and the fact that I am now teaching his ‘little’ sister Alexandra who is already impressing us in Literature. One of the many privileges, I tell him, of teaching at Hurtwood over the last three decades has been the glorious global mix of students, studying here in a second language, and the cross-cultural enrichment which works both ways between teachers and pupils. How lovely than to catch up with one of our amazingly talented Russian students.
Nik’s brilliance, however, did not run to the study of Literature; his skillset is of another kind. Economics, History, Media and AS Maths A levels took him onto a degree in Business Management at St Mary’s in London and then the intriguingly varied and impressive business portfolio which he is sharing with us now.
Nik is both honest and pragmatic in acknowledging that his degree covered ‘everything and nothing’, and that he should have worked harder and pushed towards an institution and degree that stretched him more. It is becoming clear that one of Nik’s strengths is a promising kind of detached self-evaluation, and far from learning ‘nothing’, he was clearly absorbing the importance of personal autonomy, particularly in terms of a career. He admits that he should have spent ‘less time chasing girls in the common room,’ and more on his studies, but I find myself thinking that certain pursuits are ordinary, especially as school draws to a close, and are part of the growth.
With his degree complete, Nik raced back to his beloved Russia, to join his father’s security hardware business in Moscow and earn his spurs from the bottom up. Starting on the warehouse floor, and working his way through departments and roles - training, testing and sales - he began to learn the ropes. A year on and he was unsurprisingly restless. As he explains a number of times, a great blessing for him are parents who have encouraged him from the start to work for what he wants, providing him with love and support as well as the wherewithal for progress through education and opportunity. Success is something he has had to earn for himself, and he did not hang about. Looking for his own universe, he explored a number of fields. After a couple of false starts, he found himself back once again in the UK, and taking as his starting point the virtually symbolic London office of the family company, he began to build his own concern, a new subsidiary business which has very much dominated his life ever since.
Easy it was not, he tells me: ‘The UK market is very difficult to penetrate, and often very conservative. We had to compete with the kind of brand loyalty earned over more than 100 years, in some cases.’ For the next two years and more, Nik’s objective was to establish his company, Apecs, in a highly competitive field, as a manufacturer in the UK market. The company found itself working initially with established brands, developing relationships, and trust, building a reputation, finding a niche. Meanwhile, ongoing analysis of the market was honing down the most interesting products that they could offer in their own right. The aim was something ‘competitive and stand-out' for a range of products that would harness the know-how of their engineers, as well as the input of the Bejiing office, and Shanghai manufacturers. Over the next two years, they launched their first Apecs products, and in 2017 a whole new era began. Nik had found his form.
It has been a hard few years it seems, but Nik’s pride in establishing this business is very apparent, praising the strong team that he has established in the London office at the heart of sales, marketing and PR. Over the following years, Apecs has established a clear brand awareness, and won over business through the excellence of their products, quality, and most importantly, customer service. This is where he feels they really excel. Most recently, they have just opened a new distribution centre in the Midlands, adding further layers of expertise, support and polish. The balance between the needs of partners, suppliers and customers, alongside a necessary realignment of his comfortable living bubble in London, which is why I find him in the country, has clearly been a challenging one. But with a quiet modesty Nik makes clear that despite a world-wide pandemic, he has good cause for business optimism. The company is making its mark with real success hard-won and satisfyingly strategic, but with much more to achieve in this field.
So back to the portfolio, and Nik’s energetic career journey: ready now for something completely different, perhaps? In 2016, he amalgamated with an old pal to launch a new venture, this time into the high-tech and fully automated world of the ‘escape room’ market, founding ‘AIM Escape Rooms’ and bringing a new level of sophistication to the British scene. Sensing a gap in the market, and establishing themselves in Aldgate East in London, from the start they offered something that changed the game, if you’ll excuse the pun. More challenging and intriguing, they delivered enjoyable recreation, as well as a discernible value to a fundamentally corporate market. As a fully signed up claustrophobe, it sounds like my worst nightmare! I can however see the potential satisfactions within a game-hungry populace for experience and competitive challenge, alongside team-building and general entertainment value. Once again, Nik’s quiet modesty is mixed with satisfaction at the speed with which the business has grown, with clients right across the board from Facebook and Google, to CocaCola and Hewlett Packard. From ‘Spy Heroes’ to the ‘Psychopaths’ Den’, these entertainments offer an extraordinary range of age and taste experiences, and their website positively bubbles with amazing testimonials. TimeOut London praises them as a ‘Wondrous update on the escape room craze’. Restaurant chain Honest Burgers incorporated them within their interview assessment process. The possibilities seem positively endless, and once the cloud of the pandemic clears, ‘Aim Escapes’ seems poised for continuing success. How has he managed both concerns? ‘Without holidays and not much time off at weekends or evenings.’ Also, it seems, by withdrawing from day to day pressures a while ago into his role as co-founder and CEO, he was able to keep the drive and focus on Apecs. Talking of which, it is time to get on with the business of the day.
So, what about the years with us in the Surrey hills? ‘I always think of Hurtwood,’ he bounces back with that lovely enthusiasm. ‘It changed me. My perception, everything. I remember it as the most incredible time.’ Without drawing breath he enlarges on how the work ethic, the encouragement to work hard and play hard, to make the most of everything that is on offer, is what has stayed with him. That, plus a raft of ‘friends all over the world’. He waxes lyrical about the staff and their advice. Housemasters Ian and Ted are ‘absolute legends’ who cajoled, entertained and inspired him, and the teachers did the same. One, James Blackwell, he singles out for the totally mesmerising History classes that made him (self-confessedly not an academic student) hungry for learning and excelling. Praise indeed for us all.
It has been a real pleasure to catch up with Nik, poised and ready for the challenges of our strange world. With a varied portfolio and loads of talent and energy, he seems ready to negotiate the troubled waters of the business environment, even as the world turns on its strange axis in 2020. Confident yet modest, he is a testament to making the most of circumstance and opportunity, through application and sheer hard work. Oh, and a sense of fun! Listening to Nik, it is clear that he thoroughly enjoys his working life and all its challenges. Good to catch up with you, Nik. Keep the Hurtwood flag flying, and don’t forget to come back and see us soon!