Gary Martin had made his first million by the age of 17. Now, he’s turning around other firms in a TV show ... The businessman most admired by Gary Martin is Donald Trump, the property magnate and star of the US version of the hit television series The Apprentice.
And while he may still only be 26, the Londonderry man already has a multi-million pound company to his credit as well as running several companies with annual turnovers in the millions.
From when he was a teenager, Gary was already showing his promise as a businessman, as he helped run a nightclub when he was only 15, bought his first property at the age of 16 and by the age of 19 had accumulated a joint share in a multi-million property portfolio in Northern Ireland.
With a hairstyle that may one day rival Trump’s famous quiff, Gary has now begun establishing a media profile and possibly creating a future career in TV punditry as a business expert in the mould of Lord Sugar, star of the UK’s The Apprentice. Already, he is one of the new stars of an independently-produced show, Million Dollar Intern, which is currently on BBC Watch on the Sky network.
The premise of the show is a well-worn one with a twist; Gary is one of six highly successful and articulate young millionaire entrepreneurs who work as interns in troubled businesses to get an insight into the issues before ‘revealing’ themselves and offering advice as to how to re-engerise the business.
London-based Gary was initially contracted to appear in one of the 10 shows but such was his ‘TV gold’ quality that he ended up doing three programmes.
Indeed, in one memorable scene, he interrupts one business owner’s “correct me if I’m wrong” retort, by replying in his clear Derry accent: “Just let me stop you there, for you are wrong.”
Nevertheless, he has certainly helped more than hindered the businesses he worked with, although he admits to finding the experience challenging.
"You land in and realise that these businesses are seriously in trouble, that these people are crumbling, mentally and emotionally, and they need help," he says.
"Then you realise that you have to sort them out with something; whether or not it looks good on camera, we need to make sure that these guys don't go bankrupt. Although I may only be seen speaking to the business owners for a minute or two on the show, those conversations were three to four hours long in reality."
Not only has Gary become the breakout star of the show – he's been approached by other television companies about other shows – he's also ended up dating one of the producers he met while filming last summer, although he declines to name her "in case she kills me".
What the show does not make clear is that Gary's considerable success comes as part of a formidable duo, as he is joint managing director of Martin Construction & Development along with his 29-year-old brother, Paul Jr.
The pair, sons of Paul and Bridgin Martin, showed an interest and aptitude for business from an early age, which was fostered and encouraged by their father who ran a successful construction company in the North West. A younger brother, Mike (20), now also works for the group, and concentrates on running several of their e-commerce businesses.
"Ever since I can remember, I was always interested in business and buying and selling things," says Gary. "My dad gave me a Richard Branson book when I was about 10 years old. I was intrigued by all the adventures an entrepreneur could go on, so I decided this is what I wanted to do with my life."
He and Paul started small, running a car boot stall and a fruit machine business. Then, when Gary was just 15 and Paul was 18, their father threw down the business gauntlet, asking them to run a nightclub he had bought until he was ready to redevelop it into office accommodation.
Although Gary was technically not allowed to be on the licensed premises after 9pm, the brothers turned Fusion nightclub in Derry into one of the busiest clubs in Northern Ireland.
Gary also took £7,000 of his own savings to help buy his first property. Purchasing it for £45,000, he went on to sell it within weeks for £86,000. He spent the next three years developing the property company, making his first million by the age of 17.
Despite all that, the former St Columb's College student is modest about his achievements, crediting his father for his success in business.
"He basically came from nothing and was a builder with a huge amount of expertise and reputation. He's the real genius of the family, we are standing on his shoulders.
"I spoke to my family and thought it over a lot before I agreed to do the show as it's obviously putting me in the limelight, which also puts them in the limelight to a degree.
"As a family, we've always tried to keep our reputation quite strong. My dad's always had a very good reputation and I realise that if we did anything that affected that, it jeopardises anything he's doing as well.
"When you watch programmes like The Apprentice, you want to make sure you are going to be portrayed in your true light. I think that a lot of those shows are for entertainment purposes and I was initially concerned about that.
"However, I was happy with the first programme we did, on the History Studios business – where they do portraits of people wearing historical costumes – and thought it was a fair enough reflection."
Gary will back on our screens this Thursday as an intern working in a book and coffee shop in Nantwich in Manchester, having already kicked off the series by working in the aforementioned historical photographic business. He'll also will be appearing for the third time on August 21 as the intern for a pet food supply business called Pet Paks.
His big media break came when he was spotted by a producer after a story appeared in a national newspaper last year about him and a few other entrepreneurs with the headline 'Young, gifted and rolling in it'.
"The producers didn't want a pair of brothers to appear so it ended up with just me, though Paul's a lot nicer and shyer than I am," he says.
Paul leads the property development company in Derry while Gary runs the London side of the business, where it is fast developing into a major player in its own right.
Gary believes that one of their greatest achievements was not only making it through the property crash of 2007, but actually thriving.
"Myself and Paul started off buying and selling houses in Derry and had a residential trading business from 2004. We built it up mainly in the North West and had a residential estate agency business called Trinity as well.
"When the market fell apart in 2007, we sold off a lot of properties while managing to retain a good portfolio.
"I think that why we survived was that we were very proactive in 2007. We were slightly ahead of the game but had no idea that it would be as bad as it was.
"I think that's why the banks that were working with us lent us money; we weren't burying our heads in the sand and saying 'Let's wait until the market comes back', we knew we needed to do something fast.
"We looked at doing two things – diversifying into different businesses and spreading ourselves geographically, so we chose going into construction and getting into the London market.
"Coming out of the credit crunch at home, it almost gave us a certain element of desire to get back in and be active again. The attraction with London is it is very busy compared to Northern Ireland so I went in with all guns blazing as we would normally do."
For Gary, it wasn't the question of his age that was an issue when he tried to establish a company in London but the fact that he was an unknown player in a very crowded and often cut-throat market.
"I always get asked if the age thing was a problem but generally no ... at least not after people see that you are talking sense and you have some credibility," he says.
He first established a construction company in London in 2010, building small projects for other larger developers in order to establish a reputation for delivery, as well as making contacts.
"Having that building arm really gives us strength," says Gary.
"When I looked at London, I thought 'How the bloody hell are we going to get into this market as there is just so much competition?'.
"We decided to build for other people as that would give us a base of people with expertise on the ground, to help get us contacts and connections while setting up the office.
"We started off doing small extensions and very quickly this led us to building for a couple of larger companies. We work for two main people – Galliard Homes and the Howard de Walden Estate.
"The rationale behind that was to get involved with companies who we knew would be able to pay their bills at the end of the day and there would be ongoing work coming our way.
"I now have a team which delivers all the construction work while my job is going out to seek new partnerships and new developments. I could be looking at half a dozen properties a day. I'll go and do the numbers on them and assess what we can buy it for, the refurb numbers and what are the resale values, talking to banks and arranging debt."
It's a level of success that the firm is happy to bring back to Northern Ireland as Gary says he is already investing some of the £50m pot that his high-net worth business contacts are willing and happy to bring to the province.
"I'm always selling the story of Northern Ireland as I really believe it is such a great place and there's such great opportunities there," he says.
"Several billionaire individuals have come and looked around over the last six months with me. They see the potential here, too, and that's really exciting as well for us.
"We know the place better than anywhere else, we love it, so we are keen to be doing more things there and partnering with these people has allowed us to do it.
"The one thing that the property slump taught us is that anything is possible and I think that now we probably realise how much we don't know compared to what we do know. It has made us quite cautious and able to protect ourselves from the downside should the market change again."
Baking, Branson and thinking big
Q How old were you when you started your first business?
I was 12 or 13 when I got into business, initially baking cakes and selling them door-to-door. But my parents have told me that it started long before this, and that I was always trying out little ventures even before I really knew what I was doing.
Q What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve been offered?
Success leaves clues — find them and copy them. Business is not rocket science — there’s a formula to it. With enough hard work and by cracking the formula, it’s just a matter of time before it works.
Q Who do you admire in business?
I admire anyone who has the guts to set up a business and stick with it through thick and thin. Whether it's a shopkeeper on the corner of the street or Richard Branson, the challenges are all the same — the numbers are just a little different. Donald Trump is a particular favourite of mine because of his successes in the world of property and the brand he has built.
Q What does it take to build and maintain a successful business?
You have to work at a business every day. It’s like going to the gym — you can’t go once and think you’re going to be fit for life, it needs to be consistent. On top of hard work and persistence, you need to have the right strategy and be able to make changes quickly so you can stay up to speed with where your sector is going.
Q What is your motto?
Hold yourself to a higher standard than anyone else would ever expect of you. As Donald Trump said: “If you are going to be thinking, you might as well think big!”