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Playing with matches

“In the past, marriage was for life, but people now are more independent and prepared to move from a relationship if it’s not perfect”.

Mary Balfour claims that successful people increasingly use specialists to help all aspects of their lives run smoothly.

“There are personal trainers to keep them fit, concierge services to find them a plumber, and introduction agencies to widen their social circle” she says. Which is why Drawing Down the Moon, a dating agency that caters for executives, is doing so well.

“People are more mobile, working abroad or travelling long distances and working long hours”. Balfour says. “As a third the population live on their own, there are few opportunities meet new people.”

Twenty-five years ago, Balfour, then head of a local adult education centre, was looking for a career change. “I wanted a job that I could do till I was 90. One day in Bloomsbury I saw a bookshop called Drawing Down the Moon, and above the door a flashing neon sign read ‘dating agency’. I always played matchmaker friends so it seemed like a good business idea.”

A year later Balfour bought the agency and moved it to Kensington — leaving behind the neon sign. Since 1985 the business has grown from 250 to 1,500 members – “the maximum size for a personal service”. Balfour did little to alter the established formula apart from changing one section of the questionnaire, which all clients must complete.

“The original questionnaire was quite bookish and we removed some of the more erudite questions. Nowadays one of the most defining questions is about food: a person’s response tells you a lot about them, including the focus of their home life and how cosmopolitan they are.”

The type of client has remained constant, mainly business and professional people. But while her clients may not vary in type, she’s found that their expectations have changed. “In the past, marriage was for life, but people are now more independent and prepared to move on from a relationship if it’s not perfect.”

Balfour is cagey about revealing her company’s turnover. She once quoted it in the FT. “Someone thought ‘This is a good way to make money’ and set up a copycat agency. It went bust.” The agency attracts 1,000 new clients a year, mainly through word of mouth paying from ?800 to ?7,000 for a range of services.

Last year Balfour bought Only Lunch, a package for executives who want everything about a lunch date arranged them, from the restaurant to the companion. And Balfour has recently launched www.loveandfriends.com as “internet dating for thinking people”. Avoiding the extravagant start-up costs of some dot-corns, the website was designed in-house at minimum cost. “It will never make megabucks, but it compliments our other services.”

The company’s 16 staff have one essential qualification: “Like me, they must all be passionate about happy endings.”