John Caudwell Interview: Answering the call to action

One of the UK’s most high-profile entrepreneurs, philanthropists and political donors, John Caudwell, former owner of Phones4U and the Caudwell Group, has published a very honest account of his life inside and outside business.

John Caudwell

One of the UK’s most high-profile entrepreneurs, philanthropists and political donors, John Caudwell, former owner of Phones4U and the Caudwell Group, has published a very honest account of his life inside and outside business. In an exclusive interview he tells us about his past, present and future…

It’s quite a statement for a man that is worth more than £1.5bn to say that is the ‘pain’ aspect of his newly published autobiography Love, Pain, and Money, rather than the last part of the title, that formed the most significant aspect of his life. 

It amounts to quite a lot. But that’s how John Caudwell views it. And he should know because he was there.

His tale contains tropes familiar to many business success stories of a tough Northern childhood, marked by early tragedy with the death of his father, various unsuccessful business ventures, years of graft to establish his biggest success – Phones4u – while losing relationships on the way. It also involves a disastrous flirtation with a hairpiece.

The appearance of his life story comes as he turns 70, so it seems like an entirely well-planned move, but it was another project that emerged from the thumb-twiddling months of the Covid lockdown.

“When the pandemic hit, I suddenly found myself with no weddings, no birthday parties, no charity events, no ability to travel to business meetings and life got severely curtailed, explains Caudwell. 

“I found myself, for the first time for 50 years, with days when I had only got a limited amount of things to do. And my days not packed with 16 hours of work. And it was a shock. It was a complete and utter shock. I might add, it was a shock that I actually subsequently came to enjoy. Because I’d worked so hard for so long for so many years, it was a habit, well, not a habit, it was necessary. It was necessary because of all the interests I had. 

“But suddenly, I thought, well, you know, people have been asking me to do an autobiography for 40 years, and I never had the time. So, why not?”

Survival instinct

The process, of course, dredged up memories that had been thought forgotten, buried, and dealt with. 

“It was an absolute emotional roller coaster,” he says, “and what became really obvious was, my life was full of love, full of pain, and full of money. Hence the title when we were wondering what to call it.

“Piers Morgan the other day in an interview I did with him said well, which was the most part of that was it love pain or money? And I said, probably pain, because I’m a bit of a masochist.”

If you want the deets of course, you will have to buy the book (all proceeds to charity), we’re not going over them here, but Caudwell feels that his early setbacks forged in him a determination to overcome adversity that would serve him well in his business career.

“When you’ve got huge challenges in life, it does one of two things, it scars you and leaves you damaged, or it makes you stronger. 

“I was in a meeting with Lord Shinkwin the other day, and he’s got an illness called brittle bone disease, which is a real challenge for him. Dreadful challenge. And we’re talking about charity, because we were both speaking last night at the Fortune Forum in the House of Lords. But we also then talked about what makes you stronger and more determined. And he said without doubt that his illness as a child and current illness, made him a fighter because he had to fight to survive. 

“In many respects, although I didn’t have that health challenge in life, I had to fight to survive. And I think when you learn that it’s a skill for the rest of your life, and it stands you in good stead. So, I think being born with a silver spoon in your mouth is actually quite a disadvantage. You might have other advantages, like a network of people that are connected, and it might get you success in other ways, but in terms of being a fighter to succeed solely in your own right, I think being born into a difficult environment is not a bad thing.

“But I also want to stress that I wouldn’t advocate it for people because a lot of people are damaged by a difficult upbringing and could be scarred and damaged for life.”

Influencing policy

His success in establishing Phones4U as one of the UK’s most successful high street retailers and the subsequent sale of the Singlepoint phone network to Vodafone for £405m, then later the entire Caudwell Group to equity investors for £1.46bn is well documented.

These days he is well known for his philanthropy; as a significant contributor to the Conservative Party and has plenty to say on Government policy, particularly in business.

Despite the donations, when it comes to the UK economy, however, he says he is apolitical with regards to policy.

“I’m not a loyal dyed in the wool Tory, I will support any party that I think has got absolutely the right policies for Britain. It doesn’t matter who the party is. The Tories have traditionally been that party. I hope they’ll be again under Rishi’s leadership now. And if they are, I’ll remain a Tory supporter, but not necessarily financially, it depends how good a job they do and how much help they need.”

“Somebody said on my social media the other day, it’s all very well saying and doing this, but a business is totally different to running the country. Nonsense, complete and utter nonsense. It’s exactly the same as my life. My life is about making the most amount of money I can, by investing in sensible commercial enterprise that grows my business. And that’s Britain. British business. 

“We need to grow British business. And then the social welfare of the country is equivalent to my charitable work. I can’t do my charitable work if I don’t make the money. The country can’t look after its poorer people if we don’t grow the economy. It’s identical. It’s just bigger scale. But in some respects, it’s easier because, you know, we can invest massively in inward investment, and really grow our GDP. And then when the GDP grows, use that for the benefit of the poorer members of society.”

Despite his involvement in politics and his efforts to advise on and influence economic policy, he has no desire to stand for parliament.

“I could not be a politician because I’ve got very clear views of what needs doing. I can’t tow any party line. I have been a conservative, in principle all my life, but it’s only because I follow their general principles and believe in them.”

Recovery reaction

His approach is perhaps more direct and able to react quicker than the machinery of government. The Caudwell Pandemic recovery scheme is a prime example.

“The centrepiece of that was to set up an environmental tax-free zone, to bring businesses from all over the world into our tax-free zone. Anybody that had got high technology products that were beneficial to the environment in the future. My argument for that was, because of the environmental situation, and the way we’ve got to go in life, if we invest in that now and turn part of Britain into the Silicon Valley of the environment, and all the high technology comes from around the world, it won’t cost the Government very much in the short term at all. 

“In the long term, these people become tax generators. But more importantly, as well as growing Britain’s GDP, it would be really instrumental in saving the planet. So, we’d have a technology centre and university in the centre of this enterprise zone, where we try and get a brain drain into Britain. And we interview companies who’ve got great technological innovations and we give them this tax-free status for a period of time, and perhaps forever, a reduced corporation tax. Because it’s where we’ve got to go, we’ve got to grow Britain’s GDP. And if you’re going to support any business issue, why wouldn’t you support (and I’m talking about from a tax revenue point of view) a business that is brought into Britain, and that’s going to help to save the catastrophe that’s waiting for us on the environment?”

John Caudwell
“This very British rags-to-riches success story is packed with personal insights and business acumen that’ll inspire aspiring billionaires.”

“Fight like mad”

Having been through a few recessions himself, Caudwell is not in denial about the country’s current economic mess, which feels never-ending but, perhaps it’s that survival instinct kicking in again, he believes that with the right approach the pain will eventually subside, and better times are ahead.

“The country does feel in decline right now. And maybe it has been for years, but the pace has certainly accelerated quite recently. 

“There’s no short-term fix. Anybody that thinks there is, is dreaming, because we’ve got the most disastrous set of circumstances that we’ve had for 20 years, we’ve got high inflation, which might mean high interest rates, we’ve got a recession coming along, that could even be a depression, although I’m not forecasting that but it’s going to be very, very tough times for everybody. 

“The government’s balance sheet is worse than it has ever been. So, every indicator is negative. We can’t float a lot more printed money, or quantitive easing into the situation. We can’t lower interest rates because of the situation with inflation. So, we are in a real mess at the moment and there’s not any levers to pull.

“For anybody that’s feeling depressed or feels that difficult times are ahead yes, there are for some of you very difficult times ahead. But don’t despair, fight like mad, do everything in your power to keep your business profitable, or at least not lose too much money, and if you can do all that, improve your productivity, improve everything that you’re doing, you’ll come through it. 

“And when the recession ends, which I forecast might be in about two years’ time. I’m not saying we’ll be in a recession for the whole two years, what I’m thinking is that we will be in growth in about two years’ time, interest rates will be coming back down, inflation will be down. And we’ll be in a better state of mind in two years’ time. And when you get through to those two years’ time, you’ve got good times to look forward to again.”

The Caudwell effect

Whatever the economic situation, it won’t stop him pushing ahead with his real passion in life which is his philanthropic work. He continues to back long-running projects and is creating new ventures to help those that need it. 

“Charity is massive in my life, you know, it’s most of my life. Caudwell Children helps children with every illness known to man. At the moment there are 654 different illnesses that we help children with. They’re all children that would not get the appropriate health help without us because the health service doesn’t do it. And other charities, mostly don’t do it. 

“So, you know if we didn’t exist and do this work, it would never happen. For instance, we’ve got the UK’s biggest and most advanced autism centre, which we built three years ago. In that centre, we can diagnose autism within days, and people can get in within weeks. So, the average length of time for somebody when they first contact us to get a diagnosis of autism or not autism is two or three months in total, from the time they contact us, it might even be less than that. The NHS takes years. 

“On average, kids in the NHS don’t get diagnosed within six or seven years. And then there’s no pathway to how they get through it. With Caudwell Children, they will get the diagnosis and a pathway, and they’ll get it instantaneously. This work is vital. 

“I have just set up a new charity, I’ve also got Caudwell Lyme Disease, incidentally, which was there to try and revolutionise the, the effect that Lyme disease has on people, which is a devastating illness, caused by a tick bite.”

You can’t take it with you

Beyond that, he wouldn’t be taking his role as a billionaire seriously if he wasn’t involved in one or two schemes of a more elaborate and glamourous nature including building a new set of luxury apartments in London.

“One Mayfair. My whole objective from day one has been to create the world’s most prestigious apartment building with 30 really amazing apartments, amazing architecture on the outside, amazing facilities, and inside amazing interior design. And I am very self-analytical. I don’t make these statements superfluously. It is my goal to make it the world’s most prestigious apartment block. At the moment I’m on target to achieve that.  

“So, I’m very excited about that because what I will have turned a very ugly, almost derelict multi story car park in South Audley Street in Mayfair into the world’s most beautiful set of apartments. So that’s very exciting. 

“I’m doing the same with a building in Cap D’antibes, which is called La Provencal which has stood derelict for about 40 years. And I’m now doing a similar model on that where it will be a beautifully restored building. Very prestigious. Right at the entrance to Cape D’Antibes. 

“And I’ve also got a marine project, which is very exciting, to have the world’s first successful, reliable, diesel outboard motor for boats. Now that might sound a bit behind the times because we’re moving to electric as a society, but for shipping and boats, we can dabble with electric and it will work to an extent, but it’s not the solution yet. So, for the next 10-15 years, for sure, we’re going to need diesel-powered craft. And an outboard motor is what all the single fuel users need. Anybody that’s running ships and boats and has got these tenders needs diesel power. 

“So that’s really exciting as well, for the future. So, lots that’s exciting going on business wise, but equally or even more exciting is what we’re trying to do from a philanthropic perspective.”

Oh, you want to hear about the episode with the wig, right? Well, you’ll have to buy the book then. It’s all for a good cause. 

This very British rags-to-riches success story is packed with personal insights and business acumen that’ll inspire aspiring billionaires.

John Caudwell will be donating his proceeds from the book to the Caudwell Children charity. Click here to order a copy today.

Ronnie Dungan
Ronnie Dungan

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