One of the UK’s most famous angel investors, serial entrepreneur and star of bbc2’s Dragons’ Den, Peter Jones talks about his business empire and the secrets that connect all successful entrepreneurs
Fun facts about Peter Jones CBE, as listed on his website, include the information that he has 12 chickens, size 14 feet and rates his friend Robbie Williams as the world’s best entertainer.
Incongruously, perhaps, Peter Jones is one of Britain’s best-known and respected entrepreneurs, with a proven record of making excellent judgements that lead to hugely-profitable investments. Peter’s fortune is estimated at around half a billion pounds, derived from investment in more than 50 businesses, ranging from telecoms and leisure to publishing, media and recruitment.
The self-made multi-millionaire has been a household name since his first appearance on BBC2’s Dragons’ Den in 2005, which led to some of his most famous SME investment success stories, such as the musical Levi Roots with his spicy Reggae Reggae Sauce, who, as Peter says, “went from having nothing to becoming a millionaire”. Such statements almost make it sound as though it is easy to emulate Peter’s – or Levi’s – success, and that the world of the millionaire’s playground is in reach of us all.
After a relatively-normal childhood, early on, Peter demonstrated a confidence and self-belief surprising in someone so young. He was sitting at his father’s desk dreaming of global business at an age when most teenagers are thinking about the freedoms that might be theirs if they could only clear up their acne and get their hands on a Vauxhall Corsa.
“Both my parents worked full-time for over 50 years to provide the family with as much as they could,” he states. “We never went without, but I always yearned for more. I wanted to do the best I could, knowing that one day I was going to be a multi-millionaire.”
To achieve this goal, he began by running his own tennis academy. A passion for the sport led to him watching how his local academy was run and learning the mechanics of the business behind it. “Eventually,” he says, “I got to the point where I thought I could do it myself, so that’s what I did. After completing the Lawn Tennis Association’s coaching exams, I set up my own tennis coaching school. This allowed me to combine the two subjects I loved the most: sport and economics. It was the start of my entrepreneurial journey.”
By the time he was 22, Peter was living the dream. He had his own home with new cars parked in the driveway and was married to his first wife, Caroline. But things slowly began to go wrong. He set up a computer business manufacturing PCs under his own name, but the 1990s recession sent the business under. “The reason I lost the business was naivety,” he has said since, “I had an opportunity to take out credit insurance, but didn’t. Companies I was supplying started to go bust, then I got hit. It was like a snowball.”
He says: “I’ve certainly learnt there’s nothing more important than cash. Cash-flow issues are one of the biggest causes of company failures. These days I have a great finance team across my group who focus on making sure we are not exposed.”
Along with his business, he lost his home, his cars and his marriage. Meanwhile, he had opened a cocktail bar in Windsor, based on the Tom Cruise film, Cocktail. He described it as a fun experience, but it too eventually led to him losing money – £200,000, in fact, when he had to sell it. At almost 30, he was sleeping on a mattress on the floor in his office. But he hadn’t given up.
In April 1998, using experience from his time spent working at technology company Siemens Nixdorf, he set up a telecoms business, Phones International Group, providing wireless mobile solutions to a broad range of clients. He had struck gold. The company accounted for £14 million of sales in the first year of trading and £44 million by the end of the second. Peter was awarded The Times/Ernst & Young Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year.
Peter isn’t shy of talking about the benefits that money can bring, either. When asked by The Telegraph whether money actually brings happiness, he replied, “I’ve read a lot of people answer this saying no, and that money doesn’t make you happier, but I disagree. I’ve been in the situation where I didn’t have enough money and I really felt it. Having it has led to the happiest moments in my life – as soon as I could afford to, I told my mother she didn’t have to work any more. I said I would give her more each year than she was currently earning so she didn’t have to work past the age of 70. That was a really satisfying thing to do.”
“As soon as I could afford to, I told my mother she didn’t have to work any more. That was a really satisfying thing to do”
Peter is rarely out of the spotlight, and through his production company, Peter Jones TV, he worked with Simon Cowell’s SiCo and FreemantleMedia to create a new business reality show, American Inventor, for the US. This was followed by Tycoon, based on the American Inventor format, which aired on ITV. It was presented by Peter as he set off in search of new entrepreneurs across Britain with ideas that he could invest in and help get into the market. He also shot Peter Jones Meets… for the BBC, in which he met some of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs to get into the DNA of what made them millionaires. He went on to appear on US TV screens in a show called Save Our Business, where he used his expertise to help struggling businesses turn around their fortunes.
This investment in others was rewarded in 2009, when Peter was made a CBE for services to business, enterprise and young people. It’s a worthy recognition for the time he spends focusing on unlocking Britain’s young entrepreneurial talent by revolutionising enterprise education through the Peter Jones Foundation. That year he successfully launched the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy (PJEA), which today has around 30 colleges nationwide. It’s the first-ever UK educational organisation dedicated solely to enterprise and entrepreneurship, training the next generation of aspiring tycoons, with a philosophy of ‘learning by doing’.
As part of his mission to put enterprise at the heart of education, Peter went on to launch a brand-new campaign – Tycoon in Schools. With the ultimate goal of getting a business started in every school in the UK, the Peter Jones Foundation provided schools with up to £1,000 of investment so students could start and run their own business within the month of November, a project that turned out to be a huge success.
For young entrepreneurs, he recommends some key factors vital when starting a new enterprise. These include thorough research about the marketplace, a concise business plan featuring key objectives and forecasts, talking to as many people as possible to gauge interest and meeting important contacts – and, above all, working on an idea that is close to your heart. “I passionately believe that you should start a company that you really believe in,” he says. “Don’t start something that you have no interest in, start something that you’re passionate about.”
Dragons’ Den has connected Peter with a rich seam of business opportunities. In the most recent series, he invested in Spencer Turner and his business Tegology, which owns the rights to Tegstove, a camping stove that uses a Thermoelectric Generator (TEG) to produce an electrical current, which can be used at any time to charge mobile phones, tablets and GPS equipment.
He also jumped at the chance to invest in Yogiyo, the UK’s first range of authentic Korean sauces, after company founders, Ben Ansah and Sue Youn, wowed him with their cooking and dipping sauces, which celebrate the boldest and most popular flavours in Korean cooking.
After a bidding war in the Den, Peter secured a 33% share of the business for a £50,000 investment, saying, “What appealed to me most with Yogiyo was how Ben and Sue have taken their genuine passion and talent for the food from their heritage and turned it into a credible and marketable brand that has come along exactly at the right time for the UK. I truly believe this is going to be a great success.”
Today, Peter’s business interests generate sales of more than £250 million and employ more than 1,000 people. He is very much an example of one of the mantras he lives by: “Believe in yourself, never give up, and go about your business with passion, drive and enthusiasm.”
It’s no surprise that this most famous of entrepreneurs has nearly a million followers on Twitter, some of whom are surely destined to follow in his footsteps as stars of the business world. Or, perhaps, they’re simply his mates, just like that rebellious one who left Take That…