Driven: A Glimpse Into John Caudwell’s Private World

At Broughton Hall with John Caudwell, Phones4u entrepreneur.

The BB team made the transfer from Stafford station to Broughton Hall in a cab whose driver knows a thing or two about Caudwell (his daughter is the boss’ PA) and speaks of him with quite a bit of admiration mixed with local pride.

The Hall is in the midst of beautifully maintained gardens flanked by a modern building that houses a state of the art gym and a swimming pool. To the back are the helipad and the helicopter that John flies himself.

The Hall was home to elderly nuns once upon a time and had fallen in disrepair but the present owner has since had it restored and his eldest daughter Rebekah, a Chelsea-based interior designer, decorated it in a classic style. ‘Being my daughter I have trained her to give tremendous value. Rebekah can get great results at a fraction of the cost of another designer. She is a cost-effective interior designer.’

John Caudwell is perhaps best known for founding a wholesale mobile phone empire which he sold in late 2006 for £1.46 bn and more recently, for offering solid, no-nonsense business advice to those hopeful to follow in his footsteps.

The 3 hour conversational style interview reveals an unaffected man of considerable charm and energy, solid Northern, honest-to goodness business acumen and ethics, a passionate advocate for deprived and sick children and at the same time, someone who has earned a reputation for dare-devil sporting exploits such as cycling the gruelling L’Etape portion of the Tour de France alongside competitors half his age who undergo long, rigorous training.

I start by asking him about the difference between philanthropy and charity.

In his inimitable style he throws the question straight back at me and then elaborates:

There is a huge difference in the ways of providing charity. My concern is always to use money for the charity foundation as I would use it for myself – not just try to provide a person with short term solution but help others find a permanent one, rather than just give them handouts. And hope that the end results work…

This leads us on to his own charity, Caudwell Children, and how and why that was founded. ‘I started it 11 years ago. All I had done up to then was build my business and like most people, I didn’t exactly have this yearning ambition to do something charitable.

The NSPCC had asked me to help with an event for sexually abused children. I had a meeting with Lord Stafford who was involved with the event and was invited to look at some videos of abused children at one of the NSPCC centers, and the whole thing really got to my heart. I actually ended up taking over the whole event. But then, I realised that it is not just about sexually abused children – that there are lots of children in society that are born into a terribly bad situation – it is purely the luck of birth. There is nothing they can do to change their life. They are just saddled with whatever they are born with.

I started thinking, it is really so devastatingly unfair that they are brought into a life of misery. At least rich families have the means to be able to do what they need to help their children. It then became so apparent and appalling to me that some children are born with such terrible challenges in life, yet their parents have got no money whatsoever to provide for the most fundamental basic needs of their child. This is not a world that is acceptable. You have to do something about it. And that motivated me to set up my own charity, Caudwell Children. I’ve still carried on supporting other charities, but Caudwell Children became very close to my heart.

We just went out to try and help every child that we could find. In some cases we’d cure the problem, but in most cases, we’d just make the life of a child a lot better – a lot more sustainable and enjoyable. We have provided a huge amount of help like this.

Sometimes you come across a child whose expected lifespan is perhaps only 20 years no matter what you do, but you can enhance the quality of these 20 years massively. In one case I remember this child who had muscular atrophy (a degenerative muscle disease whose victims’ bones often struggle to realign). The child was sleeping on a mattress with wedges in it to hold the body in line while she was in bed. The cost of a special orthopedic mattress was £1000, but the parents couldn’t afford it, so the child had to have an operation every 2-3 years as a result. Her weak unsupported body deteriorated, – something that could have been reduced or avoided just by having the right equipment and that right equipment being simply a special mattress.

I am committed to paying all the administrative costs associated with the running of the Charity, so people who donate to the charity know that every pound goes directly to a child in need.

The trouble with donating to charities in general is that finding an organization that’s using the money properly and effectively is so very time-consuming. That is always the really big worry for donors. Whereas in my charity every pound donated is made to provide two pounds in value. All our people working for Caudwell Children are trained to negotiate with hotels, medics, airlines and other service providers to try and keep the costs down. This sends a very strong message across to potential donors.’

Do you go to a lot of charity events?

I go to as many as I can. Of course at this time of year it has been very busy. I always go to the Ark Ball, Elton John’s Ball and the summer ball of the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation.

John goes on to describe the memorable auction at the charity’s 2009 annual, even when he climbed to the auctioneer’s podium and challenged the revelers to match his bid of £250 000 for the star lot – dinner for two with Mikhail Gorbachev at his home in Russia.

BB Publications was there as we had donated two of the auction prizes and we remembered the electrifying moment well enough.

John narrates how, as moments elapsed and no one raised a hand to match his bid, he wondered if he had overplayed his hand. The day was saved by none other than the charity’s committee member Hugh Grant who matched the quarter of million bid and ended up sharing the prize with John.

Dinner with Gorbachev was amazing, says John – the former president spoke candidly of his political career and world leaders at the time: Thatcher, Reagan and others, whilst Hugh was in fine form issuing many searching and witty questions.

They also visited the main Moscow cancer hospital where the diagnostic ward was so old and the equipment so outdated that in curing the tumour, the treatment was also causing brain damage. The funds injection made a colossal difference, says John who recalls thinking at the time, “Here we are two Englishmen buying much needed equipment for a Russian hospital when there are so many wealthy Russians out there”.

john caudwell
Broughton Hall

Do wealthy people give out of sense of guilt, compelled to do so because they have such vast wealth?

I am sure with some people out there it would be guilt. There are all sorts of emotions. My personal emotion has nothing to do with guilt. It is just a feeling that I have to do it. It is different from guilt, although, I’d probably feel guilty if I did nothing. I feel great sadness to see people’s lives blighted by illness and I also feel that we, as a society, are required to help in a sustainable way. I can go to a charity event and get as much pleasure as I do from flying a helicopter, for example – because I am doing something meaningful. Doing something enjoyable is limited and of personal value only, whereas helping others is not only enjoyable, but has long-term, measurable results.

At a charity event, people go and have a great meal and a fabulous time. But one doesn’t get  the same sense of fulfillment as with helping improve life. You see kids who are struggling yet are so grateful for so little, and you think, they should not have been born with so many traumatic challenges in life.

Putting in a good word for Russian philanthropy, I mention Lev Tolstoy who gave a large portion of his inherited wealth away yet failed to alleviate poverty in any significant way.

It should be pure business, says John.

My charity is very business oriented. Your heart may go out to the children when you see them, but behind the scenes it’s just like any other business. It is hard driven and it is about providing the best possible result for that charity.

Do you think that philanthropy is integral to human nature or is it a cultural concept?

I think with the majority of people it is probably a cultural concept. But for me it is hard-wired and part of my personality. I recall having this vision when I still very young of being driven in a chauffeured Rolls Royce and handing out £5 notes to poor people. I come from a modest background and was very driven and ambitious, but it is weird how precociously my ambition had a strong element of philanthropy to it even at that early stage.

Assuming that you have a lot of different friends, do they have anything in common that you can identify?

I would say they are all good people. ‘Good’ is such a general concept but I don’t tend to have friends who have serious moral issues. There are people who are perceived as good and great by everyone around them but if I detect a personality flaw – something that is seriously negative – I won’t bother with them. I should point out that that does not apply to somebody who has already become a good friend.

What do your friends most like about you?

I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. If I have to guess, they might say probably that I am fundamentally a good person, that I do a lot more good than harm. But I might be way off base…I know they do enjoy being on my

What do you most value in friendship?

Friends are people whose company you enjoy. I like people who are active and fun and share my interests, my love of cycling and skiing, for example. Friends are also people who are supportive when it matters – as I am to them. I might not do the small things for them that other people could, but for things that are seriously important, I would be there for them and expect them to be there for me too.

Do curiosity and zest for life abate with age?

I think recklessness abates with age, but I am very lucky in that my zest for life is huge and I still want to do a lot of things – many more than I have time for. I am also adventurous and like a challenge.

I am doing the hardest stage of the Tour de France next week, which is a 110 miles ride with 14 000 feet of climb and in temperatures probably over 30 degrees. I have only just started training 4 weeks ago (most people train for months and are quite young). The main thing that scares me is the fleet of coaches and two police officers on motorbikes who ride behind the cyclists and take out the slow ones out of the race. I am 99% certain that I am not fast enough to stay ahead of them, but am doing it for Caudwell Children. People think I am being modest when I say this but they don’t realise the toughness of this challenge. Last year 6000 cyclists failed to do it.

Why is it important to break your own record and push yourself beyond the limit in general?

This is part of my nature – I don’t worry about beating other people (there are millions of people out there who can cycle faster than me), but I always want to do the best that I am capable of. I am also doing it for charity and that is ultimately the most important reason. So, it will challenge me to the limit and it’s for charity!

Is it important in general that people push themselves?

Some people live a very happy life without being challenged at all. If it works for them, that’s fine.

john caudwell
John Caudwell and Claire Johnson

Does it really matter how much you achieve in life?

Many successful people feel their children have to be equally high achievers – I always tell my children that what really matters to me is that they are happy, whilst of course, I would love them to be “go getters” as well.

Is constantly pushing the limits an integral part of the entrepreneurial mindset?

I don’t think it is. Some entrepreneurs are happy to bet. That was never me – once I made a bet I had to make it work. When I realised that some of my businesses weren’t going to work, I shut them down, but made sure everyone was paid.

No one has lost money as a result of dealing with me ever. As a customer, supplier or an employee I am a real big believer in that. I don’t like the entrepreneurial group of people who go out and do something until if it fails and call in the creditors. I am of the view that as an entrepreneur it is your responsibility to make sure that an idea is going to work.

What do you hold sacred?

Truthfulness. I hate dishonesty and I can’t deal with liars.

What scares you, if anything?

Not much these days, really. I get a little bit frightened of doing karaoke. The most frightening thing I have ever done in life is a bit difficult to convey, but I’ll try and describe it. I went for a drive on a mountain track with one of the top rally drivers in the UK, Guy Wilkes – a track that was washed and eaten away with huge great big trees on both sides. I have done a lot of racing in my life, not rally driving, but I have done motocross. I’ve raced cars. But sitting in that car going round the bends thinking there is no way that that guy could get the car around the next bend was absolutely terrifying – a virtually guaranteed death, or so I thought. When we came to the end and he said “do you want to do it again”, I felt I had to say “yes” but it was no less terrifying than the first time round. At least, the first time I thought I was lucky enough to have lived through it. Nothing else has come close to matching the experience, although I do have a company in Cape Town that flies the fastest civil aircraft in the world.

What do you find irritating?

I am a fast moving, fast thinking man so get irritated with things or people that are too slow. I am irritated by incompetence, especially if it is lazy incompetence. Involuntary incompetence due to the person not being able to do something through lack of skills is totally forgivable, but lazy incompetence gets me worked up every time.

Do you have a sense of mischief?

Yes, very much so.

On that note which nation or culture’s humour do you appreciate the most?

I suppose I have to say the British sense of humour, although you can only really judge other peoples humour if they speak English perfectly, or if you speak their language.

Do you have a favorite travel destination?

No, because all my travel is all based on a particular activity: I ski in Vail and I go boating in the Mediterranean, but the destination is not hugely important.

Do you have an addictive personality?

I wouldn’t say addictive – passionate and extreme some people might say, but not addictive. When I decided to do something I do it in an extreme way. Cycling for L’Etape is a good case in point – I had no time to train, so am starting cycling at 2 am tomorrow morning. When I decide I am going to do something I am determined to achieve it.

Sounds like you are an adrenaline addict.

I suppose I am an adrenaline addict, even if I don’t have the time to be, not to mention that I have broken too many bones over the years and the body’s creaking.

john caudwell

What type of activity do you enjoy the most?

Anything exciting! I enjoy doing things myself – it is often faster to do something yourself than find someone to do it for you. Of course you have to delegate in life but you have to know when to do it. For example, when it comes to flying a helicopter, I am not a better pilot than a professional but it is sometimes quicker to do it myself than to call on someone to fly it for me.

You have not one, but two megayachts. Tell me about them.

One is 58 meters, the other is 67 meters. Both were designed by Espen Oeino. I bought the first one six months ago, then immediately after I heard that another yacht was being auctioned off. I didn’t particularly want to buy another yacht, but decided to go to the auction just in case it went at a low price. The auction developed as a bidding war between just two people in the room – myself and another buyer. At one stage, I walked away from the bidding and bought a can of coke.

The auctioneer, who was also the owner of the yacht, thought I had quit and was panicking. Just then, I walked back and outbid the other buyer. I couldn’t resist a bargain.

You told me that you can captain them yourself. When did you do your qualification?

I did my yachtmaster’s 5 years ago. I have another yacht, a Sunseeker, which I sailed from Pool Harbour to Barcelona – that was my maiden voyage. I did the trip three times, in fact, and encountered every mortal hazard known to man – force 8 winds, fog, engine failure, gearbox failure… but this gave me a tremendous experience

What is the best advice you have ever been given?

I am not totally sure. I am very much my own person. It doesn’t mean I don’t learn from other people, but I learn from seeing what people do rather than what they say. Because what they say is often different from what they do!

What advice would you give to young graduates in these recession-ridden times?

I suppose it is the same old advice. You just have to put massive effort into getting a job. You should chase a job. People are always impressed by effort. Even if the effort is intrusive people always applaud it. That, and dedication… Quality education just shows that one has a measure of intelligence. It doesn’t show a potential employer to what extent you would dedicate yourself to the work.

What would you say is the most significant change in society in your lifetime?

It has got to be the internet. Internet and mobile phones have changed the way we communicate. About 30 years you would only go to a shop to buy something. Very few people do that now. Now you go online to make the purchase, or at least check the price. It has made commerce far more competitive and far more aggressive. The two together – the internet and the mobile phone – have transformed society beyond recognition.

Define happiness.

For me personally, happiness would be a combination between leading an active life – the challenges that keep me alert on a day to day basis – and more importantly, being surrounded by the people who are important to me.

There are always problems in life and nothing is as easy it seems from outside. But I am happy because overall my children are well balanced and good people. When your children are decent people, the world is a better place with them in it.