Fine art collector, philanthropist and a benefactor to the royal academy of arts and the V&A museum. the John Madejski Fine Rooms at Burlington House were named after him in recognition of his contribution to the institution and the John Madejski Garden at the V&A was opened in 2005.
With swish cars, luxury hotels, art collection and a football club, Sir John Madejski may appear to be your run-of-the-mill multimillionaire. His wealth was built not on stocks or banking though, but magazines. He came up with the idea whilst reading one on holiday in Florida and decided to take the concept to the UK with The Thames Valley Trader. Eventually the idea was pared down to just selling cars and became Auto Trader, a brand that was soon franchised worldwide and allowed Madejski to found a publishing empire. Although the idea might appear deceptively simple, without Madejski’s drive, fueled he says by ‘a fear of failure’, and his personability, it could not have blossomed in the same way.
Indeed on meeting him it soon becomes obvious that this is not a man covered with ostentation -he does not speak in hyperbole – just someone happy with their success, and happy to re-invest that in the community. Amongst his charitable ventures is the Sir John Madejski Academy, which he rates as, ‘the best thing I have ever done’ as a result of the ‘sense of belonging’ it affords the students. He is concerned that the imagination of students has to be captured at a young age in order to ensure they live up to the potential that can so easily be lost.
His shrewd business sense is most evident with his investments in the art market, where even the most astute can be tripped-up by sudden changes of taste.
Madejski, for instance, recently sold a degas sculpture, ‘Le Petit danseuse’ for £11.8 million, having bought it for only £5.6m. Perhaps it is his classical preferences that help in this regard. He finds much modern art to be irretrievably abstract, gallery goers spending more time reading the explanatory text and ‘pretending to understand it’ than focusing on the works themselves. He is not impressed by the trend in much modern art to deliberately shock as this ‘stretches the boundaries of reasonability and taste.’ This isn’t to say that he has an innate prejudice against modern art; he just prefers art where the skill of the artist is evident, and on this condition is a fan of Dali.
Overall he views art as a very subjective experience, and therefore his desire to have as much art on show to the viewing public is evident. He paid for the restoration of the John Madejski fine rooms at The Royal Academy of Arts in London, which houses portraits of early academicians, and sponsors galleries in Reading and at The Royal Palm Hotel in the Galapagos Islands, and well as paying for the renovation of the garden at The Victoria and Albert Museum. He says ‘it is sad when art sits in vaults’ and doesn’t agree with quality art being boarded away in private collections (Madejski had his degas sculpture on permanent exhibition in The Royal Academy). However he is mindful that even the majority of works held by most large galleries are rarely on display and laments that, ‘a huge amount of art is never viewed by anyone.’ Perhaps if more private art collectors were as mindful as Madejski to the public importance of their collections this situation could be reversed.
Another area where it is notoriously difficult for the moneyed to gain profit, and even harder to gain popularity, is in the ownership of sports clubs. Madejski has incredibly done both in his 20 year tenure as chairman of Reading Football club. When he took over they languished in the third tier of English football and played in an increasingly dilapidated stadium that would have made an NFL owner laugh.
Under Madejski the club has enjoyed a number of seasons in the Premiership, and has a modern stadium (named after Madejski) complete with The Millennium Hotel, and The Royal Berkshire conference center, and leased by Premiership rugby club London Irish. The club has even developed a classier nick-name, now being known as ‘The Royals’ instead of ‘The Biscuit Men’. Madejski is particularity proud of how the club has achieved success through ‘the production of local talent’ and how the club has become, ‘the heart of the local community.’ However he appears to believe that the involvement of money in sport is getting over the top, branding the spending spree of Manchester city’s Abu dhabi owners as, ‘extreme.’ He is prepared to sell Reading which he believes would be ‘a magnificent trophy asset’ but knows the buyers would have to be, ‘incredibly wealthy’ to succeed, especially in a financial atmosphere where hospitality bookings are down 50%. For the time being he is focused on getting Reading re-promoted to the Premiership, and with his ‘great manager, squad and staff’ is absolutely confident this goal can be achieved.
As Madejski’s business empire was driven by the selling of cars it is not surprising that he has a lasting passion for them. He started off with a Frogeye Sprite, (his mother wouldn’t let him buy a motorcycle) so called because the distinctive headlights resembled frog’s eyes. It could hardly be called a supercar but its quirky design soon won it cult status, and it is a car Madejski remembers fondly. His tastes have become more expensive with time however; he keeps a Ferrari 328 in a glass case in the gym in his Berkshire mansion. He owns cars for more conventional uses as well including a Bentley continental GT and one of the last Rolls Royce corniche convertibles to be built at Crewe.
Madejski, despite his name, is English (he chose to adopt the surname of his Polish step-father, an airman during World War Two), but despite his wealthy status he has no desire to play at being an aristocrat. despite opining that, ‘most aristos are decent down-to-earth people’ he has a problem with ‘snobbish types’, which matches his distaste for pretentious art viewers. He dismisses them as no more than ‘wanabees’, and would appear to stress the importance of being genuine and believing in people. It would be hard to conclude that Madejski is anything other than genuine. He has not forgotten the community where he made his fortune, and has done much to put Reading, what otherwise might be dismissed as a bland commuter town near London, on the map.