He went from humble origins to become one of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs, launching a string of multi-million pound businesses and eventually becoming part of TV’s Dragons’ Den. Tom Scotney talks to entrepreneur James Caan, about why business is still sexy, despite the recession.
In recent times he’s been know as one of the country’s top entrepreneurs, a millionaire market guru able to spot a diamond business opportunity a mile away. But it wasn’t always like that.
At the height of the last recession, when James Caan had been used to riding the crest of the wave at the head of his wildly successful recruitment firm Alexander Mann, the businessman was leaving his mansion every morning and riding in a Rolls-Royce to a company that was barely making any money at all.
Profit had dropped to a measly £1,475 when it had been up in the hundreds of thousands before, and Caan was seriously considering giving things up after being caught unaware by the biggest financial downturn for decades. So it’s not surprising that Caan, after having to drag himself to the top for a second time was keen not to be caught out twice when the recession rolled round again last year.
And the man who brought business to the living room as part of the fearsome Dragons’ Den team on the BBC 2 programme says business is sexier than ever, despite the recession.
Speaking from a rainy London office, a far cry from the deck of the yacht moored in Cannes where he wrote most of his new autobiography, Caan says: “I think that in the UK the recession was a bit more predictable because it came gradually. In other parts of the world it happened overnight whereas in the UK we had obviously been building up to this for some time.
“The sub prime issue is nearly 18 months old now, and I think the signs were fairly obvious we were heading for a slowdown. I think for me this one has been more predictable. It’s been a case of making sure all of my investments are secure, and I have become very conscious of cost. The key challenge is to be very conscious of sales and very conscious of cost. If your sales come down your costs need to come down.”
And he says while margins are getting tighter and investors are getting more reluctant with their money, he expects the success of Dragons’ Den to go on with the recession spurring on a huge burst of creative entrepreneurial activity.
“I think the recession creates more businesses than any other conditions,” he says, pointing out that people who have lost their jobs are more likely to think about starting their own business. “Business per se is still cool, it’s still cool to be an entrepreneur. The backlash in public attitude to big finance has been very specific against the bankers. The key thing I would really tell people now that is when they get an idea they test the idea with people who are going to buy it. Too many people rely on family who are all going to tell them nice things.”
The spirit of entrepreneurialism in the darkest economic times in the UK for the best part of a century still makes him excited, he claims, adding: “I think Dragons’ Den has had a really fantastic impact on businesses in this country.
"It’s given young and old entrepreneurs out there the opportunity to think they can
do it too. I had a business plan sent to me the other day by an 80-year-old. My youngest investment was nine-year-old James Buckley on the Children in Need Dragons’ Den special. I think it just goes to show that Dragons’ has had a profound impact.”
And speaking personally as an entrepreneur, he claims his religious upbringing has always been a blessing in the world of business, saying a moral background is more important to success than taking a hard-nosed attitude.
A year ago he started to get involved in the Projects Abroad scheme helping British children explore their Pakistani heritage. He says his father – a businessman who wanted his son to go to university and was shocked when Nazim Khan decided to officially change his name to James Caan – was a huge influence on his attitude to business, and he wanted to help more people improve their lives by learning more about where they came from.
He says: “I think faith generally is about spirituality and I think that whether you’re Christian, Jewish or Muslim, most people who believe in something higher than themselves and the fundamental principles of all religions to be good is the good thing. Anyone I have met in life who has strong moral values is a good human person.
"I think again, having strong moral values in business is very important. My strong principle is you need to be adopting an attitude that allows people to succeed. Business isn’t about people winning and losing. It’s about creating an environment that allows everyone to win.”
Although he has been head of private equity house Hamilton Bradshaw for more than four years, Caan says he is expecting more people to be coming to him with his Dragons’ Den hat on in the coming months, after seeing private equity wiped out by the spectacular collapse among the banks.
“Until the liquidity in the financial institutions recovers private equity will be pretty slow,” he says. “When the banks aren’t lending, the two go hand in hand. I think there is still a very strong angel network of major investors who want to back business. I’m still out there.”
And potential investors could probably do worse than look at Caan’s recent choices for a sign the market is turning round, given the prescient funder’s record. Recent purchases include a premium business-class airline and a property finding website. Could this be a sign of a turnaround in the aviation and property markets? Watch and see...
• James Caan, “The Real Deal – My Story From Brick Lane to Dragons’ Den” is out now, published by Virgin Books and priced at £18.99, ISBN: 9781905264452