Billionaire who pours his heart and cash into children’s charity
PUBLISHED: 15:05 07 January 2009 | UPDATED: 11:45 12 August 2010
EVERY entrepreneur or philanthropist has an epiphany.
EVERY entrepreneur or philanthropist has an epiphany. John Caudwell is both of these things, so he had two.
The first was when he was an eight-year-old boy, living on the breadline on the terraced back streets of Stoke-on-Trent.
"It was a struggle for our family to make ends meet, but somehow I knew that one day I would be a very rich man," he said. "When we were children we had to huddle around the fireplace to keep warm, like something in a Dickensian novel, but the picture I had in my head was of me sitting in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce giving out money to people who desperately needed help."
By the time he was 50 the founder of Phones 4u was earning a place in the top 30 of the Sunday Times Rich List, with a personal fortune estimated at £1.3billion.
The second epiphany came when he was on holiday, enjoying an all-too-rare break from the pressures of running an international business in an environment where one wrong move could spell disaster.
"Someone who has subsequently become a close friend made me question my lifestyle - was I really enjoying being fabulously wealthy, was it making me happy? I realised then I was on a treadmill and needed to change my lifestyle. And that casual conversation over a cocktail or two also made me remember the second part of that boyhood vision, that I would make a lot of money, and that I would be charitable with my wealth," he said.
Soon afterwards he founded The Caudwell Charity, now in its ninth year, and in September 2006 he sold his entire business empire for just under £1.5 billion, leaving him free to divide his time between new business interests, his family and his charity work.
"Selling the business was like selling my own child. I had fertilised it, nurtured it, seen it grow to maturity, and now here I was, preparing to get rid of it. Doing the deal was a very painful process, but it was the right thing to do at the right time and I've never regretted it," he told me.
When I arrived in the grounds of his stunning Elizabethan manor house in rural Staffordshire, John was nowhere to be seen. He was in fact hovering over the treetops at the controls of his private helicopter, getting a bird's eye view of his impressive estate on a crisp and chilly December morning.
Something of an action man, he also rides very fast motor bikes but uses pedal power as well, regularly cycling the 28-mile round trip to his office in Stoke. In winter he loves taking to the ski slopes and spends at least an hour a day in the gym, all year round.
His lifestyle nowadays is a far cry from the tentative mobile phone venture he started in 1987 from a corner shop in his home city.
"In those days mobile phones were like bricks, and they cost £1,500 each, which was an enormous sum then. Then there was the huge cost of line rental, and a lot of the time, they didn't work. It didn't look too promising but, still, I could foresee the day when every business would need one."
His first sale was bedevilled by problems. He managed to convince a local taxi driver that it made good business sense to lease a mobile phone, but, unknown to John, Cellnet had removed a test mast operating in the area. "For six months I had a very unhappy customer and I actually had some bad publicity in the local papers because of it but once we worked out what the problem was, we were up and running," he recalled.
It took him the best part of a year to sell 30 phones but within another year he had sold £1million worth and by the turn of the century annual sales were £600 million. Yet he's modest enough to admit that there was a great deal of luck as well as judgement in this scintillating success story.
"Virtually every man, woman and child in the country has a mobile phone these days but, to be honest, I didn't see that coming," he said. "I saw the market as being driven by businesses, not ordinary people."
The business, however, was all-consuming. "For 20 years I did nothing but think about it, day and night. I was paranoid about anything that could put the business at risk and because the mobile phone industry changes so quickly, the pressure was phenomenal," he said. "I've worked with a lot of people who couldn't handle it, and it had a major impact on their health."
Now he is preoccupied not by sales targets and balance sheets, but by the health and well-being of needy young children and their families.
"I was asked to sponsor an NSPCC event and then went to see one of their projects. It touched my heart. I realised then that I wanted to do something of my own and what better cause could there be than helping children? It was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned," he said.
The charity helps families pay for life-saving or life-changing treatment and from day one he has paid all administrative expenses from his own bank account, as well as donating a great deal of his own newly-discovered free time and his not inconsiderable physical efforts.
The highlight was an 18-day bike marathon covering more than 2,000 miles from Athens to London, raising £330,000 for his own charity. In typical style, he finished his marathon effort by cycling through the front doors of Coutts Bank in London's Strand.
His unfailing business acumen also comes into play.
"I cover all the operating expenses of the charity and, in addition, I try to double the value of every £1 raised by doing deals and calling in favours. There's so much to be done and it all needs to be paid for, so I like to make the money stretch as far as is humanly possible," he said.
Providing training courses for parents of autistic children through the Caudwell Sunrise programme is just one of his innovations. He makes it his business to attend the courses, inspired by new research in America, and has seen some "wonderful, euphoric moments".
"Seeing and hearing what can be achieved for parents who were desperate to communicate with their children was one of the most emotional moments of my life," he said. "I don't cry - a lot of people don't cry in public - but at that meeting, there were boxes of tissues everywhere."
"We want to help children everywhere, and I'm sure there are families in every part of London who need our help. That's why it's really wonderful that Archant London is supporting the Caudwell Children's Charity this year.
"It would be great to receive a sackful of applications, and where there is real need, we'll help as many people as we possibly can."
A Caudwell Sunrise course is scheduled for London at the end of January and a star-studded May Ball will take place at Battersea Park.
See next week's Times for details of Archant London's campaign to support the Caudwell Children's Charity.
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