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The common sense angel of the Den with a loathing for business jargon

Timothy Barber
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WHEN Deborah Meaden talks about the &ldquo;great entrepreneurial spirit in the UK&rdquo;, people should take note. As a panellist on the BBC&rsquo;s popular business show Dragon&rsquo;s Den, she&rsquo;s part of a team who have become the public faces of anyone-can-do-it enterprise. Meaden turned her family holiday park business into a multi-million pound operation, making her fortune when she sold it. Now concentrating on investing in SMEs &ndash; her Dragons Den investments are just one part of her interests &ndash; she says that she has invested more in the past 12 months than in the previous three years.<br /><br />&ldquo;It&rsquo;s not that I&rsquo;ve been finding more opportunities, but better opportunities,&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;That entrepreneurial spirit should be the thing that&rsquo;s going to get us out of this recession, and those enterprises are going to be the engine room of recovery. I want my money out there in these businesses &ndash; it&rsquo;s not as if I&rsquo;d be getting any interest on it otherwise.&rdquo;<br /><br />Meaden reckons that, as mainstream investment avenues have been shut down with the banks &ldquo;frozen in absolute fear&rdquo;, the opportunities for angel investors such as herself can be juicy.<br /><br />Like many business leaders, however, Meaden is unhappy at the 50 per cent tax rate, and the potential for it to restrict growth when it is most needed. <br /><br />&ldquo;If it is the entrepreneurs who are going to get us out of this, they need to be encouraged,&rdquo; she complains. &ldquo;A blunt instrument like that might be a vote winner, but it&rsquo;s not very clever for those people who should be aspiring to get things going. I think we can be a bit cleverer with the way we encourage people to invest.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>STRAIGHT TALKING</strong><br />Meaden is happy taking the government to task , but she&rsquo;s far from the fearsome, fire-breathing dragoness her TV reputation suggests. A jocular and informal presence, she&rsquo;s also an intensely private person who recoils from the idea of public speaking, and says &ndash; unlike her fellow Dragons &ndash; that she&rsquo;ll never write an autobiography. <br /><br />What can make her appear bullishly dismissive on television is her commitment to straight talking and an abhorrence of waffle. An episode of Dragon&rsquo;s Den wouldn&rsquo;t be complete without Meaden rolling her eyes with boredom as pitchers spew business-speak homilies, but can&rsquo;t give her figures on turnover and expected profits. <br /><br />Such situations inspired Meaden&rsquo;s new book, Common Sense Rules. In it, she wages a war on business cliches and counters them with the simple truths that she says have guided her decisions.<br /><br /><strong>GOOD JUDGMENT</strong><br />&ldquo;I get asked all the time by people starting up businesses, what are the keys to success?&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;They expect to be able to tick certain boxes and be fine. But it&rsquo;s good judgment that enables you to be a success, and you&rsquo;ve got to know the right stuff to develop that judgement.&rdquo;<br /><br />Meaden describes the common sense she expounds as &ldquo;good judgment without specialist knowledge &ndash; I&rsquo;m not a specialist in anything&rdquo;. But in drawing on experiences from a career that has seen her build an estimated &pound;40m fortune, her aim is to cut through the jargon and distractions that she reckons inhibit people from making strong decisions.<br /><br /><strong>NOT IMMUNE</strong><br />&ldquo;I think we have forgotten the common sense stuff, which is the stuff I grew up with,&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;I think if these things had been remembered, we wouldn&rsquo;t be in the economic state we&rsquo;re in at the moment.&rdquo;<br /><br />Not that Meaden&rsquo;s investments have been immune. JPM Eco Logistics, an eco-friendly haulage company into which she and fellow dragon Theo Paphitis sunk &pound;100,000 in 2007, became the Den&rsquo;s first recession casualty when it went bust in January. Meaden, however, says that being prepared to take a risk is a key characteristic of the successful entrepreneur &ndash; as is knowing when to pull the plug on a failing investment, as she had to in this case. That, she says, is where judgement comes in.<br /><br />&ldquo;There are certain characteristics, like competitiveness and being prepared to take risks, that are present in all entrepreneurs I&rsquo;ve ever known,&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;But good judgment is the thing that can be learned &ndash; it&rsquo;s about equipping yourself with simple rules of common sense, and being able to draw on them when you need to. It&rsquo;s not rocket science.&rdquo;<br /><br />Common Sense Rules is out now, priced &pound;18.99<br /><br /><strong>COMMON SENSE RULES </strong>MEADEN ON BUSINESS<br /><strong>On being a salesperson:</strong> &ldquo;Far too many people are held back by their fear that they are not a born salesperson. If they are as passionate about what they do as they should be it follows that they can&rsquo;t help but sell their dream to other people.&rdquo; <br /><br /><strong>On unrealistic business plans:</strong> &ldquo;The business plan of every investment I have ever made has been far too optimistic. I always knock the timings back a little bit and remind them to make provision for bad debt.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>On hiring:</strong> &ldquo;When people start businesses they tend not to get people in soon enough. If there is a clear picture of where the business is going, there has to be a plan of how to get there. Hire ahead of expansion, because companies without enough people will not reach their goals.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>On small businesses:</strong> &ldquo;The smaller a business, the better chance it has of kicking against the natural economic cycle. It does, after all, only want a small slice of what is usually a big pie. Being unique and personal makes it much easier to buck a trend.&rdquo;<br /><br /><strong>CV </strong> DEBORAH MEADEN<br /><strong>Born: </strong>1959<br /><br /><strong>First business:</strong> Aged 19, Meaden launched a business importing Italian glass and ceramics to the UK. It collapsed with Meaden owing &pound;3,000.<br /><br /><strong>Family business:</strong> After serving an apprenticeship running Butlins&rsquo; bingo business, Meaden joined her parents&rsquo; West Country leisure park business, Weststar.<br /><br /><strong>Buyout:</strong> After becoming managing director, in 1999 Meaden acquired the major shareholding in Weststar in a management buyout. She sold the company to Phoenix Equity Partners in a deal worth &pound;33m, while retaining a 23 per cent stake. In August 2007 she sold her remaining holding when Westar was bought by Alchemy Partners for &pound;83m.<br /><br /><strong>Dragons Den:</strong> Meaden&rsquo;s investments on the BBC programme include the &ldquo;make your own&rdquo; doll, YoudooDoll; Magic Whiteboard, a rolled up, portable whiteboard; and construction waste specialists Prowaste.