A Dragon with style and substance

Timothy Barber
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IN Duncan Bannatyne’s smartly understated Covent Garden flat, one item stands out. Between the elegant cream sofas of the living room and the smooth lines of his minimalist kitchen sits a curved, asymmetrical armchair of the most garish, glaring pink. “It reflects my feminine side,” says the entrepreneur, as he settles into the chair to be photographed.

Seasoned viewers of Dragon’s Den might be surprised to learn he even has a feminine side. Of all the Dragons, Bannatyne, with his brusque put-downs delivered in that Glaswegian drawl, can often seem the most crotchety. Yet there’s something rather dapper and even chic about the man – he pulls off a crisp pinstripe with rather more verve than buttoned up Theo Paphitis or bland Peter Jones. And you get the sense he knows it.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Bannatyne’s latest venture is into the world of style, with the launch of a rather snappy line of designer watches. Under the zippy brand name Kurt Zeiss, they’re very much of the moment, with clear, large faces in designs that combine futuristic sleekness with elegance. With these watches Bannatyne and his business partner in Kurt Zeiss, fellow entrepreneur Grant Morgan, clearly aren’t messing about.

Or are they? They’re certainly not rushing to sell them, with the watches currently sold exclusively online (via eBay) and from Bannatyne’s wife’s boutique in Yarm, North Yorkshire. Morgan and Bannatyne met through charity work and discovered a mutual interest in watches, and the Scotsman admits there hasn’t been a lot of risk in setting the company up.

If Kurt Zeiss is a vanity project, though, it’s a good one from someone who knows a high quality proposition when he sees one. Worth £320m, Bannatyne is easily the richest of his fellow Dragons, on the back of a business empire that started out with the acquisition of a single ice cream van in the mid 80s, and now includes the country’s largest chain of independent health clubs.

Bannatyne, who has also produced several books and is currently working on a TV series about the British seaside, reckons he spends no more than 10 hours a week working on his business ventures. “I don’t see the point of being a successful entrepreneur and working 12 hours a day – why do it?” he says.

If his Dragon’s Den profile has given him the ability to pursue his side interests, it was long before that he realised value of promoting his own personality. When Tony Blair invited famous faces to Downing Street in 1997, Bannatyne thought entrepreneurs needed that kind of access and influence. “I wanted a profile to be able to talk to people like that, and I’ve become good friends with Gordon Brown since, so it worked.”

In fact, while many have criticised Labour’s handling of the recession, Bannatyne is full of praise, pointing out that “we’re coming out of it as fast as anyone else.” But what of the opposition, and the prospect of a Tory government?

“I wouldn’t be comfortable under any government where Kenneth Clarke is a cabinet minister,” he says. That’s because of Clarke’s former board membership of British American Tobacco, an industry to which Bannatyne is fundamentally opposed. “Kenneth Clarke, for me, is despicable,” he says,

Ah, there it is – that gruff, no-nonsense Scots exterior the Dragon’s Den makers like to highlight, which Bannatyne says has now made people excessively nervous of him when they meet him. But Bannatyne is in fact resolutely upbeat about the future – even one which could bring Kenneth Clarke to power – and the possibilities for entrepreneurialism in this country.

“Over the next year as we come out of this recession, the entrepreneurs that have got through this flack will be running,” he says. “If you can get ahead of the problems that make it more difficult for everybody else, it’s a fantastic time to start a business.”

Duncan Bannatyne was born in Clydebank, Scotland, in 1949. After an early career in the Royal Navy, he moved to Stockton-on-Tees aged 29, where he purchased an ice cream van for £450. After buying more vans and selling the business for £28,000, he moved into the nursing homes sector, selling Quality Care Homes in 1996 for £26m. His next move was into the health club industry, his chain Bannatyne's Health Clubs becoming the country's largest independent gym business. Bannatyne’s fortune has been estimated at £320m. He has been awarded an OBE for his charity work.