The dragon that says the financial services industry is losing its fire
THERE are over 20 photos of James Caan on the walls of his Mayfair office, excluding the three caricatures. One shows him alongside former President George W Bush and Colin Powell while there is also the obligatory snap of him accepting an honorary degree. Another has him pictured with his co-stars in BBC 2’s Dragons’ Den and, on the opposite wall, there is a bizarre montage of business to business magazines which all feature Caan as the cover star.
The effect is so unsettling that I’m slightly shocked to see the man in the flesh. When he arrives for our interview, he is a whirlwind of energy, charging into the room, shaking hands and straightening his expensive check jacket by tugging on its lapels. Busy day? “You know how it is,” he says, seating himself at a huge glass desk. “Buying a few companies, selling a few companies.” As if to prove his point, he takes out not one but two Blackberrys, places them on the table and cracks a wry smile.
As well as his responsibilities as a dragon, Caan runs private equity house Hamilton Bradshaw, a vehicle which manages his own investments as well as those he makes in the den. He’s tight-lipped about the firms he backs personally, merely saying that he has equity in 42 ventures and that his largest investment is a controlling stake in a company that turns over £230m a year. It’s name? “The Biggest One,” quips Caan.
The Pakistan-born entrepreneur says he never intended to set up a private equity firm. But after he sold his recruitment businesses Humana and Alexander Mann in 2002, he didn’t know what to do with his cash. “It’s funny. When you’re building up a business, you don’t really think about what you’ll do afterwards. I had all the materialistic things that you associate with the successful entrepreneur – the car and so on – so I thought I’d better invest it.”
“I did the usual things. I went to the Goldmans and the Merrills, but all the opportunities were related to equities and I didn’t want to put my life’s work on the stock market. Then I turned to private equity, but everyone I met was a banker, a lawyer or an accountant. If I’m giving my money to someone, they should have run a business. So I thought I may as well do it myself.”
Although Hamilton Bradshaw sounds like a venerable old institution, its name – like Caan’s, which is borrowed from the eponymous film star – is completely fictitious. “I’d visualised this olde-worlde building, with panelled walls, and these old guys in black suits and bowler hats – that’s how I came up with the name.”
The impressive Georgian townhouse followed later. “We used to be in Hanover Square but I always wanted a building that lived up to the Hamilton Bradshaw name. Thanks to the credit crisis, you can get a good deal on leaseholds in Mayfair. I bought this place and hired a fantastic Japanese designer; we spent ages coming up with everything from the fancy lights, to the glass desks and the colour of the purple carpet.”
Caan’s concern with image doesn’t end with interior design. At one point, City A.M.’s photographer shows him one of the shots and he is clearly unimpressed: “It makes me look like a daydreamer – I’m not a daydreamer”. In fact, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate that he is a man with little time, answering one of his Blackberrys during the interview; later, his attractive secretary interrupts us with an exaggerated air of hushed importance to deliver some documents.
Perhaps that’s why he’s one of the growing number of businessmen cum reality television stars that has been descending on 10 Downing Street, where Gordon Brown stages his pale imitation of Blair’s cool Britannia. He’s here today to promote the iawards, a government-backed initiative that recognises entrepreneurs in the science and technology space. “As you can see, I’ve won a couple of awards myself,” Caan says, gesturing to a cabinet which houses at least seven trophies, “and I think it’s important to start acknowledging success in these sectors”.
But when I suggest the government could do more to encourage Britain’s entrepreneurial spirit by reversing its decision to introduce a 50p tax rate, he disagrees. “Britain is expensive for successful people, but we’ve just gone through an economic downturn, and it needs to be paid for somehow. It’s not about whether it's fair or unfair – it’s a factor of reality. Everyone knew that when we bailed out the banks, this was coming.” He does say that the tax rise should have been held back until after the economy was out of the doldrums, however.
Caan also gives short shrift to the financial services sector, arguing that it has been starving Britain of entrepreneurs. “The whole bonus culture has been attracting the best graduates for years, and other sectors have been losing out to the magnetism of financial services.
“The dynamics of financial services will change because of government intervention, and the sizzle will come out of the sector. Science and technology entrepreneurs can fill that vacuum, and I believe we will come out of this recession a more balanced economy than we went in.”
Does he really think the UK can become entrepreneur country? “Yes I do, the UK is a den. Actually, we should rename the country Dragons’ Den.”
• Entries for the iawards close on 16 September. For more information see www.iawards.org.uk
CV JAMES CAAN
Born: 1960 in Lahore Pakistan; originally named Nazim Khan.
Marital status: Married with two daughters
Education: Left school at 16 without qualifications
University: Participated in Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School
1985, Founds recruitment company Alexander Mann.
1993, Co-founds executive headhunting firm Humana International
2003, Sets up Hamilton Bradshaw