Peter Jones is a business giant – known as the fiercest investor in the Dragons’ Den line-up, with king-sized money-making skills, all wrapped in a 6ft 7in frame. But he had to lose everything to get here
As the head of a rapidly expanding global business empire, Jones has financial interests in a wide range of companies, collectively generating sales of more than £350 million. As an entrepreneur he’s personally invested in more than 50 businesses, from publishing, TV and entertainment to telecoms and food. Last year, he took on ailing high street camera retailer Jessops and has since revitalised it.
But most will know Peter Jones from his TV appearances on Dragons’ Den, in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas in the hope of securing investment finance. And also for his work with young entrepreneurs – in 2009, he was made a CBE for services to business, enterprise and young people, due largely to his Peter Jones Foundation and Enterprise Academy which, across campuses from Amersham to Oxford, offers a grounding in business to budding entrepreneurs.
The 48-year-old is exasperated that so little business skill is taught in schools. “I feel like a lone voice trying to push uphill about the importance of embedding enterprise in our curriculum,” he says. “We’re just not doing it.” The Peter Jones Enterprise Academy goes some way towards addressing that and offers advice, modules and action points for those starting a company on the PJEA website. Much of this business knowledge is gleaned from his own experience, which started early.
Role models who fuelled a dream
Jones grew up in Maidenhead, Berkshire, where his parents sent him briefly to the local comprehensive, Desborough School, and then on to Windsor Boys’ School at 16. Sitting in his boardroom, in an extremely plush office building on a business park just outside Marlow, Buckinghamshire, Jones says: “I found the academic side of school very challenging… so I’d slip under the fence at break time and run away.” At eight, he’d jog to his father’s office nearby. “Dad was a mechanical engineer and I’d sit in his swivel chair, pick up his 1960s telephone and dream of heading my own company.”
The only other bright spot was sport. “What kept me going at Desborough was helping my English teacher, John Woodward, who ran a summer tennis camp. John was also the only teacher at school to have a top-of-the-range Porsche and I loved finding out how he did it.”
Jones, who played at county level, started tennis coaching at 12; at 16, happily settled at local state secondary Windsor Boys’ School, he set up his own coaching academy. What he learned in tennis, he says, applies equally to business: preparation, strategic thinking, evaluating the competition, and training.
A year later, Jones began building computers in his bedroom and at 18 he launched his first major business, providing computers and services to corporate clients. “I knew nothing about computers as a kid but became fascinated by a guy in America called Michael Dell. He was becoming mega-successful and I thought, why can’t I do that?” At 22, Jones had a BMW, a Porsche, a house in Bray, a cocktail bar in Windsor and a wife.
Losing everything in the recession
The recession of the early 1990s took it all away. Says Jones: “I made a bad business move, giving credit to firms I didn’t investigate. I’d had everything you could dream of, and by 28 I’d managed to lose it.” That included wife Caroline, who moved in with her parents and took the couple’s children, Annabelle and William.
When the cocktail bar foundered, Jones sold at a loss of £200,000. Bloody but unbowed, he says: “I was determined to get myself out of that predicament. When you’re sleeping on a mattress in a warehouse it’s amazing how you can focus.”
A job in sales and marketing with electronics conglomerate Siemens Nixdorf came to the rescue. Within a year, Jones was heading the UK PC division and could rent a house ‘a stone’s throw’ from the M4. “That gave me my life back – it was somewhere I could bring the children.”
At Siemens he recouped his losses, rebuilt his psyche and got the brainwave that would make him a million. In April 1998, aged 32, he set up Phones International Group, focusing exclusively on selling Ericsson mobile technology. The first year of trading saw sales of £13.9 million, and £45 million by the second. By 2005/6, it was one of the fastest-growing businesses in Europe, with a group turnover in excess of £150 million.
Jones shrugs. “I was working night and day, but I was fired up after my first business failure. I’d made a commitment not to let anything like that happen again. Excelling so quickly at Siemens gave me confidence that I really could still achieve anything.”
Becoming a dragon
In 2004, the BBC called Jones about a pilot for a TV series. He says now: “It was weird. Dragons’ Den became almost like a cult show.” It’s been a heaven-sent opportunity. “In addition to a sky-high national profile, I get exclusive access to entrepreneurs, many of whom have fantastic ideas, and am given the chance constantly to form fruitful business relationships and to practise improving my business acumen.”
Jones has the most successful investment record in the den. “And I’m certainly competitive about it,” he chortles. “It’ll take the other dragons a long time to catch up with the Reggae Reggae Sauce deal.” Who could forget the mellow introduction of sauce creator Levi Roots? Jones bought 30% of his company for £25,000; last year, the business generated sales of more than £38 million. Says Jones: “It’s one of the most successful investments ever made on TV. Levi’s a multi-millionaire now, with better suits than me. The programme keeps me on my toes, ready to spot a great angle the other dragons don’t see so that it clears the way for me to invest.”
And despite the showmanship, after 12 series there’s a camaraderie. “The other dragons have become close friends – Deborah (Meaden) is a fantastic businesswoman, Duncan (Bannatyne) is a great entrepreneur and such a caring man.” He smiles at my reaction. “We’re actually a happy family.”
Peter Jones’ three rules for success
Perseverance and passion, Jones has said, are the keys to success – and almost his biggest passion is his crusade to assist the development of young business people, with the latest PJEA initiative being a nationwide competition aimed at 11-18-year-olds – Tycoon in Schools.
“Certain traits are more common in entrepreneurs, such as grit and determination. But I believe entrepreneurism can be taught, and that entrepreneurs are not born, but made.”
And what are the Peter Jones rules for success? Jones leans back, revealing the stripy socks for which he’s famed and now sells on his website. “I’d say three things:
- Listen to your instincts; they can protect you from making poor business decisions and guide you down the right path.
- Surround yourself with positive, determined and focused people, and once you have, be caring, have fun and don’t forget that for your business to grow you need to make money.
- Finally, for a dream to become reality, make it real enough to believe in.” He grins. “But if you’re going to dream, dream big.”
Image: Planet Photos