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Apax Partners: Sir Ronald Cohen

How an 11-year-old refugee who couldn't speak English became the father of British venture capital

I was born in Cairo. My father was Egyptian and my mother British. I spoke French and Arabic, but not English.

In 1956, when I was 11, we were forced to leave Egypt because my mother carried a British passport. President Nasser’s reaction to the Suez Crisis had, in any case, made the life of a Jewish family like ours very difficult. We were allowed to take 10 Egyptian pounds and a suitcase each.

So much of entrepreneurship is to do with confidence and, without realising it, I’d had an experience that would help shape me as an entrepreneur.

I went to a state school in northwest London, where I soon grasped English and had moved to the top of the class by my second year. I left to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, where I was active and ambitious from the start.

In my third year, I was elected president of the Oxford Union and secured a visit from Robert Kennedy. It was a high, but when I left university, beyond a desire to work for myself and make money to provide security for my parents, I lacked direction.

On my father’s advice, I went to Harvard Business School, winning a scholarship to pay for my first year. I was introduced to the world of business and money. Back then, business-school graduates looked forward to sparkling careers in the largest firms, not enterprise. But I’d arrived in the US at the start of two waves that would alter the business world and define my career: entrepreneurship in new high-tech and life science ventures, and the venture capital industry that emerged to invest in them.

After two years at McKinsey, I realised that my nature was not to be a consultant, but to ‘do’. So, in 1972, I co-founded Multinational Management Group (MMG), which became Apax Partners. I wanted to create a firm that was advising and, later, investing in growth businesses, but picked a tough time to start.

Soon, Britain was on a three-day week and entrepreneurship was an alien concept. We struggled due to the economy and because people couldn’t understand the deals we were trying to put together. In 1974, the secondary banking crisis arrived, and several smaller London banks went to the wall. A deep recession ensued. In 1975, two of our founding partners pulled out.

It wasn’t looking good, but my father told me to stick with it. It was a real challenge, but we did enough business to stay afloat. Every time I finished one corporate-finance deal, I had to start another, just to earn the fees to cover my overheads. But we were among the first movers in a new industry and got our reward.

I raised my first major fund in the UK in 1981. That £10m looks paltry compared to some of Apax’s subsequent achievements. A more recent Apax fund raised £10bn and we have backed hundreds of entrepreneurs, including Stelios Haji-Ioannou, Tim Waterstone and even the team that cloned Dolly the Sheep.  But by 1981, I knew I was on my way.

Sir Ronald Cohen built the UK’s first private equity firm, Apax Partners, into Europe’s largest, with $35bn under management, offices in eight countries and more than 300 staff. After implementing a succession strategy, he left the firm in 2005 and now chairs the social investment firm Bridges Ventures as well as the Portland Trust and Portland Capital

Sir Ronald Cohen was speaking to James Hurley.

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