Alexander Mann Group: James Caan

The more temperate Dragon on discovering his flair for recruitment

The second job I had was as a door-to-door sales rep. I remember one day, it was cold and raining, I didn’t have a car and I just thought: “What on earth am I doing?” It was lonely work; I was on my own, walking up and down streets with this bag of shop merchandise, but my pride just wouldn’t let me go back.

Due to the nature of that particular job, all of a sudden the idea of working in an office became so glamorous, because I’d have a desk, a phone, it’d be warm and there would be other people to talk to. But all the time, in the back of my mind I would imagine how different my life would be if I had taken the path my father had wanted me to follow.

I didn’t join my dad’s company primarily because it was too easy. When you grow up in a family business and you know it’s on a plate, it requires no drive and ambition. You know you’re going to go to university, then go straight into the business, get your company car, have your office and your position as the boss’ son.

However, my mind was preoccupied by thoughts of what I could achieve if I was dropped into the big world of business alone with nothing. Could I survive? There was a real sense of danger in removing the safety net.

I soon realised this was neither as glamorous as I thought it was going to be or as easy. Once I had paid my rent and shopping, my salary was not enough to cover my tube fare, so I had to take a Saturday job.

One day I was on my way home from work feeling utterly miserable, when I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard and saw an ad for a trainee interviewer. I rang up not really knowing what the job entailed or having a clue about the recruitment industry. The chap who answered described the role, explaining that people come in and you interview them – and I said rather too excitedly: “Are you based in an office?” He said the salary was £30 a week plus commission, so I was thinking: “Wow, I’ve hit the big time.” It soon became apparent that I was quite good. I was making two or three times my salary in commission and suddenly I didn’t need my Saturday job. No longer was the idea of buying clothes or going out clubbing out of my reach.

Around three years in I realised the only people making real money in recruitment were headhunters, who would place people, in those days, at about £75,000 to £100,000 a year. If I could place someone at that level, the fee would be what I billed in three months.

But headhunting agencies wouldn’t touch me because I was too young. One said: “Our researchers are 10 years older than you.” And because I was quite naïve and inexperienced I thought: “Why don’t I set up on my own?” I had no idea that stumbling upon recruitment would be the source of my entrepreneurial triumph; I was not so much wet behind the ears as drowning. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d taste this kind of success. I wasn’t even dreaming of Rolls Royces and yachts, let alone believing it.

Learn more about James Caan’s rags to riches story in his new book The Real Deal: My Story from Brick Lane to the Dragons’ Den.

James Caan was speaking to Hannah Prevett.


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