Deborah Meaden: Dragons’ Den and Westar Holdings

The Dragon talks to Startups about reputation, reluctant fame and calling bingo numbers

To say Deborah Meaden is a world away from her austere TV persona is putting it mildly. Dragons’ Den’s solitary female panellist is at worst straight to the point, and at best, utterly charming. But despite being so lovely in person, she’s quick to defend her derisive reputation, insisting that she recognises the dragon on our screens, even if it isn’t ‘the full rounded’ her. She’s happy with her on-screen portrayal, and for all the success the show has lavished upon her, why wouldn’t she be?

Her time is now divided between her investments, both in and out of the Den, but Deborah’s ‘career business’ was Westar Holidays, the family company she ran for two decades. She eventually sold it in 2007 for £83m, but before taking over from her parents as the head of the company, she had enjoyed a varied and somewhat unexpected career far removed from the security of the family firm.

Her early CV reads like that of your average TV star in the making, with stints ranging from sales room model to Butlins bingo caller. Early entrepreneurial ventures included a short-lived ceramics distribution venture, and a successful fashion franchise. Having grown up in a household that ‘constantly talked about opportunity’, the idea of working for someone else was always an alien concept to her and she made it a priority to gain experience on her own before returning to her parents’ business.

“When I came back the relationship was totally different,” says Deborah. “I had plenty of other options so it was a negotiation between me and my parents. You need that gap. If you go straight from education into a family business your parents will still view you as their child and won’t evaluate you on your business skills.”

Deborah took the business from an amusement arcade and a few retail and food outlets to a multi-million pound holiday park empire, phasing out the concession model her parents had created. A management buy-out in 1999 saw her fully take over and with the majority share holding in her name, she had long term plans for the business. But as ever, her head ruled her heart and when buyers started to sniff around, she took notice. A deal to sell the company was all but complete until they buyers tried to lower the price at the 11th hour. True to form, the Dragon-in-waiting was having none of it.

“Whatever I do, I know what my bottom line is and I’d already warned them that if they tried to reduce the price by a single pound I was out. They misread me. They thought I was so committed to the deal that I’d still go through with it.”

Deborah told her buyers where to go, and with one abandoned sale behind her, she took charge once more and invited buyers to bid for the company. “The first time, the buyers had wooed me and were in control of the process, but the second time round I ran the show.” There were three close bids but a deal worth £33m was eventually struck with Phoenix Equity Partners. Deborah retained a 23% stake until the business was finally sold on to Alchemy Partners in 2007 for £83m.

Right place, right time

 “After the Phoenix deal I still felt there was unfinished business at Weststar. I wanted to release some cash but I knew I wasn’t exiting at the top of the market. But the plan with Phoenix was always to sell in 3-5 years. We understood what was going on in the industry. There were some racy deals happening with holiday parks and we saw our chance.”

Deborah and Phoenix were right and their timing was impeccable. No sooner had the deal been finalised, the first sign of the credit crunch kicked in and the banks started to slide. If they’d waited even two weeks, millions would have been wiped off the deal.

While the Weststar deal escaped the fallout of the financial crisis, Deborah has since seen one of her Dragons’ Den investments go to the wall. The haulage firm, JPM Eco Logistics, that she and Theo Paphitis invested £100,000 in, went into administration earlier this year. “I’m competitive and I hate losing, so of course it matters but that’s just part of investing. When you work in the high risk environment that we do, to be honest, one failure out of 10 is a pretty incredible ratio. If I can hold on to that I’ll be doing amazingly well.”

Now a staple ingredient of the Dragons’ Den panel since taking over from Rachel Elnaugh in the third series, it’s hard to believe Deborah almost turned the opportunity down, but she insists she was initially extremely reticent about the whole idea. “I’d watched the show and thought it was a great programme, but I’m a very private person with a pretty nice life. I didn’t want that changed.” The turning point came after a screen test with Duncan Bannatyne and Richard Farleigh. “It was a challenge and I enjoyed that. I’m so competitive that by that point I knew I would have been really disappointed if I didn’t make it.”

Her competitive streak may have overruled her desire for a life out of the limelight, but Deborah still describes herself as ‘a business person who happens to appear on television’. Surely after four series of the show however, even she must accept she can’t resist the celebrity label entirely. Perhaps her recent appearance on talent show Let’s Dance in aid of Comic Relief is an admission of that. Or maybe it’s just that fiery competitive streak rearing its scaly head once more.

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