James Caan: Dragons’ Den, Alexander Mann, and Hamilton Bradshaw
The Dragons’ Den panellist on gap years, what makes the ideal investment and his unwavering obsession with windows
How times change. The head of a £300m global business, James Caan’s arguably best known for sitting in a lush leather armchair passing judgement over other people’s business ideas on Dragons’ Den. It hasn’t always been the case, however. Back in 1985, James was holed up in a windowless ‘broom cupboard’ so small you couldn’t open the door without it crashing into his company’s solitary desk.
One could argue James has the entrepreneurial gene. His father ran a successful textile company which provided James with a solid and secure career path – one that he refused to tread.
“Dad’s business was too easy an option – car keys, salary, start Monday – but I wanted to know what it was like to make it on my own.”
The Pall Mall broom cupboard was the first office for Alexander Mann, a headhunting firm which consisted solely of James and a copy of the Yellow Pages for the first four months.
“I would take three walks a day just so I could interact with people,” recalls James. “Eight hours a day of cold-calling is tough so I’d have to get out of the office just to syke myself up to get back on the phone.”
Months of perseverance eventually paid off, and when James landed his first account his biggest priority was to get a room with a view. “A lot of people at the start of their business career like to think global. I just wanted a window, so as soon as I got my first bit of revenue, I moved offices and took on my first consultant.”
In 2002, having grown the business into a global network of firms operating in Europe, Australia and Asia, James sold his remaining stake in the Alexander Mann Group to a private equity firm in a £93m buyout – an experience he describes as ‘like having an orgasm’.
With such an impressive climax achieved, James’ figurative post-coital cigarette was smoked as he tucked his suit in to the wardrobe in favour of more casual attire.
“At the time my kids were planning their gaps years, so I decided to take one myself, but it was much scarier than I’d imagined it would be. Running the business I’d walk into the building full of hundreds of people and I was the decision-making chief exec.
“To go from that to watching Richard and Judy, still wearing my pyjamas at 11am was weird. The first month was really hard, but I know lots of people that have sold a business that feel the same. It’s like taking a fish out of water.”
James’ gap year proved a little more extravagant than a few months of backpacking however. Graduating from the advanced management course at Harvard was followed by learning to fly planes – a pursuit that led to months of white-knuckle thrills, including helicopters, yachts, skydiving, bungee jumping and the smashing up of the odd Ferrari.
The lure of 18-hour days, cross continent conference calls and thrills of an entrepreneurial nature was eventually too much to resist however, hence the formation of private equity firm Hamilton Bradshaw in 2004.
James is keen to stress his personal approach to all the Hamilton Bradshaw investments. A recruitment firm investment taken on in March 2007 had doubled its profits by the same month in 2008 – something James attributes to the fact he speaks to the business’ management team every day and sees them every week.
“Every investment I make, a team arrives and each one of us has a specialist area. That’s how we can increase profitability by over 100%. I’m comfortable in most sectors so I’ll invest more in the person than the idea. Whoever I back has to be passionate about their market. They’ll be industry experts that know far more about their sector than I ever will. I’m not interested in competing with my investments. My job is to guide direct and mentor.”
James attitude towards investments was probably why a friend recommended him to the BBC team behind Dragons’ Den. “I was approached out of the blue and went in for a couple of rehearsals. I found it a bit of fun, meeting the other Dragons.
“There’s no question Dragons’ Den has had a substantial impact on the rise in start-ups. My own website gets 200,000 hits a month. The level of interest today by people that want to be entrepreneurs is incredible, and I really think that’s because of shows like ours and The Apprentice. It’s the first time in Britain it’s actually cool to be an entrepreneur.”
Not just cool, according to James though. It’s also a healthy time to be an entrepreneur, despite recent speculation about the state if the economy.
“It doesn’t matter what the economic climate is, because really what’s happening now has a very specific impact linked to the financial services. If I came up with a great idea for a juice drink, would the credit crunch really stop people from buying it? No. I think it’s a great time to a start a business.”