‘F**k there’s nothing here, what am I going to do now?’ thought Martyn Dawes as he reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, he recalls. The serial entrepreneur was in Africa during a period of “keeping my head down” in the aftermath of a deal which amassed him a vast personal fortune.
Such insatiable appetite for achieving the next thing on his to-do list is perhaps why he is finally set to make a return to the cut and thrust of business four years after he exited his hot drink empire Coffee Nation.
He started the self-service drinks business with a teaspoonful of seed funding in the late 1990s and, eight years later, sold it to Milestone Capital for £23m – by which stage it had been rolled out into 600 corners of supermarkets, service stations and airports across the country.
Last year his brainchild, which was conceived on a trip to Manhattan, changed ownership again, with Costa Coffee owner Whitbread snapping it up for £59.5m, rebranding it as Costa Express.
Dawes has no regrets about making his exit when he did. “The deal came just before the world went nuts in September 2008, so the timing was fantastic,” he says.
Since then, he’s bought an Aston Martin, replaced it with an Aston Martin DBS, climbed mountains and even got his pilot’s license.
He’s also been inundated by pitches from ventures of all shapes and sizes hoping to get him to part with his time, expertise and – of course – wealth. But nothing until recently has taken his fancy.
“Enjoying the highlife could end rapidly by making the wrong investments. So it’s been nice and I’ve been able to do a lot of things in the last few years. The important thing, though, is to have something that gets you out of bed every day to pursue a goal, a dream or a passion. Most people go through life and they don’t have that.”
Dawes has been actively looking for a business in which to take an active day-to-day role for the past 18 months. “There are products for me to look at when I get back home on my desk waiting for me,” he says.
“There are some good things held back by the wrong people and there are some great people that have got the wrong product or ideas and there are lots of things that won’t make it in a million years.”
Many of those ventures still waiting for a yay or neigh from Dawes may soon be disappointed however since he finally believes he’s found what he’s been searching for in this period of reflection, research and biding of time.
Details are hazy, though, with Dawes spikely refusing to reveal so much as the sector the business operates in. He can reveal that it is customer-facing, which makes sense given the remarkable success he enjoyed in selling coffee to the British public.
Part of his success then was down to the fact that Coffee Nation created its own market – as opposed to tiptoeing its way into an existing one. This new venture is “in a growth market, plays to a long-term trend and has a unique proposition”.
“There’s been times when I’ve thought I’m never going to find the right thing. I’ve been looking at buying into a much bigger established business and also looking at earlier stage stuff. This [venture] is early stage so we’ll see.
"The founder has worked at it for two and a half years and really has something. He’s got a wife and two children and has put everything on the line to achieve success and I think he will and that’s because he’s been determined and has done whatever is required."
Despite the vague and cautious outline of his next challenge, there’s no uncertainty about his commitment to it – the very suggestion that this is merely a vehicle for his investment being shot down in a heartbeat.
“There’s no point in getting a report once a year – what would I be contributing to that? The fun is in being able to shape and build and nurture a business and I can bring my experience, my ups and downs and failures, to the fore and that’s the opportunity that gets me excited. Anybody can go and buy Marks & Spencer shares but that’s not my game.”
More details will be revealed soon, he says. In the meantime he’s off with a pal to climb Mount Aconcagua which, for non-geographers, is in Mendoza, Argentina.
“If you’ve got a goal it just makes life much more worthwhile rather than drifting from day to day really and I think that’s what’s at the heart of every entrepreneur,” he says.
Given his latest ascent takes a week longer than Kilimanjaro and is considerably higher, hopefully this challenge will prove more satisfying when he reaches the top.