The difference between Duncan Bannatyne and other seriously rich folk is that his personal wealth seems still to accrue while theirs is stationary or declining.
That’s a finding of the latest Sunday Times annual wealth list, and Bannatyne doesn’t quibble with the conclusion that his personal fortune is now £320m; 3% up in a difficult year. How does he do it? “Hard work, good diligence, concentration on the business - and a bit of luck,” he suggests. This “concentration on the business” is fascinating; he still spends only about five hours a week in the office.
“I couldn’t do that without a mobile phone and a BlackBerry,” he adds. “I also have computers at the villa in France and at the London flat. So I can print out contracts away from this desk, and sit and read them at a poolside and things like that - it’s not so much work as a way of life. Great.” After our interview, he was to talk to an audience at the nearby Salvation Army centre in Darlington.
“I was up at 7am today, meeting builders because we’re having an extension done at home. I was in the office by 8.30am. That’s about normal when I’m here. I’m getting picked up at 5.30pm to go to Newcastle and fly to Bristol, where I’m filming tomorrow.” He’s filming a new series, Fatal Attractions, about six British holiday resorts, and he will stay overnight with his eldest daughter in Bristol before the shoot at Barry Island in Glamorgan.
Our region doesn’t feature in the Virgin TV project, so Whitley Bay and Redcar can relax. Afterwards, he will reach his Covent Garden pad by 11pm: another overnight stop. Is he not tempted to move from the North East? “I’ve not really been able to consider it because my children are here,” he replies. “I’ve six children aged seven to 25, although the eldest is in Bristol, the second oldest in London.
I said to my seven and nine-year-olds at the villa in France, would you like to stay here?’ They said, ‘no, we want to go back to the North East’. So there’s no choice.” That, and maybe because he has also become a granddad.
How then, does he get through all he does – driving several companies, appearing on Dragon’s Den and other programmes, writing newspaper columns and best-selling books, and revelling in charity work? He reveals a sheet of A4 - his timetable for the day.
“You just have to plan meticulously, all day through. My fourth book, being written at the moment, is How to be Smart with Your Time. It will come out a year after the current one, which is just out. That was How to be Smart with your Money. It’s a book a year.” Back to the businesses and the 3,000 people he employs between Inverness and Hastings.
His 60 fitness clubs attract 163,000 members. Aren’t people cutting back on club visits and hotel stays just now? Out comes another print-out – “hot off the press,” he says. “Members are visiting clubs more times per month on average, so get more value for money.
Memberships are up, too.” He has three hotels – in Darlington, Durham and Hastings. At Darlington, bedroom revenue is down from last year, but bar and restaurant sales are up. ”Our spa business is well up, but everyone I know in the spa business is showing huge rises in turnover. Perhaps people are staying in Britain and spending in Britain. It’s certainly up overall,” he says.
For every move to a new activity, now or in the past – whether it be ice cream selling, nurseries, a radio station, casinos, stage schools, property or transport - he has worked the market skilfully.
He sold his nursing homes (Quality Care Homes, as were) for £46m in 1996; the nurseries for £22m. He now has a 25% stake, with sole British rights, in Kurt Zeiss - the Swiss watchmaker. What makes serial entrepreneurs like him grasshoppers? “For me,” he says, “coincidence. I went into health clubs because I broke a leg. Into hotels because I had spare land beside the clubs. Build a hotel where guests can use the health club – it seemed sensible. We went into spas just because they were growing phenomenally.” He has only one bar – “thank God” – at The Gate in Newcastle. And he sold his casinos three years ago: “I didn’t like the industry,” he says.
Has the Clydesider been good for the North East, and the North East good for him? “I think so. I opened my office here with the nursing homes, now the biggest business of its kind in Britain, with hundreds still working around here. I employ 60 people in this office.
A lot of jobs in Darlington originate from me.” He saw pre-tax profits at Bannatyne Fitness - Britain's largest independent health club company – more than double to £9.7m last year.
His headquarters, Power House, is no glass palace. It’s functional, looking just like the former electricity board office block it is.
The interior is workaday tasteful; smiles and ‘hellos’ plentiful. Many staff are long serving; he rewards loyalty with responsibility.
Managers are free to run departments, even if there are occasional mistakes. Bannatyne doesn’t draw a salary from his businesses, he economises with paperclips, and in the care home days he reportedly raised merry hell about a boiled egg missing from a kitchen.
There’s generally nothing ferocious about that gruff Scottish voice, however. Rather, it masks some sentiment. Framed pictures give that away.
A phalanx of family photos lines up like the Terracotta Army beside his desk, while pictures on his office walls and down the stairs record business successes.
One at least shows him with Richard Branson who, like Donald Trump, is an entrepreneur he admires.
“They’ve done it and shown anyone can do it,” he says. Latest mementos include a recent 60th birthday greeting from the Prime Minister. It’s a day before Bannatyne’s friend and fellow entrepreneur extraordinaire Sir Alan Sugar debuts in the North East as Gordon Brown’s Enterprise Champion. Would Bannatyne have welcomed a Cabinet seat? “I went to Chequers a couple of weeks ago and was chatting to Gordon,” he says.
“He’s in a bad place at the moment. I don’t know how it’s going to end up.” Two years ago, Bannatyne thought Brown would be a good PM. Now? “I think Gordon isn’t the issue. The issue is our parliamentary system. We need fixed-term governments. Margaret Thatcher suffered as Gordon Brown is suffering. Tony Blair suffered. John Major suffered. We must stop prime ministers deciding election days, simple as that. Four years and that’s it.” And what of MPs and bankers? “I think bankers have made huge, horrendous mistakes. The ones who should be ashamed are those who have taken huge salaries and big lumps of money.
“MPs? Well, we always knew they were disgusting. Again, that’s difficult to resolve without fixed terms of parliament.” Later, Bannatyne’s hour-plus talk, with questions, at the Salvation Army is received by a homeless audience which listens intently.
Major Robert Davies, a social services director for the Salvationists, thinks this may be because many of Banntyne’s earlier experiences may have echoed those of some members of the audience.
Bannatyne says that the key to becoming a successful entrepreneur is to just to do it. “Anyone can. It’s not difficult. Find something and go for it.” What then, does Dragon’s Den reveal as the biggest mistake young aspirants make? “I suppose they think they must do something unique or different.
They don’t. They don’t really have to invent anything. There are plenty of opportunities ready to grab already.” His own biggest mistake, he admits, was to have invested in a takeover of Newcastle’s Lady in Leisure.
“I lost £1,040,000 on that. I put £1,040,000 in and it went bankrupt. Don’t forget the £40,000...” Many magnates give money to charity, but they are less generous with their time. One highlight of Bannatyne’s diary recently - “it was really exciting,” he says - was revisiting, with his wife, Casa Bannatyne hospice in Romania. Over more than a decade, he has given millions to charity, notably children's projects as far off as Cambodia and Malawi. But Romania is special.
“We had taken 10 children out of a horrible Romanian hospital,” he recalls, “and opened Casa Bannatyne for them. They were all HIV positive and had all been abandoned.” Now one of those first residents, Adela, is 19 and was getting married. Duncan and his wife Joanne, 40, were invited to the wedding at Tirgu Mures, where three homes form a complex for 25 residents. Scottish International Relief had opened one home before Duncan. Another for five residents, badly handicapped, was developed by Coco, the charity founded by the North East’s former Olympic athlete Steve Cram, which has raised over £1.3m to fight Third World suffering. Bannatyne set up his own eponymous foundation with a personal input of £1m last year. He gives away a lot of his fortune - around £75,000 a year through Bannatyne Fitness alone - because, he says, he doesn't know what else to do with it.
“I had floated my company on the stock exchange in 1992 and had huge dividends and salaries coming in; too much. I got begging letters and was particularly intrigued by one.” That letter was from Bob Shields, the Tyneside police officer running aid convoys to Romania. Bannatyne went out to the country with him, and the involvement grew.
He’s is no soft Two of Bannatyne’s proudest possessions are his honorary doctorates from the Universities of Teesside and Glasgow Caledonian.“I left school at 15 – no college, no university, nothing,” he says.
“Being recognised now is fantastic.” His family had little money, and he attributes his determination to his father, though even he once told him: “People like us don’t start businesses.” His father worked in the world’s biggest factory, built by the American Singer sewing machine company in 1885 to employ 16,000 people.
If you were from Clydebank and didn’t work there or in the shipyards, chances were you didn’t work at all. When Bannatyne was 14, the factory’s 26ft diameter clock face, also the largest of its kind in the world, was removed. By 1980, the entire factory had closed.
By then, however, he had long gone, initially into the Navy. He was dishonourably discharged with nine months’ detention after threatening an officer. He was later briefly jailed in Glasgow’s HMP Barlinnie for disturbing the peace and then drifted through jobs, for some years in Jersey as a deckchair attendant and a barman.
At 29, he and Gail, his first wife and mother of four of his children, moved to her home town of Stockton. He bought an ice-cream van for £450, which then became a fleet and later sold for £25,000. On learning Mrs Thatcher would subsidise care homes to the tune of £260 per patient per week, he built one such home in 1986. It became a business of 36.
Thatcherite subsidies also part-financed his nurseries. He loved Mrs Thatcher’s policies. Determined not to retire - “that means giving up,” he says - he thinks Britain today would be wealthier, with more jobs, if more of us set up in business.
He is no soft touch, though - he studies supplicants for his charity cash very thoroughly. “I look at what they suggest and at how the money is spent. I look at the organisation.
I check records at Companies House,” he says, adding that he looks for low administrative overheads, among other things.
He also succours seriously ill British children, about 200 of whom in England have been in hospital for three months or more - some of them for years, some of them for longer than they have spent at home in their short lives. The Wellchild charity funds visiting nurses at £150,000 each.
“This project saves the Government money. I fund a nurse, and children who’d otherwise have to be in hospital can stay at home because the nurse comes to visit,” he explains.
Various charities he helps have logos on his website, as do companies developing through Dragon’s Den, and in which Duncan invests. Has giving softened his earlier view of himself as “driven, relentless and arrogant”? “No,” he replies.
“I’m just the same.” What about faith, then? He said in one book he was a non-practising Christian until he was 20, became an atheist, but recently had felt a presence with God; though he wasn’t ready for total allegiance to Christianity. Has philanthropy, which brought him an OBE, sealed the allegiance yet? “I’m still in the same frame of mind.
It runs parallel with me I suppose.” He enjoys two personal indulgences - his Maserati Gran Turismo with personalised plates and his £3m Cannes villa.
“It takes about £60,000 a year for its upkeep and staff, but it’s worth it. I hate going to France and having to hire a car. I go over and the driver picks us up at the airport, takes us to the villa. Things like that are just so luxurious.” No mention of the cosmetic surgery, though.
At his five-bedroom home in Wynyard, he can be perfectly happy lazing in front of the television. He’s not sure how things would have worked out without his own TV appearances. “It just sort of happened. I became part of it.
I think it helps in getting your name known. I was going down the acting road. I’d been for auditions. Then Dragon’s Den came along, so I gave up the acting idea. It’s okay.”