Graham Leslie’s investment strategy is simple. “I back jockeys. that’s the secret. You can come to me with a great idea but if I don’t like you I won’t back you.”
And there’ve been a few jockeys who’ve charmed him into taking a punt since he amassed his fortune in the pharmaceuticals business.
He founded Galpharm International in 1982, along with his son craig and steered the company to success as the uK’s biggest supplier of non-prescriptive medicine, before selling to the Perrigo Group for us$88m in 2008.
He’s achieved much else in business besides this, like helping to create the world’s first green-field 25,000 seat stadium for football and rugby in 1991. Now known as the Galpharm stadium it employs over 130 full time staff and is the home of the Huddersfield Giants rugby league team and Huddersfield town AFC.
He’s met and dined with two American Presidents, been adviser to the UK’s All Party Health select committee, served as the first regional ambassador for the Prince’s trust and, more famously, as chairman of Huddersfield town AFC.
He was even British hairdressing champion 1964. Little wonder, then, that there’s a book about his life in the pipeline – a biography rather than an autobiography.
“I don’t like talking about me unless it inspires people to set up something or change direction in a company,” he says, before explaining he’s just returned from canada where he’s been inspiring change among budding business leaders there. But in the latest chapter of his life, investing in and advising entrepreneurs across Yorkshire and elsewhere in the uK is what has kept him busiest since selling Galpharm.
“I ended up with all this money that I didn’t know what to do with. I honestly didn’t know anything about money. “Real entrepreneurs do not understand the real value of money. They don’t have it on a pedestal.
"A lot of people who are ambitious have it on a pedestal and it can be their motivating driving force but I think for genuine serial entrepreneurs it’s a means to an end and it represents someone saying ‘well done’.”
“With all this cash, I looked around and decided to invest in various companies. The trigger point was somebody in London who said ‘you’ve done a fantastic job in pharmaceuticals but so what?’
“So I decided to look at various companies and test myself and see what I was capable of doing. The first two failed.”
But, six of the eight major investments he made in the aftermath of Galpharm have been successful.
Earlier this year he also joined forces with marketing and business specialist Patrick Allen and finance expert Richard Smith to launch One Degree Capital, a consortium of funding sources aiming to provide the backing to help businesses across Yorkshire grow and succeed.
It set out a £25m fund it plans to invest into the regional economy over the next three years, by backing up and coming businesses. We meet in Leslie’s office in the sparkling new £12m 3M Buckley Innovation Centre (BIC) at the University of Huddersfield, where he serves as a visiting professor of enterprise and entrepreneurship.
Since the Galpharm exit, his shopping list has been long and varied. He initially invested in an equine product – a move which failed because “the damn thing didn’t work. We got it dead wrong”.
Then there was an investment in a business based around a kidney dialysis-related product. “that was a very clever product and idea but it just needed so much funding,” he says of the business which failed after struggling to crack a market dominated by healthcare giants.
“It’s important to mention these failures because the other six I backed I got dead right. sometimes you get them wrong and nothing’s guaranteed.”
Among the six successful vehicles that followed was crest Medical – reportedly the largest first aid and occupational healthcare products business in the uK – and the related operation, crest Logistics, which was formed in 2010 and won its first order of £9.8m soon after.
Leslie remains chairman of this business. others include Farrar Construction, a joint venture currently developing a housing portfolio and Set Visions, a photography studio business which has a 3,000 sq ft space for lifestyle shoots and commercial product shots. then there was forensic science business Axiom.
“Have you ever tried to get money out of someone you’ve just bombed,” Leslie says, recounting the time the training and consultancy business won a Libyan contract just before the Gaddafi regime was overthrown.
“Libyan forensic scientists and the police force were here being trained when we decided to eliminate the ‘gentleman’. That’s not the best business model to set your business on. But they stayed here and we were able to deliver a very well trained forensic science team for the good of their country.”
Leslie is also chairman and backer of mother and baby products business Babyway International, which is run by his son Alex and exports to a number of overseas markets. In all, Leslie reckons these post-Galpharm interests have a combined group turnover of around £32m and a 7.5% profit level.
As well as providing vital funds to businesses, though, Leslie is also a source of great entrepreneurial expertise, having done what he calls his “apprenticeship” in a career that has meandered in many directions on its route from hardship to success.
“Some kids today set things up in their bedroom and they’re flying in year two and that’s technology.
“But for the majority of people, you’re in for a marathon, not a sprint and it’s important that you serve this apprenticeship.”
Leslie has certainly done that, taking in many experiences of working life to formulate the view he has today on what it takes to build success in business.
“I’ve had lots of nine-to-five jobs, I even had a brief career as a footballer as a reserve with Middlesbrough FC, then I became a hairdresser and was British champion at 18 and was later head hunted by Schwarzkopf cosmetics company before I told the truth about a certain colleague and they sacked me.”
That was at the start of the 1970s at a time when Leslie – who was born in Essex to Glaswegian parents and raised on a Teesside council estate from the age of five – found himself in the dole queue in Huddersfield.
“The dole was a fascinating experience. I learned a lot about the inequalities of people’s lives, how people are very clever and manipulative to work the system to suit themselves, and about those bureaucrats who didn’t want to know the reality. I also learned I never wanted to be on the dole again.”
After applying for 30 jobs without success, his 31st attempt took him to Winthrop Pharmaceuticals. He eventually left after the company rejected his idea for a new business opportunity in pharmaceuticals.
“I put some plans forward for a company which they said were rubbish so I went off and thought I’d have a go on my own. His initial motivation was purely to “pay the mortgage” with the plans that became Galpharm and he ultimately made enough money to do this many times over.
Leslie is keen to save the finer details of his career – such as how he dined with two American Presidents – for his book and is much keener to talk about the ‘now’ rather than ‘then’. The hour we have together just isn’t long enough to journey in detail past his other milestones, like life at the helm of a football club or in advising the Government on key healthcare policy.
Unsurprisingly for someone in high demand for his entrepreneurial expertise – and capital – he’s pressed for time.
Immediately after his meeting with BQ he’s off to sign the papers on a brand new investment which he’s clearly excited about. Under the One Degree Capital umbrella, he’s been busy this year backing a number of rising businesses.
Alongside the funds on offer to these enterprises, there is also the added incentive of potentially tapping into the resources of the 3M BIC in Huddersfield.
“We’ll go into a company and analyse it. They may be wishing to sell it or grow it and we work out where we can help them through connections into the market place.”
Companies backed this year include Go Dine, a restaurant booking website, The Lazy Camper, which sells camping kits for festivals, and retailer Direct2Mum, another business run by Leslie’s son Alex and generating revenue of £1m from online retailing this year.
At One Degree Capital, Leslie is flanked by chief executive Patrick Allen, former marketing director of the Co-operative Group, where he helped to take the brand from outside Britain’s top 100 to number 24 in two years and number six in the retail brand sector.
Also on the One Degree Capital team is Richard Smith, who serves as acquisitions and investment finance director and formerly worked at Andersen Corporate Finance, dealing with mergers and acquisitions.
More recently, he was at Yorkshireman Lawrence Tomlinson’s LNT Group, where he managed the sale of more than £100m of care home assets. As well as backing up and coming businesses, the trio is currently plotting an assault on the roadside filling stations market.
Leslie says: “We’re aiming to open between 20 and 30 in the next three years, making it a £40m-a-year turnover business. These would be rural filling stations in areas that don’t fit the profile of the big supermarkets, which work on footfall. We will work more on community service [provision].”
In the meantime there are many other interests in Leslie’s life to keep him busy, in business and in charity. There is also his passionate dabbling in the music world.
“It’s my wedding anniversary today. We got married in Ripon Cathedral two years ago and I wrote the music that was arranged by my brother Hugh to be played in the Cathedral after we got married.
“I’m not classically trained. I played the drums in the boy’s brigade in the 1950s and 60s and picked up guitar when I was 32. I was bored, had just got divorced and a guitar’s shaped like a woman anyway,” he laughs.
“My brother does all the arranging, I just come up with the lyrics and the themes and he thinks I’m fantastic because I’m not constrained by being classically trained and I think he’s awesome because he can read the dots and sit down anywhere in the world as a concert pianist and play any piece of music.”
With Leslie showing no signs of slowing down in business, or life in general, perhaps the author of his forthcoming book is already planning volume two.