James came from a close, but poor family, his father a miner who became a docker and suffered from frequent spells of unemployment - James was always very loyal to him, visiting him every Sunday to the end of his days. Unusually, James started in business on his own quite late, after his 40th birthday. After Merchant Venturers School, to which he won a scholarship, he learnt about radio, first in the RAF, then as an assistant in a radio shop in his native Bristol, then, during the Second World War, as a radio operator.
After a systematic study of the radio business, learning about balance sheets and other business mysteries, he spent the money he had been saving carefully since before the war on a small local concern, the Broadmead radio company. James was alert to detail. In his early days in business he noted that it was more profitable to set up shops in poorer areas. He realised that he could develop his business by renting sets to customers while he repaired their existing ones; he was also very aware of fashions, and regional differences, in tastes. Business boomed, especially after the introduction of Independent Television in 1955. Within a few years he had a chain of over 300 shops, one of the largest in the country, albeit short of the target of a thousand outlets he had set for himself in a 10-year business plan he wrote in 1949.
In 1959 he sold the Broadmead chain to the Firth Cleveland industrial group for pounds 5.8m, seemingly out of restlessness, the need to start something new, rather than for financial reasons. He set about investing on the stock market. Having lost pounds 1m the first year he told a friend, "I'm not stupid: I can learn how to play the market", and over the next 30 years proved his point many times over.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s he built up a very different company, the John James group, based on small companies in the West Country, including builders' merchants, a printing company and a manufacturer of office furniture. This had a sticky start but flourished during the 1970s and in 1979 James sold out for pounds 25m.
James's relationship with his native city was rather stormy. In the late 1950s, after he had sold his original business, he was refused membership of the "Merchant Venturers", Bristol's most exclusive business club. This rejection reinforced his dislike of those who, unlike him, had had to make their own way in the world. He moved to Sunningdale, in Berkshire, where he owned a lavish Spanish-style house, set in 45 acres of grounds, on the edge of Windsor Great Park. In the winter he would live in the homes he bought in Jamaica and Palm Beach. Towards the end of his life he mellowed, the chippiness had disappeared and he was thrilled to receive the honorary membership of the Venturers.
James's philanthropic activities were on a large scale, although he steadfastly refused to allow his name to be attached to any of the many institutions or projects he helped to fund, mostly through the Dawn James Foundation, named after a daughter who died in 1970. He refused to be surrounded by secretaries, lawyers or advisers, but relied on "spies", trusted friends whom he could rely on to bring him only deserving causes. These were generally educational or medical but he would never commit himself to regular donations. As a friend put it, "He didn't want the recipients of his generosity to develop a dependency culture." Nevertheless he gave a number of gifts, of at least pounds 50,000 each, to Bristol Grammar School, which he saw as dedicated to educating poor boys like himself. He also gave much larger sums to hospitals, including pounds 1m to the Frenchay Hospital in Bristol for a scanner, and pounds 300,000 to the Harefield Hospital in Middlesex.
John James, businessman and philanthropist: born 25 July 1906; chairman, Dawn Estates 1945-96, Broadmead group 1946-60, John James group 1961-79; CBE 1981; twice married (one son, two daughters, and one daughter deceased); died 31 January 1996.Reuse content