A day in the life of John Caudwell: How to make your first £1bn: start planning at the age of eight

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The Independent Online


Dawn is still a good two hours away when the alarm goes off in the master bedroom of the £10m, 65-room, Jacobean mansion in the heart of Staffordshire.

John Caudwell, the mobile phone entrepreneur who has been described as Britain's ultimate self-made businessman, slips out of bed and into his cycling gear.

The Bentley convertible stays in the garage and he hops instead on a carbon-fibre racing bike to make the 14-mile commute to the austere headquarters of his £1bn-plus Phones4U empire.

Today is the start of what promises to be a big week for Mr Caudwell. Later, the City will learn that the business he built from scratch over the past 18 years has performed far better than expected in 2005.

In a record year, earnings before interest tax, tax and amortisation hit £149m on sales worth £2.12bn.

Only two months ago, when Mr Caudwell asked NM Rothschild to find him a buyer, earnings were expected to be only £115m with sales somewhere above £2bn.

Sales may have been stonking at the rival Carphone Warehouse, but the 53-year-old reckons he has orchestrated a victory over Carphone's founder Charles Dunstone in the key battle for third-generation (3G) mobile phone customers.

Half of Phones4U's new customers took 3G phones, delivering Mr Caudwell a 30 per cent share of a key market populated by those who typically spend more and lap up new technology more quickly.


The cycling gear is airing on a radiator as Mr Caudwell sits down to chair the first of four board meetings that day.

Representatives from each of his businesses - Phones4U, the 20:20 Logistics handset distribution arm, his Dextra Solutions accessories distributor, the MPRC mobile phone repair business, Caudwell Logistics warehousing and transportation, and the Caudwell Communications fixed-line phones - run through the prescribed drill.

Every meeting of any of the various Caudwell Group boards tracks the same agenda: a review of the financial figures and comparison against forecasts; plans to drive forward that business; suppliers and stock levels; and competitors. Today, there is also a post mortem examination of the group's annual awards do for 1,300 of its 8,500 workers held in a marquee in the car park the previous Saturday.

According to Mr Caudwell, careful attention to the training of his sales staff is a central plank to the success of the past 12 months.

"Really good customer service will deliver sales. You are training salesmen to give the best possible advice and then to achieve the sale. People actually like you to ask for a sale because it shows you value their business."

They signed up 12 per cent more new connections in 2005 than a year earlier, after surging 42 per in the final three months of the year.

The ubiquitous presence of mobile phones - from the playground to the pension line - in a country where there are more mobile phones than people is a far cry from the general cynicism about the usefulness of portable telephony that Mr Caudwell crashed against in 1987.

That was the year, while a used-car salesman in Stoke-on-Trent, he caught wind of a new gadget that he thought sounded useful.

The phones were the size of house bricks and set you back £1,500, but Mr Caudwell was looking to build a business after two earlier failed enterprises: a corner shop in his twenties and a mail order business selling clothing to bikers.

He picked up his landline and called the American handset maker Motorola to see if he could do a deal.

Mr Caudwell ended up taking 26 mobiles at £1,350 each and spent the next eight months offloading them for £2,500 to the likes of plumbers, taxi drivers and television repairmen.

"It was a real long, hard slog. It was big profits, but not many people wanted them. I was staggered by people's reluctance to adopt what I had by then decided was a crucial business aid."


The directors of Mr Caudwell's general board file out, to be replaced by the 20 or so managers of the group's nascent Spanish operation.

He has but one Phones4U shop in Spain (compared with 350 in the UK with another 100 on the way) but is pushing hard and plans another visit soon. When he does, he will as always take a no-frills easyJet flight.

Mr Caudwell is a man of startling contradictions. Today, he is the 29th richest man in Britain and carries all the clichéd trappings that wealth can bring. He flies his own helicopter and light aircraft, lives in that spectacular £10m half-timbered mansion, has a penthouse in Chelsea and a house in France, and owns a luxury yacht.

"At eight, I had this massive urge inside me to be massively successful and wealthy. It was something to be admired and I just wanted to be in that position."

But then there are the endless charity bike rides to help children with medical costs and a legendary parsimony: he hates waste and famously banned staff from buying paper clips because they would be given away. E-mails were outlawed because staff spent too long reading them.

He cuts what remains of his ginger locks with clippers from Boots; and the first time he wooed his girlfriend, Claire, with dinner, he served water three years out of date. He clubs together with friends to go on champagne runs to the Continent rather than pay the fancy prices in the UK.

"If you throw money around like confetti, it just becomes shallow and meaningless. I think it's almost a balance. If you don't have the bad life, how can you recognise the good? It's not tightness, it's about value for money. I don't like paying too much for anything or wasting it. I think that I'm more of a balanced individual rather than a dichotomy."

For Mr Caudwell, the "hard life" started in Birmingham, before moving to Stoke-on-Trent. His father, a salesman, had a stroke when he was 14 and died four years later.

John Caudwell was bullied at school for having ginger hair and freckles, and threw in his A-levels to become an apprentice at Michelin.


Mr Caudwell hits the treadmill. Fitness is important to him and he builds an hour of gym time into every day.

Part of the reason he is selling up is he plans to spend more time risking a neck that has already been broken twice - by sailing around the world. That, with a desire to spend more time on charity work and with ill relatives, made up his mind to sell.

In another glaring contradiction, a man variously described as ruthless, aggressive and a bully, who has no time for trade unions and once paid himself in gold bars to avoid National Insurance contributions, has ruled out a sale to a rival.

That would be likely to generate a higher price, but would also entail mass redundancies. Instead, Mr Caudwell will hand his group to private equity.


After another two board meetings, for the 20:20 Logistics and his Irish operation, Mr Caudwell has made the journey back home by bike and is in his kitchen.

He is rustling up a Thai green curry for his girlfriend - a blonde former model - and their young son. "I always switch off from the business when I go across the threshold. Home is home and I try to keep it that way."

He was married to Kate for 25 years, ending in 2001. They had three children and parted amicably. In the wild, single days that followed, he met the violinist Jane Burgess, a former squeeze of the ex-Tory MP Rupert Allason. They had a brief affair and had a daughter, Scarlett.

After they have eaten, the three sit on the sofa in front of the television. Celebrity Big Brother flickers across the screen. "You can't help watching a bit of it on occasion. Then I think what the hell did I watch that for? Isn't it sad? We're sad for watching it, but the people in it are sad as well."

By the witching hour, Mr Caudwell has slipped back into bed.