From sweaty T-shirts to online bets: The changing world of Peter Dubens

Business Profile: The serial entrepreneur behind GX Networks on the secrets of his success
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The Independent Online

Remember those T-shirts that changed colour depending on your body temperature that were hugely popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s? The ones that caused brightly coloured and, of course, highly embarrassing marks to appear in the armpit area of the fabric if you sweated?

Peter Dubens - the 37-year-old serial entrepreneur behind the online sports betting company ukbetting and the telecoms business GX Networks that is changing its name to Pipex Communications - is the man to blame.

Going from selling T-shirts to telecoms might seem an odd transition. But then, Mr Dubens, like just about every entrepreneur you could name, has not done things the conventional way. He never made it to year two of his degree course, he says, noting he spent more time in the foyer trading shares on the phone. By the age of 20, he had set up a clothing business with a friend and by the age of 22, he had made his first million. It all sounds marvellously simple although he admits that much of his success in business has been down to "luck" and, of course, knowing the right people.

And he seems to know a lot of the right people. The friend whom he set up the clothing business with was none other than Jonathan Sieff - grandson of Lord Sieff of Marks & Spencer fame. Other names that crop up include Joe Lewis, the currency trader, Terry Semel, chief executive of Yahoo! and former Warner Bros boss, Anton Bilton, the property developer, and Mike Lynch of the IT company Autonomy, not to mention various Lords and Sirs. With access to the kind of circles that, no doubt, his upbringing gave him, it is refreshing to hear him admit that his early success also involved a fair amount of blagging.

After setting up the clothing business, selling licensed clothing like Disney garments to the likes of M&S and Bhs, with Mr Sieff, the pair effectively sweet-talked their way into winning the rights to sell the heat-sensitive T-shirts in the UK.

The deal meant they had to guarantee $26m (£16m) of sales over three years. "We blagged our way into it. I was 21," he says, adding: "I remember driving to Birmingham with Jonathan for the Clothes Show Live exhibition. We'd launched these T-shirts and Take That were wearing them and we phoned the stand and asked what's happening? And they said 'nothing, absolutely nothing'."

"I was a bit worried at that point," he says although it became obvious quite early on that the gamble would more than likely pay off. "By the time we arrived [at the exhibition], they'd put barricades up around the stand," he says.

The pair sold more than $26m worth of the T-shirts in the first year and went on to sell the clothing business to the textiles outfit Coats Viyella for "a few million", he says.

In the meantime, the pair had, along with a third partner, taken on the rights to sell another product in the UK - this time Vans Shoes - the brand currently in vogue with skateboard riders. It was, with hindsight, another shrewd move. "When we took it over it was £250,000 of turnover in the UK in the year and when we sold it [back to Vans for about £15m], we were making a £2.5m profit," he says. He was 28.

Strangely, Mr Dubens refuses to shed any light whatsoever on his background, refuses to talk about his childhood and will not even name where he lived or went to school. To do so, he says mysteriously, would involve mentioning yet another celebrity name -- something he is clearly reluctant to do - although his clipped, public schoolboy accent is something of a giveaway. Besides which, he says he is more interested in looking forward than raking over the past. All very intriguing until he spills the beans later on -- although only on the basis it will not appear in print. Nor will he talk about his family although photographs of his three young daughters litter his St James office. That is more understandable; his home has been broken into twice recently.

His work is just about the only thing he will talk about freely. After selling the clothing business, he traded the stock market for a few years before dipping his toe back into corporate life. Paradigm Media Investments - an investment vehicle set up with the backing of Mr Lewis and Mr Lynch when technology shares were riding high - was one such project although it didn't go quite to plan. "The idea was to create a cash shell where we could reverse a large public company into it. We spent two years looking for something and basically, we made the decision that we weren't able to find something that would be exciting enough for the shareholders ... so we returned all the cash," he says.

That a suitable investment could not be unearthed is something of a relief. "We could have bought a technology business for a lot of money [during the peak of the market] and ended up with 5 per cent of the value," he says.

And then, of course, came ukbetting and, later, GX Networks. "Terry [Semel] called me ... His son [Eric] had been the right-hand guy of Steve Wynn [the Las Vegas casino operator whose Mirage Resorts business was bought by rival Kirk Kerkorian's MGM Grand].

"Anyway, Terry calls, says Eric's finished at the Bellagio and is exceptionally interested in online gaming and would you help him look at the potential in Europe," Mr Dubens says.

"The result was that we bought a company called ukbetting.com which had been introduced to me by Johnny Francome [the jockey]."

The constant name dropping would be annoying were it not for the humorous way the stories are told and the occasional flashes of modesty that surface.

"So much of all this business stuff, I think, is luck. Complete luck," Mr Dubens says. But surely even the luckiest of businessmen have a ruthless streak? He admits he probably is "aggressive" but "in a quiet way".

Between ukbetting and GX Networks, Mr Dubens has overseen the purchase of a number of companies, including five all at £1 each, and has raised about £60m on the stock market in the process. The most recent deal was GX Networks' purchase Pipex, the internet service provider business, for £55m, although more UK purchases in the telecoms sector are likely given the shake-up still going on.

Mr Dubens hopes ukbetting will turn out a profit this year, albeit on an underlying, or EBITDA, basis while GX Networks, he says, will be cash flow profitable immediately as soon as the Pipex deal completes.

But they are not the only irons in the fire. Mr Dubens has interests in about eight businesses ranging from a hedge fund called Avocet Capital Management, chaired by Lord Wolfson of Sunningdale, to a celebrity gym called KX in Chelsea.

The two PLCs are, however, the most visible of his efforts to the outside world and, as such, are the vehicles on which his reputation will be riding. The real test now lies in proving they are sustainable, long-term businesses although given his unconventional past, it is hard to imagine either will follow the textbook formulae.

PETER DUBENS GAME PLAN

Position: Chairman of GX Networks and executive vice-chairman of ukbetting.

Age: 37.

Salary: £127,500 from ukbetting last year. Salary from GX Networks not disclosed.

Career: Set up a clothing business with a friend when he was 20 before winning the rights to sell heat-sensitive T-shirts and Vans shoes in the UK. Traded the stock market for a few years before setting up ukbetting and GX Networks.

Interests: Three daughters, piano, gym and snowboarding.

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