My Biggest Mistake: James Robson

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The Independent Online
MY BIGGEST mistake was made in 1991 when I mixed business and personal affairs in a way that still causes me embarrassment and not a small amount of anger.

It was a situation that I should have seen coming: a heartwarming appeal from a close friend of an even-closer relative; my self-indulgent wish to help 'one less able' to help himself (in the process giving a new dimension to the term 'help himself'); and the capacity, through new-found success, to use money as a problem-solver.

If my business had not been successful I simply could not have been caught in this trap. Picture the situation: a long-standing and close friend (call him Uncle Ben) of a dear relative (call her Aunt Maud) falls upon hard times. Apparently misunderstood by his co-director, Uncle Ben seeks a desperate cure for his modest overdraft by apparently forging a signature on his own company's cheque. Although bound to be found out, he promptly deposits pounds 60,000 into his bank. This spells big trouble and a plea goes out within the family for help to assist misunderstood Uncle Ben.

This is where I come in. Uncle Ben is a good man, just acting out of character. So, when asked to intervene, I do. I bail him out with an expensive glow of pride.

How did Uncle Ben become so impecunious, despite a modest lifestyle and a relatively large salary? None of us asked, and none of us knew.

Uncle Ben was given a clean start, still trusted by the family, with a newly refurbished business and a brand new director - me.

It was a new era for Uncle Ben, but I should have known life is never so easy. My first big mistake having been made, here came my next.

As collateral for helping Uncle Ben, I had received some of his shares and had agreed to buy the rest at a price equal to his modest overdraft - 'a few thousand pounds'. This seemed to be a fair deal - until his hitherto silent bank manager confirmed that Uncle Ben had debts well beyond 'a few thousand'. Indeed, to my astonishment, he owed the bank pounds 125,000. I had been caught, hook, line and sinker.

Clever old Uncle Ben was not quite the innocent we had all presumed - still likeable, of course, but a little more astute than expected.

To crown it all, in my determination to right wrongs, I had inadvertently become the director of a debt-ridden company, with a head office that resembled a dilapidated Victorian workhouse, producing products in a rapidly declining market.

If only the building had been in Chelsea, but luck was not running my way. The site turned out to have little value, either as a commercial or residential base.

This was indeed a big mistake all round. My investment in faith had been made after I had completely ignored the best advice of lawyers, accountants and friends. Infallibility does not come easily and on this occasion I proved the point beyond question.

Would I do it again? No. But at the time it seemed like the thing to do.

As with all good mistakes, there are useful lessons that help you to become more successful as time goes by. Today I know how to make a brush for cleaning out the gun barrel of a Chieftain tank. And it taught me to pick my relatives more carefully.

James Robson is chairman of Colleagues Direct Marketing

(Photograph omitted)