Peter Jones: The millionaire who turned into a Dragon

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

He made and lost his first million in his twenties. Now he's one of the 500 richest people in Britain – and the star of BT's new television commercials.

I have met Peter Jones before. He was struggling to fit his 6ft 8in frame into a lift at Whiteley's Shopping Centre in Bayswater, west London, on his way up to the third-floor studio of the channel Five show The Wright Stuff, where he was due to appear as a panellist, and I was employed as a mic boy.

I suggested to him that, given the obvious incongruity between his dimensions and those of the lift, and given my stubborn refusal ever to enter the same vehicle on grounds of claustrophobia, he was welcome to join me in taking the stairs. "Nonsense", he said. "If I can do it, so can you. We're in this together man. It'll be over in no time. Don't doubt yourself." If I was a little taken aback by Jones' sudden transformation into a life-coach, I was, nevertheless, later grateful, having survived the journey. His driver later said to me, "he's like that with everyone".

The self-styled tycoon recalls the meeting with relish when I meet him at a publicity fair for BT Business, where he is brandishing his new status, as the face of BT, with glee. "Been in any more lifts recently?", he says. "High five!"

Indeed. There is something infectious about Jones' enthusiasm, which might strike fans of the BBC's Dragons' Den (in which he appears as a super-rich, hard-to-please "dragon", interrogating entrepreneurs about their products) as surprising, even disconcerting. The same I-can, anything-is-possible, mentality has augmented his natural business acumen to make Jones, at 42, worth £160m, equal 438th in the Sunday Times Rich List.

Having founded his first business at 17, and having made and lost his first million by the time he was 28, Jones has converted himself from telecommunications tycoon to a famous philanthropist whom politicians line up to be photographed with.

His success in the period in between has, he confesses, been principally down to one thing: Dragons' Den. "It's been a remarkable innovation. We've completed six series and just been commissioned for a seventh", he says. "I think a lot of people are getting bored of audition-based shows, along the lines of Strictly Come Dancing or The X-Factor. I know I am. But Dragons' Den will have a longer shelf-life than all of them because it's fundamentally real in a way that other shows aren't."

He then comes over all Barack Obama. "People have dreams, don't they? Young people have enormous vision for their futures. I think a lot of them are realising that they won't necessarily be Robbie Williams but they might be brilliant businessmen and businesswomen. A record number, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, answer 'entrepreneur' these days. Isn't that fantastic?"

I suggest that he's too modest to confess he may have played a small role in that. "Not at all. I'm not humble about it in the slightest. I've played a massive and growing part in making business glamorous and even, yes, sexy. Because the number of people on television making business exciting to young people... well, you can count them on one hand. And I'm one of them."

There's no question Jones's presence has been a boon to the Dragons' line-up. Warmer than Duncan Bannatyne – the scowling, Scottish Al Pacino lookalike who launched his business empire from an ice-cream van – and braver than Theo Paphitis – the bespectacled, Cyprus-born saviour of Millwall Football Club who owns stationery firm Ryman and lingerie business La Senza – Jones is probably the best-known face on the show.

Yet, as much as he has been a benefit to the programme, the programme has been a benefit to him. "I'm almost wholly dependent on the media", he says. Surely not, I counter: when in your mid-thirties, Phones International Group (the conglomerate Jones founded and ran on a day-to-day basis) was generating revenues in excess of £200m, years before anybody in the BBC had heard of you.

"Yes, but my debt to the media is still enormous. If it wasn't for Dragons' I wouldn't have had a chance to make top-rating television programmes in America. If it wasn't for the interest and support of publishers I wouldn't have written my book [Tycoon, a manual for wannabe millionaires]. You need the media as a businessman and brand-builder, and massively too. How else are the kids you're trying to inspire going to hear you?"

When Jones was seven he would sit in his father's office-chair, fantasising about building a business empire. At 12, he volunteered for a job helping out a teacher with tennis lessons. Within five years he'd set up his own tennis academy.

In his twenties he was rich enough to afford a BMW and a Porsche. But a combination of bad luck and an ill-advised restaurant venture cost him his fortune, and left him broke. Taking the safe option of joining the big firm Siemens, he found himself running their UK business within a year.

The contacts and experience gained there led to his setting up Phones International Group. Within five years he had an annual turnover of £150m, and was selling off subsidiary firms, which he had also founded, for eye-watering profits.

Since Dragons' Den was first broadcast in January 2005, he has gone on to present two other television shows, one a hit and the other a complete flop. Tycoon, a kind of televised kindergarten for entrepreneurs, got buffeted around the ITV peak-time scheduled and was shortened from an hour to half an hour before eventually being dropped.

American Inventor, on the other hand, which Jones co-produced with his friend Simon Cowell, became an overnight hit, topping the ratings on America's ABC network and prompting Jones to "run around the block with my hands in the air, so nobody could stop me. I was just so thrilled".

With his fame secure, and recognition of his brand growing fast, Jones is turning his attention to Britain's kids, investing £8m of his money in two academies for young entrepreneurs. "What I'm trying to do is no less than bring about a cultural change in this country. Our attitudes to business are negative and outdated," he says.

Jones, who replaces Gordon Ramsay as the face of the BT television adverts, is positively luminous about the opportunities his media profile offers him.

"Business is about more than just money. It's about being creative and innovative. I think between Dragons' Den and American Inventor, and together with shows like The Apprentice, we've got a fantastic chance to use television to change lives and attitudes permanently. I want to be leading that charge; if that means being known as a philanthropist, I'm all for it".

Perhaps there is a danger, I suggest, that because of his obvious success politicians who themselves suffer from a deficit of authority might cling to him.

"I don't care," he retorts. "I'm not going to complain if politicians who watch my shows say, 'Peter, we think you're fantastic'. It's always been my dream to use business to help people and, if politicians want to come along for the ride, well I'm profiting from the partnership even more".

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Morrissey pictured in 2013
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Data Analytics Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading organisation...

Accountant / Assistant Management Accountant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an Assistant Management Ac...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Insight Analyst Vacancy - Leading Marketing Agency

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency have won a fe...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices