Enter the Dragon, carrying 'The Big Issue' for Pakistan

Making millions was not enough. James Caan wants to give something back.
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The Independent Online

Work, work, work. Seven days a week, from 8 o'clock in the morning to 10 o'clock at night, James Caan is at it. Even as we talk he is fielding emails on one of his many BlackBerrys. Is he a workaholic? "Yes," comes the emphatic response. "You notice I didn't even hesitate." But while the Pakistan-born entrepreneur and star of Dragons' Den has dedicated his energy reserves to making money for most of his 47 years, he is now embarking on a new, philanthropic stage in his career.

Last week he made his first business trip to Pakistan as the newly appointed chairman of The Big Issue, the weekly magazine devised and sold by the homeless, which he plans to launch in his home country in the spring. This will hopefully be followed by its launch in India. His involvement in the project came about after he received a call from John Bird, the big-hearted philanthropist who founded The Big Issue 18 years ago, who asked Caan to share his business expertise and contacts in the Indian subcontinent.

"It is exactly the kind of project I am interested in," he says. "The whole idea of helping people by turning them into entrepreneurs and making an honest living really appeals to me." Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1960, Caan's own tale is a classic rags-to-riches yarn. His father moved the family to London soon after Caan's birth and set up the family leather business in London's Brick Lane. But by the time he was 17 Caan had turned his back on all that, leaving home and education to set up a head-hunting firm, Alexander Mann, which, by his 30th birthday, had already brought in many millions.

With his soothing cut-glass voice, Caan exudes the confidence of a man who has never doubted his own abilities. Perhaps that's because, early on, he decided who he wanted to be and became that person. At the age of 16, he was Nazim Khan from Brixton, but after seeing a film starring the actor James Caan, he adopted the name for himself and has never used Nazim again, eventually changing his name formally by deed poll.

Now he is almost as famous as his American namesake, thanks to his appearance as one of the "Dragons" on the BBC's hit show Dragons' Den. Despite only joining in its fifth series, he quickly attracted a fan base for his unflappable, calm manner. In the programme, entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to the panel of Dragons, hoping they will invest their own cash in the business. But Caan is known to offer advice and contacts to many of those who don't succeed on air.

Launching The Big Issue in Pakistan sounds like a good idea, but how will it work in practice, given the number of homeless people there? "The concept of street vendors is already well established out there," he says. "I have found a number of publishing houses who I have approached about setting up a chain of distribution centres. We will be turning homeless people into respectable entrepreneurs."

The only hitch is that anyone wanting to become a vendor must first have the money the buy a batch of magazines, which they then sell on at a profit. But Caan doesn't believe that will be an obstacle. "Like in the UK, once we get to know the vendors we will give them a batch on appro. Building up relations and trust is an important part of what we do." Caan is a convincing evangelist for The Big Issue, despite having only joined officially last months. In the UK, The Big Issue generates £8m a year that goes into the pockets of the homeless, with a weekly distribution of 147,000. It is a success story Caan is clearly keen to add to his portfolio: through his private investment fund he is currently involved in 40 businesses. Isn't it too much?

"It is too much," he admits. "It's a lot to take on. Luckily, I've got a really good team of staff, and I thoroughly enjoy it." But what about his wife and two grown-up daughters? Don't they want him to do a bit less? "This is what I do. My wife knows that would not be a fruitful conversation." He may have no intention of slowing down but the focus of his attention has certainly shifted.

After selling Alexander Mann in 2002 for several tens of millions – "enough to pay off the mortgage" is how he puts it – he set up the James Caan Foundation, which funds the education of 438 homeless children in Pakistan. Looking at the faces of these children gives him more satisfaction now than sealing any deal, he says. It is a cliché, but he gets a kick out of putting something back, and would like more people to do voluntary work. Should it, I suggest, be made compulsory, like Labour's proposed community service? "I don't think so, because I don't think making people do things ever brings out the best in us."

All this philanthropy does not mean he has abandoned the high life: his office is in Mayfair, his transport is a blue Rolls-Royce and for relaxation he spends four, days every month on his yacht in the south of France. "I feel incredibly fortunate," he says, "I've never been happier. I think it's important for everyone to take time out from their lives to realise just how lucky we are, and what we have." And then he's off to the next phone call.