Duncan Bannatyne: A fire-breathing Dragon who never seems to come out of character

He is a businessman who has made a lot of money and a lot of enemies. Perhaps it’s because what you see on the television is what you get in real life

Perhaps it’s because I mention a contentious magazine article at the outset. Or because  he’s in a lunch break between filming Dragons’ Den and still in character. Or maybe he’s just hungry and his blood sugar is low.

But, oh God, Duncan Bannatyne can be difficult.

We’re in what used to be the Green Room for the show. I start by mentioning the cover story of the latest issue of Management Today magazine, “Dragons’ Den: Real Business or Show Business?”

Inside is an unbylined piece that is highly critical, accusing the Dragons of being more interested in promoting themselves than in the products put before them, of displaying undue hostility to the people pitching, and when they do invest, sometimes not following up with the promised hard cash. “Many entrepreneurs have been left battered after appearing on the hit BBC series. Either their dreams were shredded or offers of investment turned out to be illusory or on very bad terms.”

The Dragons are “as colourful as they are incredible”, the article continues. “Take gym entrepreneur and fiery Scot Duncan Bannatyne, whose financial woes have been played out endlessly in the media. The small issue of a £122m debt to the collapsed Anglo Irish Bank last year got him booted out of the Sunday Times Rich List, yet he has managed to hang on grimly to his spot on the show.”

It goes on: “Bannatyne’s high-profile divorce turned into a soap opera amid the Dragon’s claims on Twitter that his ex only married him for his money. And his own brother Sandy became a  member of the ‘I hate Duncan Bannatyne society’ on Facebook, after the Dragon insulted his Scottish family in his autobiography.”

Has he read it? He snarls back: “Whoever wrote that is a coward, they won’t put their name on it.”

Worse, “they’re a liar and a coward. They said I criticised my family in my autobiography – that’s just not true.”

So, how much has he invested down the years? “I’ve never counted it all.” Surely, he must have a clue? “No, I don’t know.”

The point, he says, is that it’s a lot, and the claim the money does not materialise, is unwarranted.

Neither, he insists, do the Dragons set out to demolish those who appear. “There’s no basis to the criticism that we’re negative. We’re competing with each other to invest – we’ve helped a lot of entrepreneurs over the years; a lot of people are very happy with us.”

Why, aged 65, does he still do it? He shrugs. “Because I enjoy it. I get the chance to invest in a variety of great many things.”

What about the self-promotion claim? His look is withering as he laughs. “I don’t think I could raise my profile any more.”

Later, though, he admits that when he was first asked if he would be a Dragon, “I was bored, so I said ‘great, let’s do it’” but since then, “it’s been great for the company, for the brand name which is my name [Bannatyne health clubs], and for my website”.

Whenever he has asked his team whether he should keep doing it, they’ve replied, “Yes, it raises the profile of  the brand.” He adds: “I’m not like the other Dragons in that my name is my brand, so it does help.”

The most he’s invested at any one time is £100,000. He’s had a few upsets – there was one investment where the entrepreneur died – but most, he maintains, have gone well. And, he says, he always throws himself into the new venture, taking a seat on the board, attending meetings and providing advice. “I ask myself three things. Can I work with the person? Do I like the product? Will I get a return, long-term or short-term, on my investment? If the answer is yes to all three, then I’ll invest. Sometimes, you can make a mistake because you like the person too much – but it does not happen very often.”

What about his own business, how’s that doing? “Bannatyne is 12 per cent up on last year.” So the stories about him being in financial difficulty, they’re not true either? “Nah. If you look at the accounts of Marks & Spencer, you will see they owe money; if  you look at the accounts of ITV, you will see they owe money... Every company I know borrows money to expand. Why they focused on me, I don’t know.”

There was a debt, but it was a company one, not personal. “We borrowed money to buy some health clubs from Hilton Group. Every company owes money; it’s crazy to single  me out.”

We move on to his much-publicised divorce, from his second wife, Joanne. To say it was acrimonious is an understatement. The whole process lasted three years, from 2010 to 2013; entailing numerous court appearances, bitter mud-slinging, and vast legal bills. During that period as well he had a reported heart attack (sitting here he looks fit and well). He maintained that Joanne – they have two children, and he has four more from his first marriage – sensed his business was in trouble due to the recession and went for the jugular.

Rather, we don’t move on to his divorce. “I won’t discuss my ex-wife.” What about him calling her a gold-digger on Twitter? “I won’t discuss her.” Didn’t she take out a billboard to advertise her new gym across the road from his corporate HQ in Darlington? “I will not discuss her.”

In 2010, he had a row with then fellow Dragon, James Caan. They fell out over an article by Bannatyne denouncing the tax treatment of non-doms as “unfair”. Caan is a non-dom.

How are relations with James now? “I’m not going to talk about James Caan.” He volunteers: “I didn’t attack him in the article. It’s not the non-doms’ fault; it’s the system that needs changing.

“How can someone come here, have a child who breaks his leg and is treated in hospital on the NHS, and is educated by the state; then, when they’re 40, turn round and  say ‘right, I’m not going to pay tax on my overseas earnings any more’? They’ve made a shit-load of money, then they turn round and say I’m not going to pay all my taxes here. But if a British-born person says they won’t pay their taxes, they have to become a tax exile, live abroad for five years and can only come back here 90 days a year. A non-dom can live here and pay no tax on their earnings outside the UK. It’s wrong.”

He backed the Conservatives when Mrs Thatcher  was leader, and Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon  Brown. Who’s he supporting now? “I’m not close to Labour. Gordon Brown is a friend of mine. Four years ago, when Gordon lost the election, I decided I would not support any political party.”

He was quoted in the press saying he would hate to see David Cameron running Britain. Does that remain his view? “Show me,” he says. Fortunately, I have the cutting to hand. He looks at it and scowls. “David Cameron is a good politician. When I said that, I’d not met him. I since have. I decided not to support any party after the last election. I think I can do more by not being connected to any party any more. I can support what any Prime Minister does on a given day and be critical the next.”

He came out against Scottish independence? “Did I? Show me.” I produce the report. He studies it, then says: “This is full of inaccuracies. It’s true that when an aide to Vladimir Putin said Britain was ‘a small island that nobody listens to’, I said: ‘We might be a small island but we are a great country made up of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland that should stick together as one and not separate.’ But that wasn’t me opposing independence. Whether Scotland gets independence or not, we should stick together. I don’t live in Scotland so I don’t have a vote. But if they vote for independence, I’ll do everything I can to ensure we all stick together.”

He’s upbeat about the economy, “things are getting better”, but he despairs about the amount we pay in tax. “It’s unbelievable. My companies pay £15m a year in VAT, then there’s employer’s National Insurance, and Corporation Tax. Then, there’s my individual tax. I’ve worked it out – I’m responsible for £35m a year in tax.”

That’s a whopping bill. He nods. “Not bad for an uneducated boy from Scotland who was still penniless at 29.”

He left school at 15. “I’ve an innate inability to study because of my dyslexia. Mind you, most successful entrepreneurs have dyslexia. It’s strange; I can look at a sum and immediately know the answer. I can’t write down how I got there but I know the answer. Like this, what’s 60 per cent of 3.3?”

Before I can answer, he says, “It’s 1.98. If I tried to write down how I got to  1.98 I wouldn’t be able to  do it.  At school, they thought I was cheating because I  wrote down the right answer but then put down the wrong calculation.”

There’s a tap at the door.  He must go. The next pitch for a share of his wealth is about to begin.

He stands up and extends his hand. He’s smiling. Shame about the beginning.

Duncan Bannatyne: The CV

Born 1949, Clydebank, Scotland

Occupation Entrepreneur, TV Dragon

Married Twice divorced,  six children

Education Left school at 15, good at arithmetic, poor  at English

Early signs of being a Dragon While in the Royal Navy, pushed an officer off a jetty and received dishonourable discharge plus spell in military detention centre; served 10 days in Barlinnie Prison for not paying a fine for breach of the peace and resisting arrest

Business promise Penniless aged 29 after doing a series of odd-jobs in Jersey; moved to England, established ice cream business that he later sold, then a nursing home chain that he sold for £26m; moved into health clubs and spa hotels

Fiercely against Smoking

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