Jack Petchey: 'It's easier now for people to get on than ever before'

The multimillionaire philanthropist left school at 13 and has no truck with defeatism. But he readily gives a hand up to the less able. Sarah Morrison meets him
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Jack Petchey has his diary open on his desk. This week, the 89-year-old businessman does not have a night free. He is down to attend public speaking competitions and dance displays across London, from Stepney to Lewisham. In one evening, he is down to attend four events.

This is not a hands-off benefactor. It is his organisation, the Jack Petchey Foundation, that is behind all of the events and its namesake wants to know exactly how each one goes. His Speak Out Challenge operates in almost every secondary school in London and Essex, training almost 17,000 young people each year in public speaking. His Step Into Dance programme helps youngsters in 200 schools develop dancing skills.

But, after fondly telling me about each show, the great-grandfather of eight says he sadly won't be able to attend any. At his age, he finds it hard to get around. One of his staff will be at each event, leaving a report on his desk the next morning. They'll note how many people were there, what it was like, and crucially, what could be done better.

Constantly striving to improve is characteristic of Petchey, the self-made millionaire, who left school at 13 without qualifications. He is all about positive thinking, and has a motto: "If you think you can, you can!" He has given more than £85m of his own money to youth projects across London and Essex since the turn of the Millennium. Whether he is busy funding the installation of 800 or so table-tennis tables in schools, turning around a low-performing school in Hackney, east London, (at the suggestion of Tony Blair) or giving out 12,000 achievement awards annually for "trying your best" – he wants to spread one key message to youngsters everywhere: "Success is out there if you want it."

And, for some reason, they seem to heed his advice. Maybe it is because Mr Petchey never had things easy. Bought up in Plaistow, east London, to a painter-decorator dad and a mum who worked in the local tea shop, he remembers "sitting on the pub doorstep with a bag of crisps" while his dad was "boozing". He means it as no slight to his father, who he said knew no different, but observes that his parents "were interested in me in so far as feeding me. But education was furthest from the discussions in the house."

Thus, at 13 he left school, joined up during the Second World War, and when he was demobbed – he served in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy – he invested his £39 discharge money in a second-hand car. He set up a taxi business, which ended up becoming the largest fleet in London, sold vans, property and timeshares. The man who was once told he was not "management material" was valued at £425m last year in Essex's Rich List, became an honorary graduate from the University of Essex and was awarded an OBE.

He is the first to admit he has not climbed the conventional business ladder. When working as a delivery boy for a local grocer. aged 12, he was spotted by someone from the school board and his parents were taken to court. The summons said he had been caught "delivering vegetables". It was only when his solicitor pointed out he was delivering fruit that the case was dismissed.

He is still involved in his property business, and lets me in on the knack. "I would drive by at night-time. The mystery shopper. You couldn't be seen looking at a building, otherwise the price goes up!"

As he cackles, he runs through his tenure as commercial director at West Ham ("I didn't know anything about football") and as owner of Watford FC (he was "chased down the road by the fans"). But, while he once measured his success by the money he accumulated, he now wants to keep giving it away.

"I believe in giving back to help those who can't help themselves," he says. "To me, success is a man that tries to be the best, rather than the man that is the best.

"In schools, and in the Navy, I met people that were just natural ball-players, natural learners, or students. But there were other poor people that were struggling and couldn't.

"I want to encourage kids to think they can. If we can get that self-belief into them, they can do so much better."

Most of his initiatives come from personal experience. He instigated his public speaking challenge, because he "used to live in great fear" of being asked to give speeches. Now, he seems more than confident. He is a family man, with four children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, who live in Essex – not far from his offices in Ilford. His wife has died , but now he has a partner – sculptor to the royals, Frances Segelman.

His emphasis on self-belief overcoming all social barriers could be read as straight Thatcherism – he doesn't believe that "any man who wants a job can't get a job" and ridicules the idea that high unemployment rates today makes it harder for young people: "I think it's easier now for people to get on than ever before. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's easier. There's more opportunity… [Step] one is to recognise that opportunity and two is to take advantage of that opportunity."

His pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy aside, he is determined that no young person should be given up on. He talks me through how he would work with an unemployed person looking for a job. His first measure would be to make them believe they are worthy of work.

"If you tell a kid he's stupid, it doesn't encourage him to be intelligent; it just pushes him down further. If you praise him …you'll get a much [better] response," he says.

"We can kick arses, but I think it's much better to put your arm around them."

That is what his foundation has been doing for more than a decade, and it does not seem that anything will stop him now. He says he was given no "leadership or encouragement" by his family when he was young. He is obviously revelling in giving it to others now.

Will he ever retire? I ask. "No," he says, resolutely. "I enjoy my life."

Curriculum vitae

1925 Born in Plaistow in London's East End; attends Essex Road primary school

1937 Aged 12, is prosecuted for working under age

1938 Leaves school, aged 13. Told he would never make a businessman

1941 Joins Auxiliary Fire Service as a motorcycle messenger

1943 Joins Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm

1948 Starts one-man cab service that diversifies into motor trading

1960 Buys first car showroom

1969 First Portugal holiday complex

1978 Director of West Ham Utd FC

1987 Buys Watford FC from Elton John and becomes chairman

1999 Sets up Jack Petchey Foundation

2011 Created CBE