Lloyd Dorfman: Roundhouse ringmaster seeking star-struck corporate sponsors

The billionaire founder of the Travelex money exchange tells Simon Evans of his plan to breathe new life into a legendary London arts venue
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The Independent Online

Business and the arts have never been ready bedfellows. Red-braced bankers in the Square Mile rarely see eye-to-eye with the creatives of the arts world – "Where's the profit?" they say.

But there are exceptions to every rule. Lloyd Dorfman founded Travelex from humble beginnings 30 years ago, turning a single central London foreign exchange booth into a personal fortune estimated at $1.3bn, according to Forbes magazine. It makes him the world's 606th richest man and has allowed him to splash out on such things as a £40,000 dinner date with Helen Mirren.

A theatrical streak has always lurked in Dorfman, who earlier this year was appointed chairman of London's iconic Roundhouse venue.

"I have no interest in owning a football club; I don't play golf; I don't like horseracing and I'd rather become a professional bungee jumper than enter politics," says Dorfman, explaining his decision to take on the Roundhouse chairmanship. "Am I a frustrated performer? My wife would say I am! I guess there has to be something of the performer in you if you build a global business."

Travelex as a business is no stranger to the arts world, having pioneered the National Theatre's £10-a-seat season back in 2003. It has proved to be one of the most successful corporate sponsorships of the performing arts in Britain.

"Five years on we are still doing £10 seats," says Dorfman. "It wasn't my idea, it was Nicholas Hytner's [artistic director at the National]. But he announced it without having a sponsor on board so we stepped in. It's been an incredible sponsorship, bringing a whole new audience to the National. I think that around 30 per cent of all people buying a Travelex ticket were attending for the first time, which is fantastic."

The current programme lasts until 2009, so will the partnership go on after that? "We'll have to look at how it evolves," says Dorfman. " It'll be difficult to charge just £10 in 10 years' time, though. It costs £7 to park in the National's theatre!"

On a dreary Wednesday afternoon in north London, the enthusiasm he exudes is refreshing. He talks of the upcoming Verve gigs at the Roundhouse and is still basking in the glow of the recent BBC Electric Proms, which saw the likes of Paul McCartney, the Kaiser Chiefs and Mark Ronson play a number of memorable gigs at the venue.

"It was fantastic to see Mc-Cartney speaking with the young people in the studios," says Dorfman. "It was a great success and hopefully the Proms will be here for a third time next year."

Since undergoing a £30m renovation, the Roundhouse is attempting to reinvigorate itself as an edgy antidote to the generic Carling-backed venues now dominating London's performance landscape.

"I came here back in 1968 to watch the Doors as a spotty 17-year-old and little did I know that I'd be chairman 30 years later," says Dorfman. "The older generation know this is a unique place and I think the younger audience will come to realise that too. It has a different feel to any other venue in London."

Not surprisingly, the man who built a global business holds similar aspirations for the Roundhouse. "It isn't just another performance space, which is the real key," he says. "Certainly our aspiration in the longer term is to establish the model in other parts of the country and ultimately internationally too."

Dorfman has been brought in partly to leverage his considerable book of business contacts to boost funding for the venue. The financial publisher Bloom-berg, music group EMI and footwear company Dr Martens are just some of the names already involved in sponsorship of the Roundhouse's impressive new studio complex, situated underneath the main stage and aimed at 13- to 25-year-olds.

"The key thing for me is to secure medium-term funding for the Roundhouse studios," says Dorfman. "It costs around £2m a year to run but we want to grow it and of course that will cost more. [But] social and sponsorship agendas are widening all the time, and the youth and music market rings all sorts of bells for companies."

Although politics holds no interest for him, his praise for the Government's often-maligned arts funding programme is almost gushing. "It takes substantial amounts of cash to create the kind of state-of-the-art facilities we have here," he says. "But for the studios, a lot of the young people involved wouldn't have any such creative opportunities. I know it's only been 16 months or so but already we've had some fabulous stories of young, lost people who found they had a talent and a purpose and, in some cases, went back to academic education, which is fantastic."

The Roundhouse recently presented the launch of the controversial 2012 Olympic logo. Further links between the Games and the studio are in the pipeline, with aspirations for Roundhouseradio.co.uk to become the official cultural station for the sporting extravaganza.

Although his work at the Roundhouse takes up an increasing amount of time for Dorfman, he holds a plethora of other roles, including being a member of the Prince's Trust council and playing a vigorous role in the Bank of England Governor Mervyn King's cricket charity, Chance to Shine, which is seeking to bring the sound of leather on willow back to the country's state schools.

So where does Travelex fit in these days? And is Dorfman's remaining 30 per cent up for sale?

"It made sense from the family's point of view to sell the one big egg in one big basket," he says of the sale of a large chunk of the business to private equity giant Apax in 2005. "Apax will probably look for an exit in 12 to 18 months' time, I reckon. Private equity firms need to exit to make their profits. I suppose we'll sit down and look at the state of the markets then and I'll decide what to do with my stake."

Reports earlier in the year suggested that the Chinese state-backed bank ICBC had run the rule over Travelex, and Dorfman does little to quell the idea that the company is open to offers.

"How can I answer this? We are keen to build our business in China and, you know, sometimes things get a bit more visionary than you expect," he says, delivering a convincing sales pitch for Travelex. "Remember, for the animal that wants a reasonably inexpensively global financial services footprint overnight, without having to go and buy Citigroup etc, we are a very cute way of doing it.

"We are a provider across 107 airports serving 40 per cent of the world's airline passengers. A quarter of all trade payments go through us and we are an outsource service provider to some of the world's biggest banks. I'm sure clever, strategy-sensitive investment-banking types probably think about these things from time to time."

Perhaps it's the relaxed setting of the Roundhouse rubbing off on Dorfman, but he remains sanguine and unfazed about the prospects for Travelex, despite the growing uncertainty and looming problems being predicted for the global economy.

"Well, we don't have a sub-prime money-changing business, which is a good start," he laughs. "People need to remember that there is a huge amount of liquidity out there at the moment. I'm not a central banker but I think the banks are much more adept at assessing risk today."