In any other family, Nicholas Cowell would be the overachiever. A multi-millionaire property tycoon, he rode out the recession as director of a company portfolio called The Cowell Group. At the heart of the business is his first estate agency, The Estate Office, which acquired the five-star Hotel Verta in Battersea last month, for almost £20 million. Entrepreneur Andrew Davis spent £50m building the hotel before his firm went into administration last year, and Cowell knows a good deal when he sees one. He has another distinction, however: his older brother's name is Simon. "Simon's rise to fame and wealth was meteoric and very well-documented," he says. "Mine was a little more normal than that."
Cowell (N)'s staff of 15 work out of a modest premises in Maida Vale, and the boss is easily identifiable by his close-cropped black hair and familiar, matter-of-fact vocal delivery – though he appears to wear his trousers at a more conventional height than Cowell (S). His business is based on buying retail and residential property in partnership with investors. Simon has dabbled. "People readily assume that he's involved in every deal I do," says Nicholas. "They can assume what they like."
The firm has been working with Chinese investors for around three years, and responsibility for managing the Verta has gone to a Hong Kong company, Rhombus International Hotels. "London is the capital of the property world," says Cowell. "If somewhere in the world is having a boom, you get people coming from that economy to London to invest in real estate."
The Estate Office survived the recession by being sensible. "We're very cautious. We've never been sitting on huge amounts of debt... By the time this recession started, we already felt the market was too hot, and people had been paying too much for property. So we took our foot off the gas."
Cowell and his partner Adrian Levy have been through a downturn before, and nearly lost everything. "We had a very tough time in 1989/90," he says. "Interest rates were at 18 per cent so nobody wanted to borrow money. It was very hard to trade. But it was probably the best thing we ever went through; we learned so much about the business in those three years. We bonded by working very hard together, and we've been working in the same room as partners for almost 30 years now."
Cowell was born in March 1961, 18 months after Simon, and the brothers grew up in Elstree in Hertfordshire, in the house next door to Joan Collins. "We were competitive, like any brothers are," he admits, "but we got on very well." Their mother, Julie, was a dancer; Eric, their father, was on EMI's board of directors. It wasn't a showbiz household, though. "My dad worked on the property side of EMI, so he had about as much to do with showbusiness as I do."
Naturally, people often ask whether there's a Cowell formula for success, but he puts it down to simple hard work. If he needed pocket money as a child, he says, "I mowed the lawn or washed the car. Pretty normal stuff."
School didn't agree with him, not least because he suffered from dyslexia. So he left at 16, and Eric found him a job at Garrard, Smith & Partners, an estate agency in London's West End. "He thought I should get a job in an office, and it happened to be an estate agency. I loved it. I started as the office boy, and my mother's training of making tea and coffee and generally making myself useful was the best training I could have had. I learned a lot very quickly."
He put that education to good use when purchasing his own first property, not far from where he now works: he bought the place for £19,000, aged 20, and sold it four years later for £160,000. In 1983, he was working for another agency when his old boss offered Cowell and Levy the chance to come back and take over Garrard, Smith & Partners. They renamed it The Estate Office. "We were unafraid of anything, because we had nothing to lose. We decided to imitate a luxury brand estate agency. But when you walk into someone's home and they see you're 22, it doesn't inspire confidence."
The firm was forced to find a new market. "In the early 1980s, people had started to buy unmodernised property and convert it into residential flats. The more established agencies didn't want to get their hands dirty with derelict houses. But I really liked it, because I understood the maths: not only could you sell the old property and get a commission that way, but you'd also sell five or six flats on the way out."
Nowadays, Cowell's interests stretch beyond property. He has a stake in LiveDrive, a cloud data storage firm. He recently completed a 2,500-mile road-trip across America on his Harley-Davidson, and in December announced he was planning a motorcycle business with biker/actor Charley Boorman. "We want to build and design bikes, and have a café-restaurant for bikers," he explains. He once tried television – as a judge on property show called The Block – but didn't like it. "I've had loads of TV offers, but it's just not me."
He lives in central London with his wife, Katie, and their two children. "We've got a fair amount of property," he says, "but it's tied up in various joint ventures, so I don't look at it in terms of 'I've got 20 houses'."
For his 50th birthday last year, he threw a James Bond-themed party with his best friend, businessman Maurice Veronique. Westlife provided the entertainment and Simon made a speech. "I'd done a speech at his 50th," Cowell (N) recalls, "and I ripped him to pieces! So he did the same for me."