Tom Hunter: Meet Britain's most generous tycoon

He's got Bill Clinton on speed-dial, a private jet on standby and hundreds of millions in the bank. But sportswear tycoon Tom Hunter isn't content to live the life of the idle rich, and has pledged to use his fortune for the benefit of mankind. What convinced the kid from New Cumnock - who built a business empire from shell-suits and trainers - to become Britain's biggest philanthropist? Ed Caesar hears his extraordinary story
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Before Tom Hunter was Scotland's richest man - long before Bill Clinton was on his speed-dial, way before he would become known as Britain's biggest philanthropist, before he was Sir Tom Hunter - he tried to buy a newspaper. It was 1983, and Hunter had only been working at Glasgow's West End Times, then owned by the testy Scottish magnate Sir Hugh Fraser, for a matter of weeks. But he saw a business opportunity and made Fraser an offer. Fraser flew into a rage. Hunter was, after all, only 22 years old.

As an early example of his entrepreneurial chutzpah, the West End Times story takes some beating. And, as Hunter takes a seat in his office on a wet Friday morning 23 years later and greets me, pleasant and informal - "Hi, I'm Tom," - I remind him of it. He chuckles at the memory.

"Aye, it's true," he says, in his measured west Scottish brogue. "I had graduated from Strathclyde University [with a business degree], but I couldn't get a job. I went to Glasgow University, on an extension programme for graduates who wanted to start their own businesses. They sent me on a placement to the Times.

"At this time, free newspapers were just coming in. I analysed the Times - the column inches, the revenue, the advertising - and thought they should turn it into a freebie. So I tried to buy it. I got into so much shit with the university. They threatened to throw me off the course. But it went free pretty soon after that, and I doubt whether it even exists now."

Hunter is talking to The Independent on the second floor of a drab industrial unit in Dundonald, 20 miles south-west of Glasgow, where both his business and his philanthropic affairs are based. Philip Green, the multi-billionaire high street overlord, said of his one visit to Hunter's patch, that "there are a lot of fucking sheep". It certainly feels like an odd place for a tycoon to hang out, but then again, Hunter has always been an odd sort of tycoon.

In the bright lights, Hunter's bald head, punctuated only by his greying goatee, glints. He would have the air of a Bond villain were it not for his Gnarls Barkley ring-tone and extraordinary choice of clothes - a lurid purple jumper offset by a dazzling striped shirt with a Harry Hill collar, crinkle-creased blue jeans, spotty multicoloured socks, and Persil-white trainers. It is as if he has been basted in glue and rolled around a branch of Topman. And one can't help but feel sorry for his three children when it's dad's turn to do the school run. I make a mental note that if I am ever worth £780m, I will employ a stylist.

Hunter's fashion sense may be dubious, but his business sense is not. In 1984, the year after his boardroom showdown with Fraser, Hunter started the business that would make his fortune - Sports Division. With two £5,000 cheques, one from his father, Campbell, and one from the Royal Bank of Scotland, he began to sell trainers from the back of a van. In 1989, he opened his first store in Paisley selling sports kit and shell-suits, and in 1995, with some serious help from his friend Philip Green, he bought Olympus Sports and expanded his business. Hunter was already a millionaire and a huge local success story. But, on 28 July 1998, he received a cheque that changed everything. JJB Sports offered to buy Sports Division for £290m, and Hunter accepted -

with his share working out at a princely £252m.

It was the defining moment of his life. But it was tainted. More than 500 jobs were lost as a result of Hunter's transaction with JJB Sports, and he took a kicking. Sports Division ex-employees said they had been "stabbed in the front", while Des Browne, then the local MP, said he was: "Profoundly disappointed the people of Ayrshire have lost out because of the actions of one man."

Hunter's open features compress at the memory. "It was a very mixed time," he recalls. "I had created a lot of jobs here, and I knew those jobs were going to disappear. It was almost like a defeat. We were bigger than JJB. I was supposedly this young, thrusting entrepreneur. Dave Whelan [the founder of JJB] was older. I should have been buying him out. But I wasn't. I was selling... But there was this thing - this cheque."

If you want to know how that cheque has changed Hunter's life, consider this: today, he will arrive back in Scotland on a private jet he has shared for the past few days with Bill Clinton, with whom he has been discussing his vision for Africa. (A little over a decade ago, Hunter and his wife Marion returned from their summer holidays wearing matching purple shell-suits.) Today is also the day that Hunter will announce how the £55m he pledged as "initial funding" to the Clinton-Hunter Development Initiative last September will be spent.

He has waited until today's official announcement to get into nuts and bolts - but, when we meet, he is willing to reveal that the CHDI will focus on providing a sustainable network of education, healthcare, housing and nutrition in two countries from a list comprising Mozambique, Rwanda, Malawi and Ethiopia. The announcement marks the zenith of his philanthropic career - the moment he commits to a project for at least five years, more likely 10, and most probably more.

When Hunter was building his business, philanthropy was not high on his agenda. The odd charity donation aside, his priority was his own wealth. And, when the sale of Sports Division made him dazzlingly rich, his first thought was not to give all his money away, but to keep as much of it as possible.

Indeed, when Hunter received his cheque for £252m, his most pressing concern was a looming visit from the tax man. Hunter's tax advisors suggested that he relocate to Monaco, but Marion wasn't keen. And, so, the accountants suggested the next best thing - to set up a philanthropic venture. Hunter and his family stayed in Scotland, and the Hunter Foundation, initially worth £10m, was born. As was, indirectly, Tom Hunter the philanthropist.

Exactly what changed Tom Hunter from a tax-ruse philanthropist into a philanthropist proper only he will ever know. He did not, he says, have a Damascene moment. But it is clear that in the two years following the Sports Division takeover, he went through a period of profound anxiety. Not only did he have little idea what to do with his money - "you can, I discovered, only drive one car at a time" - he was beset with an increasingly heavy post bag. People had heard about his vast wealth and they wanted their cut.

"I would read a letter, it would break my heart, I would write a cheque," recalls Hunter. "But you would never know - was it true? Was I being scammed? Did the cheque make any difference? People didn't tend to write back. That was when we began to think, 'Well, what are we doing this for?'

"At the same time I knew, whether I had two million quid or two hundred million quid, it didn't make that much difference personally. [Sports Division] was going to be my life, and, at 37, I'd achieved everything in my life. That was nice on the one hand, but pretty hollow on the other. I wanted to know what the next bit was about."

Hunter got his hands on a copy of The Gospel of Wealth by the great Scottish philanthropist and robber-baron Andrew Carnegie. And, impressed enough with its elegant central premise, that "a man who dies rich, dies disgraced", he sought out someone who could help him become a philanthropist. That man was Vartan Gregorian, head of the Carnegie Foundation in New York, whom Hunter first met five years ago.

"He didn't act as a nouveau-riche person," says Gregorian, of their first meeting. "I didn't know how much money he had, and I didn't ask. He was just looking for advice - but it was hard to give. I told him that he should see things in terms of what he could achieve, immediately and in the long-term; in Scotland, but also the world.

"But with Tom, the questions never stop. He is very curious. You always have to satisfy why, why, why... In another time, perhaps, he would have been a scientist. Every time you think a scientist has failed, they think they have solved another problem - because they know how not to do it. It's the same with Tom. If he makes a mistake, he learns. That's very rare for someone with a healthy ego."

The one lesson Hunter retains from that meeting with Gregorian is that, if one is serious about philanthropy, one should never just respond to begging letters. He had to decide what he wanted to spend his money on, and then formulate a plan to invest it effectively. Now all he needed was a cause, and, pretty soon, he found one. Three years ago, he "ring-fenced" the Hunter Foundation's millions, to be used solely in Scottish education.

Hunter's own education, he says, was unremarkable. Born, in 1961, in New Cumnock, a mining village where his father ran a grocer's store, he attended a local primary and then the area's largest secondary school, Cumnock Academy. He was neither brilliant, nor daft, just good enough to pass the exams, and step up to the next level. He plays down his dyslexia - "that's a polite term for 'can't spell'" - and says that, despite doing relatively badly at maths, he always had "a head for figures".

"He was well-liked," recalls Ian McCulloch, Hunter's maths teacher at Cumnock Academy. "Never in any bother. Studious. Pleasant. Got on well with his teachers and his peers. But there was nothing about him that you could have said, 'He's really going to make his mark on society.'"

It was at home that Hunter's entrepreneurial spirit was fostered. Around the dinner table, he recalls, "all the talk was business", and he ran a video rental company of his own out of his father's shop as a boy. At 15, dying to leave school and make money, he applied to the Falmers jeans factory near where he lived. But before he turned up for the interview, his uncle John, the deputy headmaster of Cumnock Academy, got wind of his nephew's plans and phoned the factory. Tom was told at his interview that he was not wanted. The Hunters, it seemed, were adamant that Tom was going to go to university. He obeyed, spending four years at Strathclyde that left him "totally unprepared" for later life.

Despite, or indeed, because of, his ambivalence towards his own education, Hunter has piloted schemes that are designed to enhance the learning experience of his children's generation. There has been, for instance, a drive to get Neet (Not in Education, Employment or Training) teenagers back into education. He has started a centre for entrepreneurship at his alma mater. He has ploughed resources into developing six of the worst secondary schools in Scotland. As a result of Hunter's activities in Scottish schools, there have been three changes to Government education policy.

But, and here's the rub, Hunter's money forms only part of the equation. When the Hunter Foundation gives money, it is not a donation, it is "an investment" - what Hunter calls "catalytic funding". So, when Hunter put £300,000 into six Scottish secondary schools, the Scottish Executive was brought on board to top up that investment to £1.8m. Thus the government outspent Hunter seven to one.

That pattern, I discover, is repeated across the Hunter Foundation's activities, so that, even though the foundation has pledged £152.5m since its inception, it has only spent £35m. That £35m has, in turn, leveraged a further £175m in public funds, plus £55m in private funds.

It raises some big issues. Why should the Scottish Executive, or indeed any government, fork over taxpayers' money out of its coffers just because Tom Hunter says so? And, if Hunter's investment in certain causes, of his choosing, are significant enough to prompt changes of policy, doesn't that make Tom Hunter a politician - one who is elected because of his wealth?

"Och, no," he says. "I'd never describe myself as a politician. But we're in a good position to be able to say to government, 'This is a good idea.' What makes us venture philanthropists is that we're willing to fail. We're quite happy to learn by doing. We can fail, and if we do, no journalist is going to hang us out to dry. We give governments the chance to evade blame."

What Hunter describes - a pioneering miniature executive that is accountable only to the rules it sets itself - is, at best, fraught with danger. But Hunter says he maintains a "healthy position". "We're not a substitute for government, but I recognise it's a privileged position, and not something we'll ever abuse. We're absolutely not saying, 'Here is an idea that we've just cooked up in this room, now you've got to change the curriculum because I'm very rich.' Instead, we find best practice, and listen to experts from all over the world, and give them a bit of freedom. And for all our projects, we invest 5 per cent of our money into independent research, to tell us whether we're meeting our objectives. That's very important."

Since 2004, Tom Hunter's life, always a bag of contradictions, has slipped into a higher gear. Two years ago, realising he could not allocate all the foundation's money to Scottish education, he began to look elsewhere. In those two years, without even mentioning the Clinton-Hunter Development Initiative, he has donated £6m to the Band Aid single, underwritten two Live8 events, become heavily involved in the Make Poverty History campaign, and given £1m to the tsunami relief effort. Last year, he was knighted for his philanthropy.

As a businessman, while his personal fortune has risen to £780m through a series of smart property and retail deals, he has watched The Gadget Shop, which he was involved with, fold. Worse still, two previous co-investors, Jon Wood, a banker from UBS, and Peter Wilkinson, the founder of Freeserve, brought a complicated and embarrassing court case against him for unethical business practises.

It was a case in which Hunter was completely vindicated, but not before allegations of deals being done reeling drunk in the bathrooms of Monaco nightclubs had been heard by the court. What became apparent, from both his business career and his philanthropic work, was that Hunter was moving in an increasingly exclusive and lavish circle. The newspapers carried portraits of Hunter and his friends - Philip Green, the Reuben brothers (who rose from poor beginnings to immense wealth via Russia's aluminium industry), and Richard Caring (the fashion tycoon turned restaurateur), for example - and of the jet-set lifestyle they led on private jets and in the playgrounds of the French Riviera.

They also dragged up how Hunter had spent £500,000 on his 40th birthday party in 2001 - at which Stevie Wonder and Kool and the Gang performed. They marvelled at the vulgarity of Philip Green going one better the following year with a lavish three-day toga party that cost almost five times as much. At charity auctions, it was reported that Green's friends, Hunter included, liked to bid tens of thousands of pounds for lots, win the item, and then put it back for the bidding to start again. Hunter's circle, it is fair to say, were not portrayed as paragons of restraint.

Hunter won't talk about last year's court case - "we won, that's it" - but he's happy enough to talk about the Band Aid and Live8 jamborees. Hunter was apparently so impressed with the screenwriter Richard Curtis that he offered the Make Poverty History campaign £1m over lunch. And he chuckles when he recalls his first meeting with Bob Geldof, in a lavish suite at the Metropolitan Hotel in London. Geldof took one look at the room, and said: "There'll be no problem with the fuckin' money then!"

"I remember him being easy-going," says Geldof. "Not lackadaisical, but just friendly - without an ounce of piety. He was very up front. He said, 'I'd like to give Band Aid six million quid' - which doesn't happen every day. What was interesting was, it was meant to be on the QT. I was the one who asked if I could make it public. All year, he was incredibly helpful... and he was great on a night out."

Between meeting Curtis in late 2004, and today's announcement about the Clinton-Hunter plan, Hunter has been involved with a slew of big-name, big-money stories. One well-established City financier, who does not want to be named, says Hunter's money "has got him lots of lovely friends like Bono and Geldof", and that the Scot is "buying his stairway to heaven". Even Philip Green, his old mate, cast a note of caution over the clamour that accompanies Hunter's philanthropic announcements. "We are both keen supporters of lots of causes," says Green. "Quite often things people don't know about. That's my preferred route, personally. But everyone takes their own, different route."

So, does Hunter want to be a rock star - or is altruism his only motive? "I'm naturally drawn to people who can get things done," says Hunter, affably. "In President Clinton, I saw an amazing network that short-circuits a lot of work we would have to do in Africa to make a difference. Am I drawn to him because I'm starstruck? No. Was I drawn to Geldof et al because I could go and see a few bands and hang out backstage? No. It's not my style."

It is, and it isn't, his style. Hunter is certainly now a regular at the charity parties of the super-rich, many of whom are his friends. Richard Caring's unbelievably extravagant St Petersburg charity dinner - where guests ate off gold plates at Catherine the Great's Winter Palace - is just one example of the kind of night you can have if your wallet is capacious enough. So where does being charitable end, and being flash begin?

"It's a good question," he says, "but a very British question. In America, they would say that the ends justify the means. Richard Caring's do raised £10m for charity. We all dressed up and had a great time doing it. What's the problem with that?"

What about the auctions, where he and his friends out-muscle each other? That doesn't seem to have much to do with charity. "I think if you asked the charity that got our gazillions at the end of the evening, they would just say, 'Thank you very much,'" he retorts, defiant. "And to anyone who knocks it, I say to them, 'Where was your gazillion?'"

The best thing Tom Hunter has ever bought, he says, is his private jet, because "it allows me to live here". He prides himself on being an Ayrshire boy, a man of uncomplicated values who still meets his primary school friends for a takeaway. His father, now 79, works for West Coast Capital, and, says Hunter, "keeps us honest".

But Hunter's problem is this: the private jet is the means by which he keeps himself, in his own words, "grounded". Despite his best efforts, he isn't just the grocer's son anymore. Of the dozens of Hunter's friends and associates from Ayrshire who were contacted for this article, very few were initially keen to discuss New Cumnock's most famous son. The big question they all asked was: "Does Tom know about this?" He is, in West Coast parlance, the big man. And you don't piss the big man off.

Peter Howson, an acclaimed artist who grew up in Ayrshire, whose Nelson Mandela and Andrew Carnegie portraits Hunter snapped up for record prices (the Mandela went for £150,000), provides a brutally honest insight into the relationship that many in the area have with Hunter.

"I had this idea of trying to sell him something, him being a rich guy and all," says Howson. "We grew up in the same neck of the woods. I suppose, being an artist, you tend to latch onto people who can help you survive. I'm not suggesting that it's completely mercenary, my knowing him, but there's obviously a patron thing going on there. I wouldn't say he was a friend, but he is a man that I know."

He is a man that many people know. Perhaps that is why he no longer just writes cheques, but requires a cheque to match. You might say that is cynical, and that a truly generous man might just give his money away. But Hunter would argue that, by taking a risk and, let's not forget, handing over some serious money, what he is doing is much more valuable than charity alone.

Despite his philanthropic work, Tom Hunter's wealth is fast increasing. He says he now works harder at "wealth creation", because "he knows where the money is going". But he also says that he wants to leave the world, as he came into it, "with nothing". It is quite a pickle. While he works it out, he must busy himself with the small matter (which he admits is a "bigger buzz than anything") of attempting to educate the disaffected youth of his own country - and heal the scars of Africa.