Rarely seen without his trademark flat cap, Trevor Hemmings, who has died aged 86, was a somewhat reclusive, self-made billionaire, a former bricklayer who made a highly successful business career by playing the unassuming, underestimated underdog.
Remaining something of an old-fashioned tycoon, not for him the internet gold rush or the hi-tech road to riches, but a lifetime of shrewd deal-making saw him become a powerful force, particularly within the building and leisure industries.
As the man who brought Center Parcs to this country, he made headlines in 1998 with his deft purchase of Blackpool Tower. Twelve years later, he stepped in to rescue an insolvent Preston North End Football Club from closure. By then, he was long renowned as one of this country’s biggest supporters of National Hunt racing: his horses won the Aintree Grand National on three occasions.
Born in the London borough of Woolwich, Trevor James Hemmings moved, aged four, to Lancashire when the Royal Ordnance factory where his father Monty worked was relocated just as the Second World War got underway. His parents instilled a strong work ethic: while at Turpin Green School in Leyland he had two paper rounds, worked as a petrol pump attendant and also had a grocery round with a horse and cart. Hemmings left his local secondary at 15 and cleaned grease off diesel locomotives to help fund the business studies course he was taking a night school.
A stint as an apprentice bricklayer followed. Within five years, having studied all facets of the building trade, he started his own building company, Hemmings and Kent. Selling it to Christian Salvesen for £1.5m, he went on to create a second company, Ambrose, which Barratts bought for £3.7m.
It was while helping to construct a new £25m holiday centre at Ainsdale near Southport during the early 1970s, that Hemmings first met its owner, Sir Fred Pontin. Soon a surrogate son and business protege of the holiday tycoon, Pontin soon elevated him onto the board. In 1979 he negotiated Pontins’ takeover by Coral Leisure, receiving 500,000 Coral shares as part payment. When Coral subsequently lost its gaming licence, Hemmings was alm ost ruined as Coral’s value halved overnight. With Pontins later coming under the control of Bass, in 1987 Hemmings successfully led a £57m management buyout from the brewery.
Little more than a year later he sold the company to Scottish and Newcastle Breweries for a reported £80m. Becoming the brewer’s biggest shareholder and head of its leisure division, he then adroitly oversaw the £600m acquisition of the more upmarket Center Parcs holiday villages.
Running both Pontins and Center Parcs until 1996, Hemmings has long retained a significant shareholding in Scottish and Newcastle Breweries. Possibly his most lucrative investment was the racecourse operator Arena Leisure, which went on to develop a significant online betting strategy. At one time his stake was valued at £250m, an outstanding return on the shares he had owned because Arena was once a loss-making shell company whose only asset appeared to be a small hotel on the Isle of Wight.
In 1999, another of his companies, Gleadway, paid £29m for wallpaper company Vymura, integrating it into his existing John Wileman brand. Later that year he snapped up a 26 per cent stake in SKD Media, going on to develop it into Entertainment Rights, the quoted owner of the rights to Basil Brush and Budgie the Helicopter.
Hemmings’s Arena investment allowed him to combine business with one of his other great passions: National Hunt racing. Initially encouraged by Sir Fred Pontin, his distinctive colours, yellow, green and white, first entered the winner’s enclosure at Bath in 1985, the latest at Worcester earlier this year. In the interim had come three Grand National victories: Hedgehunter in 2005; Ballabriggs in 2011; and Many Clouds in 2015.
At one time he had more than 200 horses in training, shared between his Monymusk Stud in County Cork, Gleadhill House Stud near Chorley in Lancashire and the 300-acre Ballaseyr Stud, situated on the Isle of Man. He was elected an honorary member of the Jockey Club in 2006. In 2012, Zara Phillips, daughter of the Princess Royal, rode one of his eventing horses and won a silver medal at the Olympic Games held in London.
In 1998 Hemmings fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition when he paid First Leisure entertainment group, then headed by Michael Grade, £74m to take over the running of Blackpool Tower. Also included in the package was the extensive Winter Gardens complex, the resort’s three piers as well as piers in Llandudno, Eastbourne and Southsea.
Having got wind of the government’s intended liberalisation of the gambling laws to create Britain’s only super casino, this inveterate deal maker viewed it as a golden opportunity to regenerate the resort and turn it once again into the country’s most popular tourist destination. Housed within a huge entertainment complex would be thousands of slot machines with unlimited jackpots, dozens of roulette wheels and card tables. As it turned out, Manchester surprisingly won the bid before the plans were quietly shelved. In 2010, Hemmings sold many of his local holdings, including both the Tower and Winter Gardens to Blackpool Council.
That same year saw him complete his takeover of Preston North End Football Club after they had been served with a winding-up petition. A director since 1970, his loans to the club now total in excess of £8.5m. He had previously held interests in non-league Chorley Town, Cork City and Glasgow Rangers. In 2016 he attempted an unsuccessful takeover of Burnley Football Club.
Having lost many millions as a result of the Royal Bank of Scotland share price collapse in 2009, nine years later Hemmings took over the management of a £200m claim against the bank, which settled before the case came to trial. Rarely, if ever, talking to the press, while Hemmings’s private life remained very much a closed book, so too did his extensive business portfolio. Now controlled by his four children, they are held in a complicated web of mainly private companies, most notably the TJH Group.
Spending the early part of married life living in a small prefab, until illness latterly intervened, Hemmings would regularly commute via his own helicopter fleet between properties in Jersey, Ireland, a business base in Lancashire and his Isle of Man mansion. There he housed another of his great passions, a large and prized collection of vintage Rolls-Royce cars.
A generous benefactor, he gave £1m to the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, the charity that in 2012 merged with Crossroads Care to form the Carers Trust. No less active at a local level, there his benefactions, made through the TJH Foundation, include £300,000 to fund a centre for victims of sexual abuse at the Royal Preston Hospital, as well as support for Macmillan Cancer Relief and Rainbow House, a conductive education centre close to his Chorley home that supports children with disabilities. He was appointed a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) in the 2011 birthday honours list.
Hemmings married Eva Rumney in 1955. She survives him together with their three sons and a daughter.
Trevor Hemmings CVO, businessman, born 11 June 1935, died 11 October 2021
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