There was always a rebellious streak in me

By at home

Entrepreneur, businessman, philanthropist, television star and family man. James Caan is all five and is inspired and motivated by all these roles in equal measures

James Caan is a man who likes to surround himself with glamour. And why not? He’s earned it. On the rainy day in August when Careers speaks to James, he’s in an enviable position. Quite literally. He’s sitting on the back of his yacht in Cannes in the south of France. The aforementioned glamour comes not only in the form of his yacht, but from who he’s with – his stunning wife, Aisha, and his two equally beautiful daughters, Hanah, 22, and Jemma, 23. James is also meant to be on holiday. But he’s working.

Talking to us, for one, having phone calls ‘on the hour, every hour’ looking at the issues in Pakistan following the devastating floods (he is teaming up with UNICEF to raise money for essential survival kits including water purification tablets and medication kits) and ‘tracking what’s happening in the business [his private equity firm, Hamilton Bradshaw]. Through the iPad – I’m following emails, looking at agreements, contracts, spreadsheets, all with the most amazing view from the back of the boat.’ Nevertheless, James admits it. He’s a workaholic. It comes as no surprise to hear this of the entrepreneur, multimillion pound businessman and, of course, dragon. You don’t get to become said three without putting in a lot of hard graft. But I soon learn that James is a workaholic who likes to have fun and who isn’t afraid of getting down to the nitty-gritty. Of more later…

As the eighth series of the iconic BBC2 show Dragons’ Den currently airs on our television screens, how does the most recent recruit to the esteemed panel of dragons feel this series has gone? ‘It has really surprised us. In this current economic climate, I didn’t expect us to make a lot of investment because it’s a tough environment to do business in. But to my surprise, we’ve made more investments than ever before. The quality of the entrepreneurs was very good. ‘As dragons, we have no idea who the next person coming through the door will be and that’s what makes it so exciting. It could be as extreme as some guy with a yellow submarine to somebody walking in with a falcon or a horse – we’ve had them all!

But that’s what keeps me continuously motivated and interested in doing the show because you really don’t know what’s coming next.’ Another project keeping James motivated is the Entrepreneurs’ Business Academy (EBA) launched in March this year. He was inspired by an article in The Sunday Times that said over 30,000 businesses were likely to fail this year due to the lack of knowledge and skills. ‘I thought about the reasons why people fail in business and I felt very strongly that a lot of these could be avoided.

‘There are circumstances where you run into real difficulties in business but a lot of them are either because you’re inexperienced or unaware of how to deal with challenging situations. I felt there was something I could do to help avoid the tragedies of businesses going under by providing expertise from Millionaire Mentors – people who’d been there and come through some of those issues. ‘You can’t always find the things that happen in businesses in a text book. Every company is unique, every situation is different. So the idea of EBA is to bring a level of knowledge and experience to the entrepreneurial community, so people can learn with those who have read the book, worn the T-shirt and watched the movie.’

His own life, it’s fair to say, would make a movie worth watching. Turning his back on education at 16 without qualifications; changing his name from Nazim Khan (‘When I was in my teens, James Caan, the actor, was really cool. He was in The Godfather and I came out of the movie and thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to be called James Caan? I did it for fun!’); leaving home at 16 with around £30 in a savings account; refusing to join his father’s leather manufacturing business, despite the family expectation to do so; establishing his hugely successful recruitment company, Alexander Mann from an office the size of a broom cupboard on London’s Pall Mall, which he sold in 2002 when it was turning over £130 million a year. The stories go on and on. So I’m sure I’m not the only journalist who, on asking James what achievement he’s most proud of, would have expected him to reel off one of his many business successes – even his successful foray into the world of TV stardom. But no. His biggest achievement is much closer to home – it comes in the form of his two daughters.

‘Bringing up children is one of the biggest challenges we face. It’s the one thing you’re probably least prepared for. It’s not easy and it doesn’t matter who you are or how successful you are, your children are always going to be a challenge. I’m delighted my kids have grown up well, are very sensible and well-grounded. Both girls are happy and have found careers that they’re motivated and inspired by. I think, as a parent, you can’t want for anything more.’ Philanthropy also plays a major part in James’ life and is an issue close to his heart. ‘Setting up the James Caan Foundation [a charity he founded in 2006 to help educate children in Pakistan] has had a huge effect on my life. Having the time and the ability to understand and appreciate the challenges people face, is something I hadn’t done prior to the foundation. Setting that up, opening the school [the Abdul Rashid Khan Campus, named after his father who passed away in 1999] and educating those children, I find really rewarding and satisfying.’

Had his own daughters also abandoned their studies at 16 as James did, much to the dismay of his own father, how would James have reacted? ‘I would have been extremely concerned. Of course, you want your children to have the best start in life. Having a proper education with a decent degree is with you for the rest of your life. You can never predict what’s going to happen. I was lucky that life was OK for me, but if it hadn’t worked out, I’d have had nothing to fall back on.’

Life is certainly not repeating itself in James’ family – his youngest daughter, Hanah, 22, has recently joined James’ private equity company, Hamilton Bradshaw. Did he welcome the decision? ‘I never encouraged her because I felt uncomfortable doing that. You can’t really preach something that you didn’t do yourself. So I let it be her own decision. ‘When she approached me about it, I said: “To be frank, I think working with me is probably the toughest of all options. If you join anywhere else it will be a nine to five job, you’ll be one of a thousand people and you’ll be fine. If you come and work for me, my expectations are going to be very, very high because you are who you are. Why would I expect anything less from my own daughter other than exceptional?”

‘My involvement with television, and the fact that I’m well known, also means that whenever Hanah’s out on business and is introduced to people, they say, almost instantaneously, “Oh, you’re James’ daughter”. She knew that would happen and that she’d have to be very good to be able to cope with that situation. ‘I must admit, and I’m not just saying this because she’s my daughter, that she’s certainly exceeded all my expectations. She’s really risen to the challenge and is probably working harder than she ever thought she’d have to. She recognises that I’m literally a workaholic. Working with me is not nine to five. It’s 24/7.’ And here we are, back to James’ workaholic admission. Throughout his working life, did he actually aspire to be like any other entrepreneurs? ‘It was very much about doing my own thing,’ he says. ‘I didn’t try and emulate anybody because I didn’t feel anybody else was doing what I wanted to do. It was very much a case of making mistakes as I went along. I’m a much tougher critic on myself than anyone else is of me.

There’s no doubt about it, my biggest mentor has always been my father. He was the one person who was always frank and honest with me. He would never tell me what I wanted to hear. He told me what reality was. Sometimes you need to hear the harsh truth of reality. It’s not everybody who’s prepared to give you it, because they feel they may offend you or it may not be what you want to hear. But if I was doing something that was clearly wrong – expanding too quickly, taking on too many people, investing too aggressively or not fast enough – my father would have absolutely no qualms in telling me that. ‘I remember, during the journey of building the business [Alexander Mann], my father gave lots of good advice that was very effective. Then, when it came to the crunch and I decided to sell the company he really couldn’t understand. He said: “You’ve got to be joking. The company’s doing really well. It’s a fantastic brand. Why on earth would you want to sell it?”

‘He was always of the belief that you build and create businesses and then your children take them over. A very old-fashioned mindset of businesses being for life, not a commodity. But I decided that the opportunity to sell the business could change my life from a position of working seven days a week to meaning that, at the age of 40, I would never need to work again. I think he respected my decisions by that point, but he couldn’t understand the concept of selling a business that was doing so well.

Clearly, on reflection, I made the right choice because today I’m able to enjoy a much greater opportunity in life than if I hadn’t sold. I’d be running one business, in one sector, whereas now I’ve got nearly 30 businesses and the variety of so many different activities – and, of course, the opportunity to do Dragons’ Den, which I probably couldn’t have done having a normal job.’ There’s not much that’s normal about James’ job – and he didn’t stop work at 40. In fact, he’s busier than ever. So, what’s next? ‘Working with the foundation is what I find the most rewarding and satisfying. The foundation has started to diversify quite a bit now, so we’re working with The Prince’s Trust, Mosaic [a national schools competition to foster entrepreneurship among students], Marie Curie and The Big Issue, of which I’m now chairman.’ Your eyes wouldn’t have been deceiving you recently if you’d thought you’d seen James standing outside Covent Garden tube station selling copies of The Big Issue. And here’s that nitty-gritty part of James – he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and get right down to business (’scuse the pun). He sold 17 copies in one hour. ‘Rather than begging, homeless people can have the dignity of becoming social entrepreneurs, selling something for a living.’ James has plans to launch the magazine in Pakistan in the forseeable future.

There are other ideas for the future, too, it seems. When I ask him who he’d want to play him in that movie of his life, he doesn’t think twice. ‘George Clooney. I think he lives a really fun life. I find him quite charming, he’s got a great sense of humour. He’s very calm and considered and I think he’d make a very good James Caan.’ So, would George be on the dinner invitation list for the glamorous side of James’ life? ‘If I could choose three guests I’d want Michelle Pfeiffer – ever since I saw her in Scarface I’ve thought she’s the most beautiful woman – and I’d like her to be sitting next to Aishwarya Rai, the Indian actress, who used to be Miss World. She’s absolutely stunning. I think it would be nice to be surrounded by that sort of glamour. You never know, there might be a future role for me in Bollywood and she might need a leading man at some stage.’

And guest number three? ‘David Cameron. I’ve got some good ideas on how I think Britain should be run like a business. Running a country is similar to running a company. A lot of decisions should be more commercially thought through because the government receives tax which it needs to provide services. They should be looked at more from a business perspective, where you’ve got a responsibility to provide value for the taxes that they receive.’ Would he not be distracted from business in the presence of such beauties? ‘Well, we need to have fun while we’re debating.’ And so, as I leave James to play with ‘his toys – ipad, iphone, Blackberry’ and ‘to go shopping with Jemma’, I wonder where next we might see James? Selling copies of The Big Issue on the streets of Pakistan or alongside Aishwarya in the movie of his life? With the entrepreneurial mind of a man like James, nothing is impossible.

60 seconds with James
Want to know a little more about the man behind the dragon?

What do you do to relax?
‘I spend a lot of time on my boat. I find being out at sea very relaxing and therapeutic. It has a calming influence on me.’

What’s your favourite holiday destination?
‘The French Riviera because my boat is here. We sail to St Tropez, Monte Carlo, Corsica, Sardinia – they’re all within a very easy radius.’

What’s your favourite restaurant?
‘I’m a big fan of Cipriani in Mayfair. It’s opposite my office so it’s very accessible, it has fabulous food and a fantastic ambience – it’s always buzzing. Whenever I’m there I always bump into friends and people I know. Sometimes, if I’m working in the office at the weekend, a waiter will bring my lunch over!’

What do you watch on TV?
‘I thought 24 with Kiefer Sutherland was amazing and I’m an avid watcher of the news. I also like the humour of Have I Got News for You or Mock the Week. Anything starring George Clooney goes down very well!’

What or who makes you laugh out loud?
‘My daughter Jemma. She has an amazing sense of humour and has me in stitches. I love one liners and gags. If you haven’t had a chance to laugh out loud each day, you haven’t enjoyed the day. It’s important that there’s a sense of humour when interacting with people.

What book are you reading at the moment?
‘I’m reading The Real Deal, my autobiography, just reminding myself of my life. I’m on chapter eight where I met my wife!’

What’s your greatest fear?
‘Fear of failure. Whenever you become successful, especially when you’ve started with nothing, you’re always driven by the fear that one day you could lose it. It doesn’t matter how successful you’ve become, it’s always important to recognise that nothing is forever.’

Pictures: Alexander Pichon and Joel Anderson

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