He’s a serial entrepreneur, CEO of private equity firm Hamilton Bradshaw, and is worth an approximate £70m. Former Dragon James Caan tells Dawn Murden about his determination for success and how his business was built on love
Ever since he came onto our screens breathing fiery business advice and looking for lucrative investments in BBC’s Dragons’ Den in 2007, James Caan has been a household name. Everyone knows who the British-Pakistani entrepreneur is. But what do we know about the man himself?
When I first spoke to James Caan, one thing was clear, he’s one determined individual. But this was the case from a very young age. His father owned a successful leather goods company and one day hoped James would take it over.
However, James wanted to make it on his own, and even though he came from a liberal Muslim family, this
was unheard of at the time.
‘I was a very stubborn individual,’ he told me.
So at age 16, James left home before he began his O-levels.
James was born Nazim Khan, but when he watched The Godfather and saw Caan on the credits it struck him that he could spell his name differently. His friends started calling him James Caan and a few years later he changed his name by deed poll, much to his father’s disapproval.
The first company James started was with his now wife Aisha. She wanted to set up her own boutique, so James acquired £30,000 via credit cards and overdrafts and made her dream come true. At 21, they tied the knot and now have two children together.
With the profits from the boutique he set up recruitment company, Alexander Mann in 1985, which he sold in 2002. Then in 2004 he set up Mayfair-based private equity firm, Hamilton Bradshaw, which has a reported revenue of around £400 million.
James was born to be an entrepreneur, and he agrees; ‘I can’t honestly think of anything else I’d rather be doing!’ he said.
When James left Dragons’ Den there were reports of spats with fellow dragon, Duncan Bannatyne, but James said he left to concentrate on his business and charity work.
And so, Hamilton Bradshaw continues to grow, while his charity, the James Caan Foundation, promotes greater awareness of issues facing the developing world. He is a partner of a long list of companies as well as chairing the Government-funded Start Up Loans scheme, which helps young people across the UK start their own businesses.
He also continues to be a TV personality with his own series on CNBC, The Business Class where he discusses the key issues facing SMEs today.
As you see he’s a busy man so I was lucky to grab him for a chat!
I understand your father was an entrepreneur. Why did you set up on your own rather than joining the family business?
I’ve known from a young age that I wanted to stand on my own two feet, do my own thing and make it myself. Naturally my father wasn’t very pleased, and from then on my determination grew even more. I had to prove that I could be a success without him, that I had made the right decision. Keep in mind I had moved out as well, which was unheard of in our culture at the time. I was a very stubborn individual.
When you launched your business how did you get your start-up cash?
There are now many ways in which start-ups can secure finance. But when I started out things were different so I had to be creative. The first business I started was actually with Aisha, who is now my wife. In a bid to impress her, I offered to help her start a clothing boutique business. I didn’t actually have the money, so I took out three separate credit cards with banks that had overdraft facilities. I didn’t tell her, and before I knew it, I had £30,000 to help her start her business.
Once the business I had with Aisha was going well, I started up Alexander Mann from some of the profits. However, I always followed the principle of not taking more out of the business then it could afford. At that time all I needed to start a recruitment agency was an office, a telephone and a copy of the Yellow Pages. I rented a tiny, windowless office the size of a broom cupboard in Pall Mall and got calling.
Was your success instant or hard won?
It’s definitely hard work; you rarely get instant success in business. In particular, the early days of my first business were extremely difficult – I didn’t have a brand or track record, so I experienced countless rejections. I went for a walk one day and then realised how I should alter my pitch. From there things started to kick on.
It still took many years of hard work to get to the point where Alexander Mann became a global brand with a multi-million pound turnover. When I started my current business, Hamilton Bradshaw, in some ways it was even more difficult because it had been quite a few years since I had been in the position of starting up. Even now, when we are established as a leading private equity firm, I am regularly in the office late at nights and on weekends.
What would your advice be to first-time businesses that are experiencing difficulties in the economic climate?
Having good cash flow is essential at any time, but particularly in the current climate. The success of a business will come down to the liquidity, and I would advise business owners to look carefully at the money going in and out of the company. Tighten up things like payment terms and look at how you can make your business more efficient. However, self-belief is just as important. Rather than listening to all the doom and gloom, have faith in your business and look at what you can do to help yourself through any difficulties.
What’s the best and worst things about being an entrepreneur?
I love the adrenalin of doing deals and the ability to be my own boss. I think every entrepreneur feels the same. You have the opportunity to control what you do – you can turn your passion into a business and what you earn. The worst thing would probably be the fact that, particularly at the start, things can be lonely. You are often having to manage everything yourself; and this is why I wish I had a mentor
in my early days. It’s something I passionately encourage all entrepreneurs to do. Having somebody experienced who can offer you advice
Did you enjoy your time on BBC’s Dragons’ Den? Have you watched the new series? What do you make of the new dragons?
Shows such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice are a great way to approach the problems that SMEs and entrepreneurs face today. I thoroughly enjoyed being on Dragons’ Den and found it exhilarating to meet such diverse entrepreneurs with incredible ideas. Kelly and Piers have a great reputation in their industries, and I can’t wait to see what businesses they invest in.
You also had your series on CNBC, The Business Class. Do you enjoy being on television?
I do enjoy it, although my main focus will always be the day job. A lot of the time it can be good for business, and not just from a profile point of view. I am an investor and am always on the lookout for opportunities, so what Dragons’ Den did was allow me to be in an environment where I had access to these opportunities. To get hundreds of people pitching ideas to me was a great experience. I hope to do more TV in the very near future. [Watch this space!]
Every month we feature a Start Up Loan recipient, the scheme chaired by you. How important do you think investing in UK SMEs is?
As far as I am concerned, small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. I have always been a keen supporter of them, and the fact that we now have more than 4.8 million SMEs in the country shows that Britain is one of the most entrepreneurial countries in the world. We should be doing everything we can to encourage them to grow, and I think the Government schemes in place now, such as Start Up Loans, are a big help towards this. The more SMEs we can encourage, the more jobs they will create so I can only see positive outcomes from backing them.