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Discover how Peter Jones has created the “invisible magic” behind leading online brands

Entrepreneur and Dragons' Den investor Peter Jones admits that sometimes the answers to big business challenges are just "sitting in plain sight".
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He’s sat in one of the five Dragons’ Den hot seats since the very first episode in January 2005, and the new 13th series on BBC2 from 12 July, 2015, marks a decade of imparting feedback to would-be entrepreneurs with, sometimes but certainly not always, a decent business idea.

Jones is the stylish entrepreneur with “those stripy socks” and well cut suits who, whatever your view of business reality TV, is arguably the undisputed people’s choice as the star of the show – and its most prolific investor – which has become a global franchise.

At this point, I need to declare an interest; I worked with Peter for ten years.

Imagine for a moment, if you will, your dream job: working for one of Britain’s most famous entrepreneurs in the ascendant, prime ministers, politicians, the media and TV companies, with ideas and offers, and CEOs of every organisation you can think of, not to mention opportunists beating a path to the office door, trying to get an “in” with an influential, wealthy and popular business guru.

Whatever you thought of just then doesn’t come close; I can vouch for that. And if I had a pound for every time somebody has asked me “why did I leave?” I might myself make the lower reaches of the Sunday Times Rich List, where Jones was last positioned at 232nd with an estimated fortune of £475m.

In answer to the question, before you think it, I had a personal “bucket list” and so in 2012 I decided to head off and do some of my own things, not least inspired by Jones’s own personal credo: “Make your dreams a reality.” But this conversation is about Jones.

So what is the entrepreneur – who somebody suggested to me is a fair bet for an award in GQ magazine’s Man of the Year in September 2015, such is how his persona straddles both the worlds of business and entertainment – up to right now?

The simple answer, with a dash of journalistic license, is that the big six feet seven inch businessman has gone soft. But we’ll get to that.

We are sat in the copious indulgence of Jones’s business headquarters in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. If you think striking cufflinks (his preference is for the antique and huge variety) and other wardrobe accessories are where the incisive design touches about personal presentation end, you would be wrong. He once, in an early episode of Dragons’ Den, castigated a would-be entrepreneur for pitching in tatty jeans and a t-shirt.

The building, which has undergone at least two makeovers that would put a TV property show to shame, exudes the very epitome of the phrase “the devil is in the detail”. Company brand values, such as “attitude” and “integrity,” decorate walls and the windows of meeting rooms.

And there is no mistaking who is the boss. Two flags fly high above the car park, and emblazoned upon them is “PJ Investments Group”, which is also the same logo greeting visitors in a spacious, reception area, where global brands are among those who wait for an audience

“This is weird,” he said. “Being interviewed by you of all people is disconcerting, but maybe in a way it’s meant to be. You know me better than most people outside of close family and friends. I don’t think people who know me from TV really know the person I really am. I’m not saying I’m different, it’s just TV has a way of editing you into a particular character to drive a story. 

“I’m definitely not a pussycat at work or in the boardroom, and I am probably significantly more blunt and direct in my day job than on TV, but – as you well know – I have a soft side and an unwavering loyalty to those close to me.”

So what is Jones’s story? Here’s the recap:

He grew up and went to school in Maidenhead. He was on course to be one of Britain’s top tennis professionals in his teens, supported by his father, David, and probably his biggest fan, his mother, Eileen. Had circumstances been different, the now famous Henman Hill or Murray Mount at the Wimbledon All England Club might have become known as “Peter’s Peak” or some other media-friendly label. Either way, that early competitiveness and desire to win was only going in one direction.

His first of many businesses, a tennis academy, funded an Alphasud sports car among other trappings, before he later set up a computer company, which was fatally struck down when a customer with uninsured credit went bust. A bar in Windsor called “PJ’s” also stretched the bank balance – and ultimately he had to take a couple of “normal” jobs, such as Siemens Nixdorf, where he joined the sales and marketing team and within a year ended up running the company while still in his twenties. Then it was time for a first solo foray into telecoms in Slough, where he slept in the office after his staff went home, because he could not afford to bankroll a business and fund somewhere to live at the same time.

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Now, some 20 years on, he heads up a portfolio of property investments and business interests, some acquired via Dragons’ Den and others – such as the television production company Hungry Bear Media and Farrell, a menswear brand with singer Robbie Williams – through a vast network contacts in the business and entertainment worlds.

His primary focus right now is Brandpath Group, a collection of his largest telecoms enterprises, which have been brought together to deliver the ultimate solution for brands and companies looking to achieve global dominance in the ecommerce-meets-product-fulfillment sector.

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Sitting in plain sight

The company, he says, is the “invisible magic” behind a number of tech and retail brands; and he is naturally coy about who they are.

He said: “We provide a totally seamless and highly efficient service based on our unique software solutions coupled with experience and reach built up over years in separate mainly physical hardware companies that have now become one selling our powerful software solutions. Some of our work, because we are deeply embedded within our partners’ sales and payment systems, is difficult to shout about, but we are working with the likes of Vodafone, Huawei, Orange and many others on a global basis.”

So why, after years of making money in mainly mobile and tech hardware distribution, was there a strategic switch to an ecommerce software-based business?

“Sometimes the answers to business challenges are literally sitting in plain sight,” he explained. “For years, we very successfully positioned ecommerce as an ‘added value’ almost bolt-on to our distribution business, and we operated significant contracts for major brands including the one of world’s largest mobile network operators, Vodafone. Over time, that drastically changed the nature of our operations and the skill set among our people.”

He added: “Bringing Expansys into my portfolio gave us a global, multi-language, multi-currency, ecommerce platform linked to fulfillment centres world-wide. I just figured that we were trying to be the best at the wrong thing; the real answer was in our systems, our technical development and our ecommerce capability and people, and so there was a short leap but a huge effort by everyone to turn a big ship to create a true software company – while making the most of our distribution heritage.”

But with a huge amount of money in the bank, fame on TV on both sides of the Atlantic (Jones created and starred in American Inventor for the US TV network ABC), charitable interests aimed at turning teenagers into tycoons via a national schools campaign and a network of Enterprise Academies in the Further Education (FE) sector, not to mention offers aplenty from the great and the good coming into the inbox daily, why bother?

“You of all people should know the answer to that question,” he pointed out, with some incredulity. “I am driven, I love business and the achievement of my goals means I can replace them with new ones. I have definitely found more of a work-life balance lately, and there have been good reasons for that, but I am still as hungry as I ever was, and my business interests are broad and exciting and there is still much to be achieved.”

When the cameras aren’t rolling

Normally, in an interview like this, there comes a point when you go and get a comment or two from people close to the “subject” for what we journalistically call “colour” and context.

There is a huge list of people I could ask about Jones, but here’s what I would say:

“He is the kind of guy you would want as a friend in business, and life. He helped me save my first failed company, and somehow helped me turn that into an opportunity, which I didn’t see – but that was sitting in plain sight too. He put his team on the case to help me (this just after a few months of meeting), and he helped me turn a massive mistake into a position of power in a crucial negotiation.

“Then, some years later, he pitched up at my wedding, flying out to an obscure city in the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada, and delivered the best best man speech a groom could ask for and, for a brief moment, he made me a hero in front of the new family and friends.

“He may have switched from hardware to software in the world of business, but to me he’s always been a bit soft at heart in a good way. When Peter Jones is on your team, amazing things can happen, and while you’ll only see one side of him on television, if you know him when the cameras aren’t rolling, you really are one of the lucky ones.”

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About Author

Eric Woollard-White

In addition to freelance writing, Eric Woollard-White is a business development, marketing and PR consultant and founder and CEO of Thirty7 Productions. For ten years, he worked with entrepreneur and Dragons’ Den panellist Peter Jones in a variety of communications and senior management roles.

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