Telling the truth about SME life today

Duncan Bannatyne Bannatyne Fitness Chain

But today, sitting on his pristine white leather sofa in his modern-yet-comfortable flat in the heart of Covent Garden, he’s far from the erstwhile Clydebank thug.

Ever the showman, Bannatyne wastes no time launching into his familiar patter: “It all started when I was 11 years old,” he says. “I wanted a bike, so I went and did a paper round. That gave me my first entrepreneurial look at money.” It’s a nice story except that, just four years later, he’d trashed the bike and was on his way to enlist in the Navy for a lifetime of servitude on the national payroll. In fact, it took nearly five years in Her Majesty’s Service before he rediscovered his entrepreneurial drive, and even that was down to fate. “I had what we’ll call an altercation with my commanding officer,” he says. “I tried to shove him off the side of an aircraft carrier, got discharged, spent seven months in Colchester detention barracks and came home penniless.”

This story has drawn in the media like bees to honey. He’s the loveable rogue, the reformed rake. It’s also a role that fits well with his persona on BBC2’s Dragons’ Den, the show that propelled Bannatyne into the media spotlight in the first place: he’s at once the “nasty” dragon and the “guardian angel investor”. But is there any more to the Scottish millionaire than the fairytale

Bannatyne’s Cinderella story starts with an impoverished childhood. He recalls how, as one of seven children, his parents could not afford to buy him an ice cream on a hot summer’s day. It took two decades before he finally bought his very own ice-cream van for £450, growing the business until it comprised an entire fleet. After selling his vans for £25,000, he invested his spoils into building a care home empire. He sold that for £46m and took on the gym sector with the Bannatyne Fitness chain.

Today, this fitness empire pulls in revenues of £77m. But, for the proud Scot, the money is nothing compared to the fame. “I’d love to see the Bannatyne name all over Britain,” he says. “Every entrepreneur in the world has a big ego. That’s why my name is on all my health clubs, all my hotels, everything.”

This would be why Donald Trump, with his worldwide fame and amour-propre, is Bannatyne’s ultimate business hero. “He’s much bigger than me,” he says with a wry grin. “His name’s all over the place, and mine’s only out there in a small way.”

Bannatyne’s craving for approbation has brought him trouble as well as triumph. He won a cameo role in Guy Richie’s Layer Cake at a charity auction for £7,000, hoping for a future on the big screen but his fledgling acting career went up in flames after the walk-on part failed to bring on more work. “That’s history now,” he says. But, when pressed about why he shelved his hobby, Bannatyne’s guard slips slightly. “You go for auditions and you don’t get the work…” he says, before adding defensively: “And I’m a businessman and I’m doing this Comic Relief stuff and the anti-smoking campaigns for TV. I don’t have enough time, something had to go.” Everyone’s allowed a blip.

Overall, everything Bannatyne turns his hand to works a charm. His business success has been astronomical. A defiant £12m investment in a new Bannatyne Spa Hotel in Hastings last year saw the entrepreneur stick two fingers up at the recession. And the gamble paid off. “It’s been continually full every weekend since we opened and at 75 per cent capacity during the week,” he says with a hint of smugness.

It’s this almost preternatural business nous that has made Bannatyne such a powerhouse in the Den. He’s the only Dragon to have lasted all six series and, of the four major success stories to come out of the show, three of the investments have been his: £160,000 to Igloo Thermo-Logistics; £150,000 to Peter Moule for Chocbox and £50,000 for Razzamataz Theatre Schools. “Chocbox now has two subsidiaries,” says Bannatyne. “It’s a really good company. Razzamataz Theatre Schools is now international and Igloo, the food delivery company, now has 42 trucks.”

He makes it seem almost effortless. It practically is. Bannatyne only spends around five hours a week on his business interests these days, trusting his second-in-command MD Nigel Armstrong to take care of the day-to-day. “I have no problem with delegation,” he says. “It’s easy for me to divorce myself from the business and let my boys run it.  And when they do wrong I tell them and they sort it.”

These “boys” were behind Bannatyne’s recent acquisition of 24 LivingWell health clubs from Hilton Hotels. The deal Armstrong put together looked so sweet that Bannatyne thought it must be too good to be true. “I nearly pulled out twice,” he laughs. The deal was worth £92m. “It’s the biggest deal I’ve ever done,” says Bannatyne. And how long did he spend going over the paperwork” “Four or five minutes,” he says. If that isn’t an insight into the mind of a born entrepreneur, what is?

With an estimated personal wealth of £310m, there’s no doubt that Bannatyne has officially “made it”. But has there ever been a time when the great Scot worried he’d made a mistake, ventures Real Business. Bannatyne doesn’t pause for breath, “There hasn’t been,” he says.

Some people might disagree. Bannatyne made headlines earlier this year for charging customers at his Bannatyne Fitness gyms for cereal bars that should have been given away free. Rather than admitting a faux pas, Bannatyne jokes that the move was all part of his plan to beat the recession: “I make sure than no-one does anything stupid – like giving away free Kellogg’s bars!” Of course, from a business point of view, he was right: why bring down sales of your own snacks by giving away other companies’ for free

This downturn has given Bannatyne plenty of opportunities to flex his vocal muscles. From pearls of wisdom on saving: “My third book is called ‘How to be smart with money during the recession’,” to grandiose hypotheses: “This recession was caused by banks lending to each other,” he declares. The idea has merit. “Supermarket chains build up without lending each other fruit and veg,” he explains. “If they all lent each other stock, and one was in trouble, they’d all be in trouble. If the banks were completely self-contained and one went bust, the rest could then come in and take the pickings, and a few jobs would be saved.”

Bannatyne’s unfaltering self-assurance could be mistaken for arrogance, except for the Dragon’s habit of praising others with equal gusto. Although sceptical of the idea that entrepreneurialism can be taught (“It was a lack of education that caused me to become an entrepreneur”), he shows overwhelming support for fellow Dragon Peter Jones’s new Enterprise Academy, which hopes to churn out Britain’s next generation of entrepreneurs. “Peter’s got so much energy and enthusiasm. If anybody can make it succeed, he will,” says Bannatyne.

Bannatyne’s faith in Jones’s business acumen is matched only by his faith in his tall friend’s dancing ability. He, Jones and Deborah Meaden have just appeared in a Comic Relief dance show. Bannatyne shakes his head: “They called me and said: ‘We want you to dance for Comic Relief.’ I thought if I said no, it’d look bad. But I thought Peter definitely wouldn’t do it, so I’d say yes. Then Peter agreed and I thought: ‘Fuck me! Now I’ve got to do it!’ Not only am I not a natural dancer, I’m tone deaf, I’ve got two left feet and I’ve no rhythm! It’s been a challenge.”

He has a little spoiler for us, too. At the end of the series, during the final dance-off, instead of scooping up his partner, Meaden, Jones picks him up instead and spins him around in the air. “We were joking around during practice,” laughs Bannatyne. “The choreographer said, ‘That’s much better. We’ll do that’.” Bannatyne gets uncharacteristically giggly at the prospect of playing the clown: “It’s going to be funny!” he says. “I may be about to become the next John Sergeant [Strictly Come Dancing] or Todd Carty [Dancing on Ice].”

It’s no wonder, coming from such a large family, that Bannatyne enjoys all this attention. But is it ever too much” “The only downside is people telling silly stories about you,” he says. The Scottish millionaire refers to his brother, Sandy Bannatyne, boasting in the press about being the first “member of the family” to join the “I hate Duncan Bannatyne” group on social network Facebook.

“My brother’s criticised me for saying he’s got no ambition,” says Bannatyne, with his trademark directness. “I never said it was a bad thing to want to be a working man; I’m just saying we’re all different. My own children don’t have the same fire to be running huge businesses as I do. But that’s not a bad thing. If they want to work a nine to five job, I wouldn’t try to encourage them to do something different.”

But, RB persists, if one of your kids were to come to you and say, “Dad, I want to start a business”, would now be a good time “This is the best time ever,” he replies. “This is bargain basement time.” There’s the thing: Bannatyne is genuinely fired up by this recession. And why shouldn’t he be Opportunities abound and Bannatyne Holdings has yet to feel the pinch: “My sales are up on last year on a like-for-like basis,” he says. “In a recession, they should be down, but we’re up 0.7 per cent. It’s small but it’s still up.”

It’ll take more than a recession to keep Bannatyne down; he’s slain worse dragons on his fairytale journey. Now, the ordinary boy is a Dragon himself. And here’s a tip for any chancers heading to his Den: he’s still a sucker for a 99 flake.

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