You know Duncan Bannatyne. Okay, not the name perhaps, but you know the man. The accent.
Come on, you remember – the scary one on BBC2’s Dragon’s Den? The bloke who sounds moments away from thumping the next entrant who wants £100,000 for a 10% stake in their snake charming business?
The great triumph of Bannatyne’s Anyone Can Do It, the new paperback edition of which I’ve just read cover to cover, is that it transforms its subject from a man you’d avoid outside a pub to a man you’d love to share a pint with.
Bannatyne – perhaps we should call him Duncan, which sounds more human, less like an enforcement robot out of Robocop, and so suits the person in this book better – is certainly not the first Scot from a dark corner of Glasgow to be hastily judged by his consonant dropping speech-cum-warcry. Hell, to sensitive English ears even the posher denizens of Edinburgh can sound like they’re giving you ten seconds to run for it.
But in Bannatyne (Duncan’s) case, first impressions couldn’t be more misleading, as this revelation of a book makes clear.
This is a man who has built up successful businesses based around caring for people (first the elderly, then the visitors to his gyms), and who is seemingly loved by his family and staff (many of whom stay with him for decades). A man worth north of £180 million who divides his personal time between heartbreaking trips to improve the lives of Romanian orphans, and curiously concerted efforts to get on the telly (drunk on the idea of a second career as an actor, he even enrolled at RADA, pretending to other students he was kipping on a mate’s sofa when in reality he was by night sneaking back to a five-star hotel).
Riding the waves
That’s not the Bannatyne you recognise from the Den, eh? Even more surprising is how late in life he began to make his fortune. After all, most of us have sat on a beach and decided to make a success of our lives.
Duncan did it at 30, when he was a long-haired surfer who’d been hanging out in Jersey for years. And then he went and succeeded. Over the course of his life he also got himself thrown out of the Navy for attempting to chuck an officer overboard, and he toured the country for years fixing mechanical equipment. So haphazard it all seems, you sometimes feel that rather than looking for his vocation, Bannatyne was waiting for the spirit of entrepreneurship to stumble into him.
The empire finally gets going with… an ice cream van. Duncan’s Super Ices is to Bannatyne what Virgin Records is to Richard Branson, and the comparison is as charming as it is faintly silly. (But don’t go patronising Bannatyne – he now hobnobs with Branson at the latter’s parties for UK entrepreneurs). Duncan’s Super Ices sums up the appeal of Anyone Can Do It. Whereas Branson’s biography like some immortal Greek hero remade for the Home Counties, Bannatyne comes across as very much a flesh-and-blood man who raises his head to the horizon and consciously decides to steal fire from the gods of fortune.
He barely remarks on it in the book, but like most self-made men he works all hours. Profits generated go into buying more ice-cream vans and investments in bedsits. Rival cone moguls are shouted down and crowded out. The cash begins piling up.
Next Bannatyne spots an opportunity created by changes in Government legislation to provide decent care homes for the elderly. He does the sums, and realises he can improve their standard of living (and so secure customers) while enjoying a guaranteed Government income. It works, and within months he’s building more care homes and is at loggerheads with the banks.
Actually, here Bannatyne does share a similarity with Branson – both are seemingly fearless when it comes to debt. Branson’s Losing My Virginity is full of battles with the banks, with the nascent billionaire shunting money left and right across his companies to keep the financial wheels spinning. Bannatyne’s mathematics are simpler – he works out the return on money employed per square foot of a building, and borrows accordingly – but it’s still hard not to think that if you were in his shoes you’d slow down and take a breather.
But few of us are in his shoes – something Bannatyne himself is amazed at. “People ask me where I get my drive from,” he says at one point. “I want to know why other people haven’t got it.” Opportunities seem obvious to him.
Perhaps a few are to all of us, but what he underplays in Anyone Can Do It is his boldness in actually taking them on. It’s fear that kills businesses before they’re even born, and Bannatyne has none of it. Maybe the knowledge that he was happy when the surf was up on that Jersey beach means he’s not daunted by the thought of risking losing it all, and going back there?
After the care homes we learn about Bannatyne Gyms, via a detour into child care facilities and a few other diversions on the way. The book does get a little repetitive, and it’s certainly not one that will be quoted by Business Studies lecturers. There’s no clash of the moguls here. Rather, Duncan sets up entire business over just a few pages, somewhere recounting an anecdote that inspires the business maxims that head up each chapter – homilies like ‘You should never let it get personal’ and ‘Why wouldn’t you want to buy something that made you money’. Why indeed.
If you’re ordering Anyone Can Do It for the chapter and verse on setting up and running your own enterprise, you’ll be disappointed. Indeed, it’s sign of Bannatyne’s mastery that he makes it all sound easy – the very definition of an expert, but not an ideal trait in a business mentor.
Despite this, Bannatyne is inspiring where Branson, say, is merely awe-inspiring, and I mean that as a compliment. Few people will imagine buying Necker Island on a whim in their twenties like the Virgin boss did, but most of us can picture buying a van or investing in property. Bannatyne’s success is conceivable, even if enjoying the great wealth he got for it isn’t.
This isn’t a book to blow you away. Far from it. Rather, it’s like a dutiful trip to a distant, elderly relative that turns out to be the best use of a Sunday afternoon for months.
There are business messages buried within the unsexy prose of Anyone Can Do It, but the most inspiring is there on the cover. Duncan Bannatyne started in poverty, grew up boxing and failing to get qualifications, decided to become rich, went for it, got it, and seemingly remained a thoroughly nice guy at the end of it. In a world still as full of ‘phonies’ as in Holden Caulfied’s day, it’s a pleasure to read such a satisfying account of an unpromising boy made good, in every sense of the word.
Bottom line: Dragon’s Den will never be the same again, and quite possibly neither will you. Anyone Can Do It is highly recommended.