“Labour told me that no billionaire should exist”
Ironically, it was none other than John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn, who was responsible for his newfound activism. Until three years ago, the tycoon focused on his philanthropic work, staying out of politics except to make a one-time donation to Bill Cash’s Brexit campaign. But a public clash with Labor in 2019 convinced him he needed to get involved.
Told that Caudwell had threatened to leave the UK if Corbyn came to power, McDonnell invited the billionaire to debate with him over a cup of tea. Caudwell not only introduced himself, but offered a spirited and captivating defense of why Britain needed more entrepreneurs to create wealth, tackling what he called a “dividing” rhetoric.
Afterwards, he remained so worried that within 24 hours he had met with Johnson and a few days later had agreed to donate a six-figure donation to the Tories. “Since the Labor Party, there was anti-Semitism, there was communist speeches and the rich were decried and I felt really passionate about that,” he explains. “I thought if Labor comes in I will leave. Not because of the tax rate, I might add. It’s because I would have lost a huge sense of pride in Britain.
“One of the weird things [Labour] said was that no billionaire should ever exist. If it was me, I would say “We really want you, we admire you in this country”. But we want you to pay a little more. If you have a golden egg hen, help her thrive. Don’t slit his throat.”
Could he ever support Labor under Starmer? “The Labor Party has improved tremendously since getting rid of Corbyn. But – and this is a big but – I still think that, hidden beneath the surface, there are a lot of communist attitudes against the Insults towards billionaires and the creation of jealousy, animosity and hatred of the working classes against the wealthy are counterproductive.”
Certainly, if Labor had hoped for an easy target, it would have been better to choose someone else.
Caudwell, who flies his own helicopter for business meetings, defies political stereotypes. Sitting in his home office, where pictures of Margaret Thatcher and Spitfires in flight hang on the wall, he says he always thought a successful business career and charity work was part of his “destiny”. When he was seven, he had a vision of himself sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, handing out five-pound notes to the poor.
Coming from a working-class boy from Stoke-on-Trent, that would probably have sounded outlandish to his peers. “I had no inspiration at all,” he says. “In fact, most of the people around me were the opposite of inspiration.” He had a strained relationship with his father, who could be intimidating and did not give him “the love or fairness that I would have liked”. When Caudwell was 14, his father suffered the first of two strokes and died four years later.
But today the entrepreneur is worth an estimated £1.5billion and has a property empire spanning his mansion and grounds in Staffordshire, the Mayfair home, a ski property in Vail, Colorado, a home in Monaco and commercial properties which he hopes to rent out to the very wealthy.
It’s a real-life rags-to-riches story, started after Caudwell dropped his A-levels to train as an apprentice car mechanic at the local Michelin tire factory.
Later, he started his own car dealership and founded the mobile empire that would go on to make a fortune. His business, which included retailer Phones 4U and telephone service provider Singlepoint, which was sold to Vodafone in 2003, eventually employed 12,000 people and achieved sales of £2.4billion a year.
It sold to private equity in 2006, just before the financial crisis hit. Was it luck or judgment?
“It may sound pretentious,” he says, “but it was pure judgment. I saw a recession coming. took 18 months to sell. If I hadn’t sold then, I wouldn’t have gotten it back, because the world was starting to fall apart. All the warning signs were there.
There were also other reasons. “I wanted to be less risky and have the time, have the money, do more for charitable causes. And it all fell into place.”
His career was often far from smooth. A supplier nearly upended his business by shutting it down in the 1990s, while in the early 2000s Singlepoint was criticized by customers for its poor service and aggressive approach to sales.
A BBC documentary detailing life at the firm portrays Caudwell as an uncompromising boss who does not tolerate failure. Potential recruits were screened for their ruthless attributes, with interviewers asking them if they were willing to sell things they didn’t believe in. Some clients have claimed that they signed contracts they did not want. Looking back, does he think things ever went too far, or even strayed into unethical territory?
“We gave very bad service at times,” he admits. But he attributes this to growing pains, as well as “isolated incidents” involving a small number of employees.
“We were recruiting guys in Stoke-on-Trent from the coal and potteries and they needed training,” he adds. “We were growing so fast we couldn’t keep up and we made a lot of mistakes. But we were inundated because we were such good value. Would I do anything differently? No. You’re still going to get complaints and we are putting a massive effort into fixing things.”
These days, he devotes most of his time to charitable activities. He also mobilized to “do his part” during the Ukrainian crisis, housing a mother and her son who fled the war. They live in a converted coach house at Caudwell House in Staffordshire and are “doing well”, he says. “We have provided them with everything – a car, food, a house – but they are desperately sad because her husband is on the front line and, although she has a comfortable and safe life here, she prefers to be with her family. .”
He founded Caudwell Children, a charity that helps children with disabilities, in 2000. The running costs of the organization are paid out of his own pocket and the charity has supported 65,000 children and families. There have been controversies, however, with the charity that has been criticized in the past for directing families to unproven treatments such as ‘ion-cleansing’ footbaths and homeopathy, as well as doctors speaking out. against vaccination.
Caudwell insists the allegations were unfair and the charity does ‘nothing but recommended stuff’, adding: ‘That’s not who we are at all’. Instead, he cites examples such as a little boy with cerebral palsy whose “legs didn’t work” until they sent him to the US for surgery and paid for years of physiotherapy. . Later, at a fundraising ball, the same delighted boy ran upstage and jumped into Caudwell’s arms.
How did he feel at that time? “Beyond speech, you know? he said, becoming visibly emotional. “Give me all the boats in the world, all the meals in the world, all the wine in the world, I don’t care. But the amount of change I’ve created in people’s lives satisfies me immensely spiritually.”
He also supports charities dedicated to research into chronic Lyme disease, which several members of his family have been diagnosed with, and the autoimmune diseases PANS and PANDAS, which his 24-year-old son Rufus suffered from, going from long periods of bed rest and panic. Attacks and agoraphobia.
“We spent 15 years trying to treat him. He’s a little better now – but for the average child it’s a horrible condition that completely destroys his life. This is the next step in my program in terms of trying to gain recognition for the medical profession, which the vast majority do not.”
We are briefly interrupted by a visit from Modesta and William. “Hello dear!” he smiles, saluting. Caudwell, who has five adult children from previous relationships, says being a new father at 69 has its perks – these days he has more time to spend with his youngest.
“Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t have had this interruption,” he smiles. “With my other kids, I always tried to do sports days, awards days and school theaters, but I was working an awful lot of hours, so it was very difficult. Now I have the luxury spending time with William, and really enjoying the nuances of how he changes every day. And it’s really fabulous.”
Caudwell is bursting with energy. “I’m young for my age,” he says. Is it due to fasting? Caudwell – who is obsessed with healthy eating – speaks evangelically about the health benefits. Some experts believe that fasting triggers autophagy, a natural process by which cells in the body are regenerated. How does he fight hunger? “It’s a state of mind,” he said, tapping his finger on his temple.
What does he do to relax? “I cycle as much as possible,” he says. But does he ever relax, like the rest of us? “I don’t really need it. Sometimes relaxing is more stressful than not relaxing. My worst nightmare is being on a beach, lying in the sun.”
Following his foray into political campaign finance, he jokes that some people on social media have even suggested he should be Prime Minister before adding, almost too quickly: “Which I never think”.
He offered to be an unpaid adviser to Johnson on several occasions, to no avail, he says. As leadership speculation swirls, he brings up Liz Truss (“good, but lacking in personality”) and Jeremy Hunt (“potentially a strong contender”), but reserves particularly high praise for Nadhim Zahawi (“he’s a businessman and a very strong pair of hands”).
Why does he think it’s important for him to have a voice? “I absolutely believe that I can add tremendous value to government, in certain circumstances. But if they don’t like what I have to say, I wouldn’t object.”
What is clear is that John Caudwell still has a lot to say.