Peter Jones balances the demands of a £200m telecommunications firm, a TV production company and numerous Dragons’ Den investments, but none of those provided him with his proudest business moment. He tells Growing Business about his latest passion
It’s hard not to be impressed by the diversity of interests Peter Jones commands, but some of his more familiar traits should make him easier to dislike: the infamous sneer and withering comments with which inadequate Dragons’ Den hopefuls are dismissed, for example.
His critics, meanwhile, have done some sneering of their own, particularly about American Inventor, the TV show he dreamt up with friend Simon Cowell, presumably for the gall he displayed in adapting the Dragons’ Den formula and turning it into a gaudy stateside success for his television production firm, Peter Jones TV.
But then Jones comes in several guises: the maverick investor whose hand can’t be read by his fellow Dragons, but still claims the show’s best investment record; the one-man brand who’s put his name to numerous advertising campaigns, a book, board game and even a range of socks; and the telecoms magnate who’s as fired up as ever about growing Phones International, the £200m-turnover business he founded in 1998.
I leave my meeting with him at his Marlow, Buckinghamshire HQ still unsure which incarnation I’ve just met, but disarmed by the sheer enthusiasm of a man I’d feared it could be hard to warm to.
It might be difficult to judge what gets most of Jones’ attention these days – Phones International, which sells and distributes mobile communications products and is still growing organically and acquisitively, or his public persona, which demands frequent international travel, filming time, photoshoots and numerous personal appearances. But it doesn’t take me long to work out what he’s currently most passionate about.
Last October, the government committed an initial £8m over four years to a National Enterprise Academy (NEA), which will provide the first full-time accredited courses in enterprise and entrepreneurship, providing fledgling tycoons with the skills to set up and run a business. Jones didn’t just put his name to the school, it was his brainchild. He committed £4m of his own money and went through an exhausting Whitehall process to secure public funding.
His trademark persistence paid off, and the academy’s first batch of students have just graduated from a six-month tester programme. Now, £40m has been committed over five years to bring the concept to nine regions of England, and then to Scotland and Wales, with plans to process 12,000 students by 2012.
“That’s the proudest thing I could ever do in my life apart from having my own kids,” Jones beams. “It’s got nothing to do with going out there and saying: ‘I want to give something back.’ It’s a mindset-based curriculum that’s very testing to students, and it’s the first academy of its type in Britain. It’s a proven, working model.”
Indeed, students will graduate from the academy with Edexcel-accredited NVQ qualifications, having benefited from hands-on lessons in business from a
stellar list of UK entrepreneurs.
Jones’ charm and enviable contact book, which includes close friends Philip Green and Gordon Brown, also came in handy when building support for his idea in the face of a rival bid for public funding from James Dyson, who wanted to establish a national engineering academy.
When Jones won through, The Sunday Times reported that Dyson suggested that his plans were rejected in favour of the Dragon’s on the basis of spin. Dyson wrote a letter to the then skills secretary John Denham in which he argued that a skills gap acknowledged in more than one government report was being overlooked in favour of other more “eye-catching subjects”.
“His quote was something along the lines of ‘they went for a celebrity-driven option’,” says Jones. “I find that interesting when he’s a guy on TV advertising his own product. Everyone knows James Dyson. He’s probably more famous than me.”