Towards the end of my meeting with Sir Ronald Cohen, I ask the legendary investor to distil his experiences of working with some of the UK’s finest entrepreneurial talent into a single piece of advice. Instead of the expected stock response about risk taking and self belief, he encourages me to start my own business.
“In your field, everyone knows electronic publishing is going to be the name of the game,” he says. “No one denies that more content will be consumed, but the business model for selling that content is still in a state of transition. Those who can anticipate the changes and find the answers will build huge businesses very successfully.”
Cohen calls this uncertainty “the second bounce of the ball”. Make an obvious choice based on current market conditions – the first bounce – and the success of your venture is likely to be limited. But if you anticipate the second bounce, he says, you can move directly into a leadership position in a market.
Business owners are often sceptical when venture capitalists assert their entrepreneurial credentials, yet Cohen is well placed to spread the enterprise gospel. He built the UK’s first private equity (PE) firm, Apax Partners, into Europe’s largest, with $35bn under management, offices in eight countries and more than 300 staff.
The slim, Oxford-educated financier today occupies an influential position at the heart of the establishment. Knighted in 2000 for “services to the venture capital industry”, his close relationship with Labour, and Gordon Brown in particular, has been the source of much debate. Yet Cohen remains an inveterate entrepreneur, and the story of his formative years is as powerful as any rags-to-riches narrative.
Cohen was born in Cairo in 1945 to a Syrian father and British mother. President Nasser’s reaction to the Suez crisis 11 years later was to provide an early defining moment. His family fled a rising tide of anti-Semitism, and landed in Golders Green, north London as refugees. He spoke no English, but was sent to Orange Hill grammar school in north-west London. Within two years he was top of the class.
The upheaval provided an early sense of independence. “It gave me the confidence that I could go out in the world and achieve the things that I was ambitious to do,” Cohen tells me. “There’s no doubt that overcoming challenges early on in your life gives you the confidence to take on others. So much of entrepreneurship has to do with confidence – anything that can strengthen that is extremely valuable,” he says.
At Oxford, where Cohen studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics, he displayed the first signs of an enduring fondness for leadership and public life when he stood for and won the presidency of the Union, securing a visit from Robert Kennedy during his tenure. But beyond a general desire to work for himself and “make money somehow”, Cohen’s entrepreneurial streak lacked direction.
He decided to complete his education at HarvardBusinessSchool, winning a scholarship. “I’m a great advocate of business schools,” he says. “If you haven’t had detailed training in business, it saves you a number of years.” Cohen’s Harvard colleagues were to prove equally influential. “They were ambitious, intelligent and had a track record of success. And they came from all over the world. It gives you a fantastic sense of what the best of your generation are keen to do, how they think and it provides a lot of useful networks for the future.”
Having worked day and night for two years, Cohen left Harvard a different person, driven and extremely hard working. “I learned to think at Oxford and how to apply that thinking to business at Harvard,” he says. His decision to study in the US didn’t just alter the course of his own life. It was also to become the catalyst for a seminal moment in the history of British enterprise.