‘I think we can have some fun here,’ says John Caudwell, glancing excitedly to his head of press David Ginivan. The adviser rolls his eyes, perhaps sensing that any chance to control the flamboyant tycoon passed long ago. A situation only exacerbated when Caudwell sold Phones4U for £1.24bn just before Christmas. He leans forward: ‘I’ve been keeping this a secret, but I can’t resist letting you in on this because I know it’ll piss Branson off. He’s tried and failed to break a UK altitude record that I hold – and not only that, but through a company I’m soon about to own.’
This is the closest Caudwell comes to revealing his next venture – some kind of involvement with an ‘extreme experiences’ company – the details of which even the City is unaware.
And it tickles the 54-year-old multi-billionaire to a wide grin. The record to which he refers is for the fastest vertical climb to 9,000m, strapped into a mach 2.2 fighter jet. He clinched it a year ago in a PR stunt to promote the Caudwell Foundation, his charity for underprivileged children.
Caudwell’s cheerful swipe at the Virgin boss is straight out of the Branson Book of PR. One gets the impression that, for him, any risk – business or otherwise – is worth taking if it involves the opportunity to put one over on Sir Richard.
‘I’d love to have beaten him to all the PR activities he has done – the balloons, the Atlantic crossings, the daredevil antics,’ admits Caudwell. ‘My problem was that he was always ten years ahead of where I was. He always got there first.’
The admission is a heartfelt one. He continues: ‘I was doing PR before I knew what it was – to me that meant convincing the local press to write about me in the early days if I bought some ads. But I am not that well known. In fact, I’m probably Z-list.’
Even Caudwell’s most recent press stunt – he surprised staff at the Phones4U Christmas party by giving away £3.5m in envelopes containing £5,000-£15,000 – did not generate the press coverage he expected.
He certainly sounds disappointed with himself. Perhaps he is worried that without Phones4U his personal profile has reached its peak. ‘I love doing the obligatory press interviews that come with being an entrepreneur... but there have certainly been lots of opportunities that I have passed up.
The BBC offered me Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice. I turned down both. I would have loved to have done The Apprentice – I watch it now and slightly regret not doing it. But I tell myself “you were too busy to do it” – I would have had to commit weeks to it.’
Caudwell first came to public attention in 2002 via the BBC’s Trouble at the Top. He was the star of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, in which he hunted the brightest young talent to join Phones4U. In other words, he was doing the ‘you’re fired!’ thing before Sir Alan Sugar. ‘I basically sold the idea to the producers,’ he says proudly. ‘But instead of them making it into its own programme, they shoe-horned it into the Trouble at the Top format, even though this was a complete misnomer. That’s probably a prime example of how my quest for PR hasn’t quite hit the spot.’
It was nevertheless through these shows that the public became aware of Caudwell’s acerbic persona. He is the classic ‘rags to riches’ story of an entrepreneur who, after sweeping factory floors in Stoke and an unsuccessful stint running a cornershop, got into wholesaling mobile phones.
The year was 1987, Caudwell was 34, and handsets cost £1,500 each. He bought 26, and although they took eight months to sell, he has never looked back. Dodgy sales tactics – including getting Phones4U staff to impersonate BT salesmen (which saw him get fined £150,000) – only served to enhance his image.
So, what comes first, PR or business? ‘I’m inherently just as much of a PR tart as Branson, Sugar and [Carphone Warehouse CEO Charles] Dunstone,’ says the man who has even highlighted the dangers of testicular cancer for the Everyman charity.
‘But although I enjoy PR and TV work, I’ve always decided to put the business first.’ This comes across as a somewhat strange statement – as if to hint that PR, in Caudwell’s mind, is something separate from ‘the business’.
‘PR has to be a weapon,’ he adds. ‘But if doing PR starts to get in the way of doing my job, then I won’t do it.’
This might be why – until the announcement of the company’s sale, when Caudwell hired financial specialist Smithfield – Phones4U’s comms function has actually been minimal. ‘If I’m honest, I’m not sure that taking on Smithfield actually helped improve our City valuation, which at one point was only £800m,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t our buyer that undervalued Phones4U, just the press, and they didn’t matter much here.’
‘It’s not the number of PR people that matters,’ he adds. ‘The more people you have, the more mistakes they make.’ But hasn’t operating with such a skeleton comms team sometimes put Caudwell at risk of misrepresentation in the media?
Moreover, is the Caudwell brand too fixed in journalists’ minds for them to see him as anything other than ‘the man who sold Phones4U’?
‘What does frustrate me is when the press regurgitate the same stuff,’ he admits. ‘I could condemn half of what’s been written about me as inaccurate. Whether this will harm me going forward, I’m not sure.’
He adds: ‘I think some of the real me has been lost in an extremism of the truth. I don’t live in the world journalists create for me. But I’m well aware that the inherent danger in PR is that you can either be seen as bland, and lacking in colour, or way over the top. My style has been honest and open. If that means people distorted the truth, it’s a risk I’ve had to take.’
After this interview, Caudwell is hosting a dinner at his Jacobean mansion near Stoke-on-Trent with the England rugby captain team, and an impressive guestlist. The aim is garnering sponsorship, and no doubt to do a bit of hobknobbing, too. ‘I’m trying to run the Foundation, leveraging any opportunities I can,’ he says.
But make no mistake about it, Caudwell still shuns the idea of surrounding himself with PR people. As far as he is concerned, he is the best man for the job –whatever that job may be.
‘I don’t believe that arranging a party is the job of PR professionals,’ he adds. ‘A PRO could not do it as well as me. I’m the figurehead – I am the lure; it’s only by me calling people that opportunities arise. Fame attracts fame.’
Perhaps he does not really think he is Z-list after all.
Caudwell on Carphone Warehouse... ‘I’m not as big as Carphone Warehouse CEO Charles Dunstone, but then again, neither is my belly’
Caudwell on his image... ‘My style is being open and upfront. It means people distort the picture, but it’s the risk you have to take’
CV - John Caudwell
Caudwell sells Phones4U for £1.24bn, after selling fixed-line business to Pipex for £40m
Sells customer service business Singlepoint to Vodafone for £400m
Appears in two episodes of the BBC’s Trouble at the Top
Caudwell and brother Brian sell their first £1m worth of phones in one year
Is diagnosed with testicular cancer
Buys his first batch of 26 Motorola mobile phones, confessing ‘I know nothing about retail’
Sets up a mail-order clothing business for motorcyclists