Business Leader recently spoke to business tycoon and Dragons’ Den star Touker Suleyman about his entrepreneurial journey, learning from mistakes, and how he ended up on the hit BBC TV show.
Is it correct that when you came to the UK you could not speak English?
My parents came to the UK in 1958 to escape the troubles in Cyprus and when we arrived, I was ten years old, and my English was limited but I soon picked up the language.
My first job outside of school was with an accountancy firm called Ridley and Co in Southampton Row and I was earning £5 a week, plus expenses.
How did your career as an entrepreneur start?
At that time there were three industries that stuck out; and these were property, fashion and being a celebrity.
Before I took my finals, I became restless and branched out into the fashion world working for a business in Dalston Lane, London. Within 18 months I had bought the owner out.
I was 21 years of age and we were supplying C&A (a major retailer at the time) and I made my first fortune very quickly and became active in this world. Then, I bought a stake in a public company called Mellins. The shares were 3p but soon they climbed to 360p.
I also bought a big stake in a business called Bamber Stores, which was a fatal mistake.
Why was this such a big mistake?
I bought into the business without conducting proper due diligence, and this was a big business lesson for me. In my mid-twenties I was the Chairman of two public companies, and I believe the youngest ever to hold this role.
PwC carried out a review of the business though, very quickly after I had bought it, which detailed that Bamber was insolvent and £26m in arrears. I was advised to resign, and like a pack of cards, the whole business and my personal wealth collapsed.
I was young and naive, and I had been manipulated by stockbrokers at the time.
How did you try and save the situation?
Prior to the business collapsing, I was given the opportunity to raise money in Mellins and a broker said he would approach some people he knew, one of which was Robert Maxwell. I was then approached by Asil Nadir (a British Turkish-Cypriot business tycoon that later become famous for being found guilty of false accounting and sent to prison for ten years) who said he could help to fund my business.
He told me he would provide the funding and that I should not go and see anybody else. I thought great – he is a fellow Cypriot, but four weeks went by and I heard nothing. I tried to call him because it was a race against insolvency. I finally received a call from his secretary who told me that he did not want to proceed anymore. It was planned and I believe he did this because he felt that, as a Turkish Cypriot, I was a thorn in his side, and he had his own plans.
This must have been a huge lesson for you?
This was all part of my demise at the time, and I received some hard lessons very early on. I was at the top of some public companies, but I did not have the knowledge needed at the time. It was the best lesson of my life though and it toughened me up. I learnt not to take people at face value and to question why people want to help you.
I said to myself though that this is not the end of the journey, it was just the beginning.
What did you do next?
I then went into business with my brother, and we had a business called Low Profile and I took my knowledge of manufacturing into the business and we very quickly were supplying the biggest names on the high street with products.
I was fortunate in those days that manufacturing was profitable. We moved into Turkey at a very early stage and met with influential businessman there who helped me grow the business.
It was a cash generating business and we invested in commercial property in Fitzrovia too. This all created the backbone to my comeback.
How did you end up on Dragons’ Den and did taking part in the show change you?
I was approached – around eight years ago – to have a screen test for Dragons’ Den which was successful.
I see myself as an entrepreneur and not a TV personality though – I was once told about fame that it is great on the way up, but they will bring you down eventually – and it is best to be on the level.
Fame or money does not go to my head and I am not different now to when I was in my twenties. I have always hated holidays and I am a legacy builder – even when I went on vacation, I was on the phone working. What makes me tick is that I like to win. It is not always about the money but being able to win within oneself. It is about waking up in the morning and having a purpose.
What puts you off from making an investment in a business or a person?
When somebody does not know their numbers and thinks they can pull the wool over your eyes. You will start to ask questions and it will all unravel quickly, so there is no value in trying to do this. Silly valuations are frustrating too and some of them are crazy. Some of them are picked out from the sky!
You often advocate for manufacturing overseas in China and Turkey for example. There has been a rise of ‘Made in Britain’ and using national supply chains. Will you continue with the approach of using manufacturing overseas?
There are certain industries where the Made in Britain tag makes sense, such as food, cosmetics, and engineering, however, China remains great value for the quality of product you get with certain types of manufacturing.
We have one of the leading baby teething products and all of this is in made in China because it makes commercial sense; and we’ll continue to operate this way.
I want to talk about the fashion sector now, as it is one you’re heavily involved in? What do you need to have to stand out in this sector?
To be successful in this sector you need a USP in the product, or you need to disrupt on style and price – or you need to have a brand that elevates everything to a higher price.
This is what we are doing now with one of our brands – Finery. It is being re-positioned as a style and price disruptor.
Widening this out to retail and the High Street – what do you see at its future?
Let us not forget that 70% of retail is bricks and mortar and I believe that we all miss the high street now and you miss walking to the shops. My partner says to me that she cannot wait to go out to the shops again. I believe it will survive and brands like Next and Marks & Spencer will do very well.
Online will not go away though and there are not many big retail brands left on the high street if you take away Zara and H&M; but I do not see it falling away like some have said.
I believe that, overall, the economy will bounce back quickly too. People want to get back out; they want to go to restaurants; they want to go on holiday.
The government is also doing a great job on vaccinating and a good job helping businesses, but you cannot help everybody.
Do you worry though that businesses may not be able to pay back the loans they have taken on?
Yes I do, and it is the case that some businesses have kicked the can down the road by taking on government loans in the hope that they will trade their way out of these difficult times eventually. I maintain that the economy will recover quickly but we will see more casualties because of bad debt from government loans. Many of the larger businesses were well funded anyway and still took on the loans, so it is the smaller firms that will be hurt the most.
You also expect taxes to rise, I am guessing?
Yes, taxes will rise, and the Chancellor will need to be creative.
I think an online sales tax is a good idea, but it would need to be for business that generate more than £8m turnover online; and if they turnover below this amount they are not required to pay the tax.
In the last recession, it was small businesses that took us out of recession. I hope that government realises that we need smaller businesses to survive, as they become the large businesses of the future and create employment.
And why aren’t we taxing vaping? This could raise some cash.
Overall, you seem optimistic about the future?
I am and I honestly believe optimism comes from within. In every bad situation you can make it good. I am not a doom and gloom person. The world will go on and survive and we all need to do our little bit to stay safe and work a bit harder.
There is lots of money available for businesses looking to grow too and it has never been easier to raise money and there is so much cash out there. I believe it is the start-ups of today that will be the big firms of tomorrow.