Hilary Devey, the new Dragon on Dragons’ Den, has quite an impressive den of her own. The 53-year-old multi-millionaire CEO of Pall-Ex, the freight haulage firm, lives in a wing of the Staffordshire mansion Rangemore Hall, which was originally built as a country retreat for Edward VII.
It has all the elements of a perfect English country house – tall windows, giant rooms and brick turrets giving onto a perfectly landscaped sward. Plus some special royal additions.
“Here is the world’s first domestic interior lift,” says Hilary as she swishes me out of the gargantuan triple-height, gold-and-red drawing room, which is decorated with three vast chandeliers, mirrors and Chinoiserie furnishings, but which Hilary considers a bit too cavernously formal for our chat.
“Then we have the private staircase here – which Edward insisted on for his mistress to use – and then here is this secure room. Built for the crown jewels.”
By this stage we have reached a second immense living room, which also glories in a carved ceiling, more swagged curtains, more immaculate vases of perfect flowers and a spread of tea, including perfectly cut sandwiches and about four different varieties of biscuit.
I feel as if Carson, the impassive butler from period drama Downton Abbey, ought to be standing behind the beautiful brocade sofa. Instead, the mistress of the house is curling up in a giant armchair and asking whether I mind if she has a fag.
Airs and graces are not part of Hilary Devey’s persona, as those who’ve seen her as the subject of Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire and in The Business Inspector on Channel 5 will have observed. Although she is certainly well connected. On the way to Living Room No 2, I spot a photo of her with the Princess Royal. Apparently HRH is OK. “Her work ethic is akin to mine,” says Hilary in her gravelly northern voice. Although that is probably the only similarity.
Hilary Devey, a self-admitted fashionista with a penchant for McQueen, may well be one of the richest people in the country, but it wasn’t always that way. And anyone considering entering Dragons’ Den should be well aware that although La Devey may look like a diva, she is as tough as the proverbial.
“My first memory?” she says, tossing beautifully coiffed black hair and giving me a feline gaze out of perfectly made-up eyes. She regards her smouldering cigarette, held between two long, red fingernails. “I was about three or four and I remember the bailiffs coming in and taking every single piece of furniture. They took everything. They took the cooker. They took the beds. They took the sofa which my brother and I were sat on.”
Hilary’s father ran a successful heating company that supplied radiators to property developers, but he ended up going bust. He eventually recovered and ran a series of pubs and hotels, and he expected his young daughter to roll her sleeves up accordingly.
“From the age of seven, I was forced to work in the bar all weekend. On school nights, I would have to clean the bar, restock the shelves and cook a meal. Did I mind? You didn’t think about it. My brothers were expected to go to school. It wasn’t regarded as important for me. So I was kept away from school to help run the family business. In retrospect, what an opportunity.”
She says her tough childhood gave her a “back- bone of steel”. Such an accessory has proved to be rather useful, all told. She left school at 17 and went to join the Women’s Royal Air Force, coming home to look after her mother when her father died of stomach cancer a year later.
Just before he died, she married her childhood sweetheart, but it wasn’t to last. She got divorced a couple of years later and moved to London where she started to work in a variety of trades. Eventually she found herself at the freight carrier TNT, where she worked her way up into management, and in a relationship with Hussein, a Turkish man working in the rag trade.
“He was handsome and charming,” she says. They lived together and, after a few years, they had a son, Mevlit. But when Mevlit was about 18 months old, her world caved in. “We were sat on the sofa together one night. The phone rang. I picked it up and this woman said ‘Are you Hilary?’ I said I was. She said, ‘My name is Hanifa. I am married to Hussein and we have five children, one of which is a few months younger than your son.’ I handed the phone to Hussein and said, ‘It’s your wife’. Then I left.”
Taking Mevlit with her, she fled London and moved to Leicester, where she had a cracking idea. She came up with a new way of delivering freight and a company – Pall-Ex – to exploit it. Essentially she persuaded hauliers from around the country to deliver their goods to a central hub where they could then be sent out along with other pallets to the same location.
“It was just common sense. Why run empty vehicles up and down the country when you can run them half way and then fill them up? The hauliers asked me ‘Can you drive a truck, love?’, and I said ‘No, but I can run your business a damn sight better than you can.’ All I had to do was point out the commercial economics.”
Commercial. Hilary’s favourite word, and why I suspect she will go down a storm on Dragons’ Den. If it ain’t commercial, it’s not worth bothering with. “I am just a very commercial person. Everyone thinks Birmingham is in the centre of the country. Well nobody has ever bothered to get a map out. I got a map out and saw that actually the centre of the country is Leicester. Basing Pall-Ex there was a commercial decision.”
She started in an old aircraft hangar. “It was in the middle of nowhere, with no power. There was a portakabin, two chemical loos that I shared with 40 lorry drivers, and a generator that crashed the computers every night. I had three dresses to my name. But I knew I had to look smart. So I washed and ironed those three dresses and rotated them.” Now she is so wealthy that she could wear a different McQueen dress every day.
Having understood the meaning of work from her childhood, she buried herself in its rewarding rhythm. “I never went out. I was focused only on work and bringing up Mevlit. I worked all week. Saturdays, I shopped, cleaned and cooked for the following week. Sundays I ironed Mevlit’s uniform and did the paperwork that was required.” Her business grew and grew.
But something else was going on. Mevlit had been sent to a special boarding school to cope with his acute dyslexia. At school, he was exposed to drugs. Hilary, buried under the pressures of building the company and extricating herself from her second marriage to Edwin Devey, a man who she has said only wanted her for her money, only noticed Mevlit was going astray when it was too late.
She took him to hospital at the age of 17 with what she thought was appendicitis. In fact, he was suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Mevlit was a heroin addict.
“Nothing I have ever seen or read gives a real portrayal of what having a heroin addict in your home is like. For four years I lived in a house where every door was locked after me, because my son stole everything. Food out of the freezer. Clothes. Every single piece of my jewellery. Even wine. I gave him a petrol card for his car. He would flag down cars and trade £100 worth of diesel to buy a £20 pack of heroin.”
And although Hilary is made of steely stuff, getting her son clean was the toughest challenge of her life. “It was one of the hardest journeys I have ever made. I have supported him throughout. I have been out at midnight in my pyjamas, a raincoat thrown over me, dragging him out of crack dens, a knife at my throat.”
After throwing thousands of pounds at various rehab centres and clinics, he finally came off heroin five years ago. He’s now living with Hilary and her third husband Philip, a builder whom she married earlier this year. Yet she seems dissatisfied with her only child; although she’s a tough act to follow.
“I have provided him with a very privileged life. Yet I don’t think he’ll ever be as happy as I was when I had nothing. I said to him, ‘Mevlit, if you don’t get up and do something with your life you won’t get a penny of my hard-earned money.’” Would she really cut him out of her will? “Secretly, no. But I would tell him that I would.”
She had a stroke two years ago, following liposuction on her legs, but has almost fully recovered. “I’ll never drive again, because it’s affected my peripheral vision. And one of my hands is paralysed, I can’t feel a thing in my fingers. But my brain is still as sharp as ever. And I can afford a chauffeur. So what the hell!”
Will she be as tough on those entering the Dragons’ Den as she has been on herself? “If it sounds commercial, and the numbers add up, I’ll invest in a good idea. But it’s the people who are more important.”
What will she look for? “Tenacity. Willpower. Staying power. Enthusiasm. Are you prepared to make the self-sacrifices that are required?”
Will she be favouring female entrepreneurs? Hilary Devey, who has made a fortune in the testosterone-powered world of diesel engines, smiles cryptically. “A manicured fist goes through a glass ceiling just as easily as a builder’s.”