When your personal worth is counted in the hundreds of millions of pounds, what you give your children in pocket money might not seem very important. But for Peter Jones, multimillionaire and Dragons’ Den veteran, pocket money for his five children, aged from eight to 21, is a source of much argument.
“My pocket money is based on incentive,” Jones says of the £25 he gives to his children a month. “It’s like, ‘You’ve got to clean your room, to get this,’ and if they don’t do it, they don’t get the money. It’s a bone of contention.”
Jones, 6ft 7 and looking snug in a grey jumper with a discreet Old Course, St Andrew’s, logo, insists that he keeps his children’s feet firmly on the ground. If they’re not working, he says, they shouldn’t expect a hand-out from Dad.
“I want my kids to be polite and respectful, stand on their own two feet,” he says matter-of-factly. “In the future if they want to go and do charitable work, then I’ll fund that charitable work. I’ve said that rather than me buying them a house, I’ll give them a contribution on top of what they deliver. So if they earn £20,000 a year, I’ll give them a tiny contribution on top. If they decide not to work, they don’t get anything. I want them to do it for themselves.”
It’s an approach – direct, not brooking much argument – that has made him a favourite with millions of Dragons’ Den fans over the ten years the show has been on television. He is described as “the fiercest Dragon in the Den”.
Jones, 48, who grew up in Maidenhead, son of a self-employed air-conditioning engineer and a receptionist, is the only one of the original “Dragons” still sitting in the moodily lit, Scandi-style chairs, grilling nervous entrepreneurs. “It’s quite scary when you say that,” he says, as we enjoy a coffee in a hotel in central London. “With Duncan leaving this year, yes – I’m the only original left on the panel. It’s bizarre.
“And I remember that first day, walking in and feeling incredibly nervous, wanting to be really professional, but actually quite quiet and quite unassuming, and you feel how daunting that is. I remember it almost as if it was yesterday. Derelict warehouse, railway tracks at the back, thinking, ‘Wow, this isn’t a television studio! This really is a warehouse.’”
For a man whose success includes owning telecommunications businesses and turning around high-street retailers (he recently rescued the photography chain, Jessops), Jones’s major concern about his appearance on that first programme is rather disarming: “I wanted my mum and dad to be proud.”
After a decade on a programme that’s seen more than £15m invested in new businesses, it must be a breeze now? Not at all, Jones says, revealing that he’s so self-critical, he hasn’t actually “watched it for a long time. I find it very, very difficult to watch myself on TV. I used to do it all the time, and I ended up being so critical, and thinking, ‘God, you’re such a wally, why did you say that?’ and I used to take it personally. Whereas now, I follow up on Twitter, and I feel less ‘in it’, and it means when I go and sit in that chair, I can be Peter Jones, rather than being perhaps somebody that I want to create on television.”
Dragons’ Den is a member of that rather exclusive club – popular programmes about business. The daddy of them all is The Apprentice and both have been criticised for showing business as a cut-throat world where triumph or failure depends on the pointing finger of “You’re fired” or the “I’m out” death knell.
Jones insists that such criticism misses the point. Dragons’ Den is actually pretty similar to a real pitch, he argues, and of course a lot happens after the programme when the Dragons go through “due diligence” – that is the legal process that checks that an entrepreneur can back up what he or she says about their business.
“What was interesting [before Dragons’ Den started] was that nobody had any inkling of what it was like to try and raise money, or what you do when you start a business. ‘I need money to do it – [but] what’s it like, that environment? What’s it like to pitch to a panel of investors?’ It is really very realistic.”
And yes, that money sitting next to each Dragon really is theirs. Jones has invested £3.5m of his personal wealth during the 12 series. His first investment was in Wonderland magazine run by entrepreneur Huw Gwyther. The other Dragons were dismissive, saying surely the days of magazines (up against the ever-expanding internet) were numbered? “Well, now we’re ten years on, and Huw is doing extremely well. The business is incredibly profitable.”
Of course, everyone remembers Jones’s most successful investment – Levi Roots, a guitar-playing Rastafarian who made Reggae Reggae Sauce based on the jerk chicken seasoning his Jamaican grandmother used to make. Well, that was what he told the Dragons. A judge in a subsequent court battle over the Reggae Reggae Sauce recipe said Levi’s “back story” contained “false representations”. Levi admitted the tale about his Jamaican grandmother was a bit of “marketing”.
Regardless, “Levi has now got a multimillion pound business, that generates millions a year in profit,” says Jones. “I saw a product that wasn’t out there at the time – a Caribbean, slightly spicy sauce – and I thought ‘Wow! This guy, Levi Roots, he’s a singing Rastafarian with an incredible product. If I can’t make that work, then I may as well just give up.’ ”
Jones was so excited about the investment, he even agreed to lend Levi £20 for the taxi ride home before getting on the phone to his friend Justin King, then the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, and negotiating the deal that would put Reggae Sauce on the supermarket map. “He’s still the same guy today,” Jones says of Roots. “The only difference is he’s wearing £10,000 suits, and the jewellery he’s got on is real.”
Alongside the successes, there have been the misses, the most famous being Trunki, the children’s suitcase business, which is now a major hit but failed to get backing from the Dragons. Interestingly, when I ask about bad investment decisions on Dragons’ Den, he pauses for a long time and cannot bring any immediately to mind. “There have been quite a few,” he says before vaguely mentioning a “satnav product” that Theo Paphitis, another long-serving Dragon, “lost a lot of money on”.
The waitress comes with more coffee, a welcome distraction, and he greets her with a polite “good afternoon”. As the BBC Business Editor, I’ve seen this trait in a lot of entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed. You might call it “positive bias”; they simply choose to move on from the failures. What Jones does say (more brightly) is that he has “without doubt” made more money than he has lost from his investments on the show. Although they must be a drop in the ocean of his estimated £475 million fortune (according to the 2013 Sunday Times Rich List).
Jones thinks that Dragons’ Den could do with some refreshing, saying that hearing more of the entrepreneurs’ back story, X Factor-style, would help understand how businesses are built. He also thinks the programme should do more “where are they now” pieces, possibly each week.
I ask him to list the Dragons he’d most like to see on the programme. Lord Sugar, Sir Richard Branson and Marissa Mayer, chief executive of the internet giant Yahoo!, roll off his tongue. “I’d love to go toe-to-toe with Alan Sugar. I’d love to get him on there. It would be interesting to see his tactics,” he says. “And to see whether Richard would love everybody and decide to invest in everybody to give them a chance, because he’s one of those guys. I think he’s probably a Dragon that would end up losing money, because he would give his money away!”
Beyond his businesses, Jones also runs an entrepreneurs’ foundation for schools, a reaction to his frustration at the lack of business training in the national curriculum. “I’ve been campaigning as much as I can,” he says. “I’ve been an advocate for ten years now, across two governments – first with Gordon Brown, then with David Cameron – on enterprise, and really encouraging, pushing, cajoling, to do everything we can to embed enterprise in our national curriculum, and I continue to be disappointed that we just pay lip service to the issue.
“We talk about going back to basics, and we talk about times tables. We’re far too obsessed with times tables. While it is important for us to be able to add up, obviously, we take it as read that our kids should be able to do that.” He says that we “should take it as read” that children understand about entrepreneurialism as well.
He’s launched Tycoons in Schools to enthuse pupils about enterprise, and now 50,000 schools are taking part. He’s also engaged with politicians, and admits their “scattergun” approach can be frustrating. There should be one place that entrepreneurs can go for help and advice from the government, rather than the myriad initiatives that are promoted by politicians.
“What’s bizarre is, we sadly don’t have a British dream,” he argues. “I’ve been harping on for ages... When you go and meet venture capital firms [which invest money] in America, and you go to look at their policies, there’s an incredible sense of pride in the American Dream.
“But our British dream doesn’t seem to exist. I’m not saying that it has never existed – I’m sure it once did – but it doesn’t seem to exist now. We need to go back to grass roots – and it’s all about education, encouragement and support.”
And if that means even his children are incentivised to earn their pocket money, so be it.
Dragons' Den is on BBC2 tonight (Sunday 15th March) at 9pm