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Even before the £1.46bn sale of his business was agreed on Sunday, John Caudwell was already one of Britain’s wealthiest self-made billionaires.
Now, almost 20 years after founding the Caudwell Group, he has sold it for 80 per cent more than some analysts had predicted. As a result, Mr Caudwell, a former car dealer, is about to receive another £1bn or so.
The price that the bidders – Doughty Hanson and Providence Equity Partners – are paying is equivalent to 9 times the group’s earnings before interesting, depreciation and taxation last year.
During the drawn-out sales process, similar businesses went on the market, causing fears that a full price would not be achieved. These were aggravated by Mr Caudwell’s distaste at the prospect of selling to a competitor and his worries about the job losses that would result from consolidation.
He said: “I’ve spent 20 years of my life building this particular business up and I wanted to make sure . . . that people’s careers were enhanced, not damaged.”
Such concern for workers is not always apparent, according to trade unions that have berated Mr Caudwell for conditions at his businesses. But those staff who meet his standards of “customer excellence” are richly rewarded, with bonuses that can stretch into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Because of his refusal to contemplate a trade sale, potential buyers were restricted to a gaggle of private equity bidders, not all of which got on with the combative Mr Caudwell. “There was one undisclosed party who messed us about dreadfully,” he said. “If I was to judge private equity from that one experience I’d have a fairly low opinion.”
The sale of the Phones4U chain of retail outlets also brings an end to Mr Caudwell’s rivalry with Charles Dunstone, chief executive of Carphone Warehouse. Between them, the two men came to dominate independent mobile phone retailing.
Making his first and second billion did not diminish Mr Caudwell’s appetite for work, or make him want to spend more time relaxing at his stately home in Staffordshire, or flying his helicopter. It is doubtful, then, that this latest windfall will change dramatically Mr Caudwell’s routine.
The famously workaholic and fit 54-year-old spent Sunday morning on a 75-mile bicycle ride after working most of the previous 48 hours to finalise the deal.
Beneath his drive is an apparent ambivalence towards money. Mr Caudwell values the financial security his wealth provides for his family but distrusts its power. So is the man who once told the FT he believed money was “the root of all evil” looking for something good to do with it?
He is in talks over two business opportunities in the leisure sector – one in Canada and one in South Africa. But he plans to stay in the UK, even if he decides to take up an investment opportunity abroad.
Other destinations for his time and money will include sport and charity work. “I’ve been saying for 30 years now that I’d like to take the whole winter off and go skiing.”
But he acknowledges this will only happen if “I don’t get sucked back into business very quickly”. He says: “My problem is going to be more staying out rather than getting in.”
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