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The SMART Interview #18 Peter Jones

  • TN-PeterJonesBusinessman
  • 13 Nov 2014

A Dragons' Den regular, Peter Jones CBE is one of the UK's most high profile businessmen. He had to sleep on his office floor in the early days. Since then he has built a vast business empire – which includes photography chain Jessops. What are the secrets to his success?

At Heathrow Express we like to celebrate doing things that bit smarter. Each month we seek out someone who really exemplifies this approach to work and life and we ask them some questions. This month: Peter Jones CBE.

Are people born entrepreneurial or is it something they learn?

It’s definitely something you can learn.  That’s why I launched the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy back in 2009. I’m a strong believer in learning by doing, and that’s exactly how we teach these young people. But learning to follow your instinct is also a big part of being an entrepreneur, and I think that’s why people assume you’re ‘born’ an entrepreneur. My own kids are great at following their instinct: they will always tell me exactly what they think of my latest investments, and about 90 percent of the time they’re right! I’m convinced this is because they have watched and listened to me banging the drum about being enterprising.

Thinking smarter, being creative; it’s something many people struggle with. Do you have any tips to help people?

Firstly, think big. Everyone has a dream, but too many people give up on it too early.

Secondly, take on an apprentice! Young people can bring so much to a business that adults can’t: they’re more imaginative and less cynical, they don’t have the same concept of ‘impossible’ as adults do, and that means they can be so much more creative and fearless. My foundation runs apprenticeships that offer young people a chance to earn while they learn and develop their skills through hands on experience of the workplace. Earlier this year, we launched the new Level 5 Higher Apprenticeship and have been working with organisations including Grant Thornton and Jessops who have both benefited from engaging with the programme. 

Having a good idea is the easy bit. How do you take a good idea and make it commercially successful?

Always be aware of where your money is, what it’s doing – and how it could be working harder for you. And always do your research. Knowing your customer base, your competition and the ins and outs of your business will insure your idea against a lot of pitfalls. The rest is mostly about your drive to succeed, and the team you gather around you. At the end of the day, it’s about focussing on your goal, and not giving up.

You've invested in many businesses in the BBC's Dragon's Den. What's the secret to attracting investment? What drew you to these businesses in particular?

Being able to say what your business intends to do concisely is very important.  That said you do also need a great idea – and a market that’s ready to accept it.

When I invest in a business I don’t just throw money at it. I get involved, I work with the founders. Take Levi Roots; I looked beyond his great business idea to find a man I was going to be able to work with.

You employ a lot of people across many businesses. What’s the best way to motivate them? How do you get the best from them?

You want your employees to feel part of something bigger: give them responsibilities that make them feel valuable and part of the journey. It’s really important to give people ownership over their projects.  I’m also a great believer in communication – keeping your people fully informed of what’s going on across the entire business.  Finally, always treat people as you would be treated yourself.

Peter Jones, Businessman
Image: Peter Jones

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your business life - and what did you learn from it?

When I was in my early twenties I was living the dream: I had a great business that allowed me to live a great life, I had a nice house, a few cars and money in the bank. Within just a few years my business went bust, my marriage fell apart, and I ended sleeping in a warehouse with nothing but a bed and a desk. I had made the mistake of giving credit to companies I hadn’t financial researched properly, and fell, hard. But I was determined not to let it get the better of me. I got a job with Siemens Nixdorf and quickly worked my way up – it’s amazing how you can focus on work when you’re sleeping in a warehouse.  I regained confidence and my drive to succeed doubled as I was determined to never make the same mistakes again.  Within two years I managed to earn enough money to start my own business again.

Can you tell us about a latest project – either in business or charity – that is really inspiring you at the moment?

My foundation is currently running the Tycoon in Schools project – it’s a really exciting opportunity for young people who are still at school to get a very first taste of enterprise and launch their own business. Students pitch for funding and those selected are given the opportunity to run with their idea. What better way to learn than actually giving business a go?

Do you travel much? Is there a particular part of the world you love to visit?

I have a house in Barbados, which I go to every year with my family. I must admit, I often find it hard to switch off – but it’s so great to get some time with my children, and in such a stunning setting.

What do you always take with you when you travel and why?

I’ve always got my briefcase with laptop and a spare smart phone because I’d be lost without them – oh and a toothbrush!

To find out more about Tycoon in Schools and the Academy, visit the Peter Jones Foundation website: www.peterjonesfoundation.org

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