“I’m a big believer in business breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I probably do six to eight each week. I never bothered with business meals until 1992, when I decided to put my company on the Stock Exchange. Becoming a public company, you need to be meeting people in the City continually and that’s where it started. But far from it being a burden, I think they work really well and are genuinely productive.
Eating in restaurants with business contacts certainly isn’t the kind of thing I could have imagined myself doing when I started out, when I was growing up on Clydeside, when I was in the Navy, when I was driving minicabs, living as a bit of a beach bum, when I was in prison, as I was a couple of times – or even when I started in business with my ice-cream van in the north-east, where I’m still based. I do sometimes find it hard to believe how my life has gone. I quite often find I have to refer to my autobiography to remind myself how something came about and what I did at certain times.
Having said the business is in the north-east, I live the majority of the time in Covent Garden, and do a big proportion of my meetings at The Club at The Ivy, because it’s five minutes’ walk from me and it does a good breakfast. I also use The Wolseley, which is great for lunches. It has a terrific atmosphere at lunchtime, which I find really conducive to getting down to business. When I’m in the north-east, I almost always meet people at Maxine’s [pictured] – the restaurant in my hotel in Darlington.
There’s no question to me that business meals are an important part of business. You get people saying it’s a bit passé, but I think that refers to the old style – going out and getting drunk on company expenses. The beauty of business dining is that it allows you to be casual and chat away and not have to sit straight down and say, “Right, this is the agenda, we’ve got 15 minutes to get through it.”
I think that if you’re meeting over a meal, you should always talk round the matter at hand first. I don’t like going straight for it because if you’re going to be there for an hour or more, there’s time to build a broader relationship – and that’s essential. Last week I had a breakfast meeting with a new bank manager. We’ve got a big mortgage with him, so I wanted us to get to know each other a bit.
At the same time, I almost always have a specific agenda for a meeting over food. I often make notes ahead of the meeting and refer to them and tick points off. I like to cover everything on the agenda.
Of course, meetings with new people have changed since Dragons’ Den; I get asked a lot of questions about it: do the Dragons get on? Is the money real? Who’s made the most money? What’s your best/worst investment? Because of Dragons’ Den, a lot of meetings are about television projects, which I mostly turn down. I’ve been having business meetings on the set – as it’s a 14-hour day, we get a long lunch break. These Pinewood meetings have been working well. A few have led to advertising contracts for six-figure sums.
My business meals are normally pretty successful, but I did have a disaster not too long ago. Somebody was starting a concierge service, looking after your holidays, and I couldn’t stand this guy. He couldn’t stop talking about how fantastic he was. I tried to end it as quickly as I could, and when we got to the end, I realised he was expecting me to pay. He’d invited me. So I just said it: “Sorry, you’ve invited me, so thanks very much,” and I left and I never heard from him again.
Of course, at Maxine’s it would be hard for someone else to pay plus, strangely, I always seem to get the best table – and they always seem to know what I’m going to eat, which is generally a grilled sole, maybe some melon to start. I love puddings, but I try to avoid them. I’m 60 and it’s getting harder and harder to keep the weight down.”