For a multimillionaire in a region of England more often associated with financial hardship, Jeremy Middleton is at ease with his affluence.
“If I chose to live in a tax haven or even left [my money] sitting in a bank then I would have cause to feel worried or guilty,” he says. “But I don’t. I invest my money. I’m putting it to use. That’s what money is for.”
Before he was 40, Mr Middleton had made his money by co-founding Homeserve, a home repairs and insurance company that, at its peak, had a market capitalisation of £1.5bn. Now, he is backing other people’s entrepreneurial ventures through Middleton Enterprises, his Newcastle-headquartered investment company. His stable consists of eight businesses that he supports and advises. The companies are largely based in the north-east of England, where he lives and mostly works.
He wears his political heart on his sleeve, too. By his early 20s, Mr Middleton, now 51, was a committed Conservative. The north-east, however, has a longstanding allegiance to the Labour party. Even among its business class, some local Conservatives prefer to be discreet about their views. “I’m very thick skinned – I couldn’t be publicly a Conservative in the north-east if I wasn’t,” he jokes.
This willingness to stand alone, however, encouraged him to become an entrepreneur. After university, he had an unhappy spell in banking – despite being a banker’s son – and a happier phase in brand marketing with consumer goods group Procter & Gamble in the UK and Egypt.
Still, those stints in employment persuaded him he no longer wanted to work for someone else. So together with Richard Harpin, a friend with whom he had worked at P&G, he went into business. “Richard and I worked, slept and breathed business,” he says.
They founded a modestly successful marketing consultancy but diverse other start-ups, from interior design and domestic cleaning to mortgage advice, foundered. “At least 10 businesses we invested in didn’t work,” recalls Mr Middleton. “We were very close to going bust. At one stage we’d run out of money, nobody would give us credit.”
A friend lent them £15,000. They offered him 20 per cent interest or 10 per cent of their newest company, Fastfix plumbing and heating. The friend, opted for the 20 per cent interest. In so doing, he unwittingly missed the opportunity to become a multimillionaire when Fastfix became Homeserve. This step change came when the duo’s consultancy, while advising the utility South Staffordshire Water on post-deregulation diversification, offered Fastfix as a joint venture.
Mr Harpin became chief executive, a post he still occupies. “Richard remains utterly focused on Homeserve,” says his co-founder.
Mr Middleton bowed out of day-to-day operations but remains a member of the executive committee and retains a 3 per cent stake. Asked about a recent internal investigation into potential mis-selling, he stresses the company voluntarily took steps to make sure standards of customer service are what they should be.
Mr Middleton estimates his current assets, including property, equities and cash, at around £50m.
After he made his fortune, he tried taking it easy. But decided that a new approach to business appealed more than endless tennis matches and he became an investor in other people’s businesses.
The companies that Middleton Enterprises has backed span sectors from food (Tanfield Foods Ltd) and manufacturing (D-Line, which makes decorative electrical trunking) to Eco Plastics, a Lincolnshire bottle recycler. A couple of businesses no longer trade either, he says, because they failed to “find traction” in their marketplace or because they were “VC junkies” that continually craved investment. So far, he has invested £10m of his own money.
“I’m quite a good strategic thinker,” he says. “I like to think I can make some good investments. And I’m willing to take risks.” But, he observes: “I don’t think I would back me; too easily distracted.”
Other “distractions” include his active involvement with charities and not-for-profit social enterprise. He tries to help them prosper through a focus on management skills and development finance.
Once, he also harboured personal political aspirations and was on the Conservatives’ A-list of prospective parliamentary candidates. But after unsuccessful attempts at being elected as a councillor, a Member of Parliament and a Member of the European Parliament, he decided to realise his social and political ambitions in other ways.
For several years, he has been the Conservative party’s most senior volunteer in the UK, as chairman of its National Convention and deputy chairman of its board – posts from which he steps down on Saturday.
Mr Middleton is now seeking to exert influence through his board membership of the North Eastern Local Enterprise Partnership, a new body aiming to encourage business growth in the region with the UK’s highest unemployment.
“Business has to succeed for anything else to work socially,” he says. “It’s what employs people and pays the taxes.”
The public sector, he argues, needs to tap into business expertise. “We have to stop thinking about a grants culture and make a business case for public spending,” he says.
And he has developed a taste for extreme expeditions to destinations including the North Pole and the Mount Everest base camp. An ascent of Alaska’s highest peak, Mount McKinley, is planned for June. He ought to be building up muscles for this trip but time for the gym is in short supply. Lunch is also low down on his list of priorities.
His mother, he says, told him; “It’s not what you do in your life, it’s what you don’t do you regret.” Her son has heeded that advice. “I don’t want to spend my life doing one thing,” he says. “You don’t know how long you’ve got. What do you want to do?”
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