Big businesspeople are big business. High-profile entrepreneurs are dominating the media just as celebrity chefs did a while ago, and as antique experts, gardeners and interior designers did before that. Shows such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice have reinforced the stereotype of the big businessman as a ruthless autocrat with an eye for a deal, and no tolerance for weakness or ineptitude. Sir Alan Sugar pulls no punches in his criticism of candidates found wanting when he passes sentence of “You’re fired!”. Similarly, the members of theDragons’ Den panel mercilessly dismember poorly prepared pitches and badly conceived products.
With all that in mind, it was with some trepidation that our reporting team set out for a meeting with Duncan Bannatyne, OBE, perhaps the most famous of the BBC’s Dragons. The interviewer and photographer were selected by the drawing of straws, with the recipients of the shortest straws being pushed out into the line of fire. Armed with knowledge from Bannatyne’s autobiography and their best asbestos underclothes, they set out for his head office in Darlington. The office in question is a surprisingly plain building – a former electricity board office block – but Bannatyne is no believer in spending money on flashy premises for the sake of it. He is a practical man who sees no point in increasing overheads unnecessarily.
Duncan and fellow Dragon, Theo Paphitis, are among the increasing number of serious businessmen who see the investment value in private car number plates, as well as the potential for marketing, branding and maintaining a public profile.
“When I sold my public company and started new companies, I started buying a few plates at auction just for something to do. Actually, one of the big things in those days was that it was very easy to see how old the car was by looking at the number plate. You would change your car every two or three years because people could see it was a few years old. We worked out that if you bought a number plate that hid the age it was cheaper than buying a car [laughs].
“I didn’t get 23 D from auction though, that was a present from my first wife along time ago. She got it in the ‘90s and I got her G 74 which my oldest daughter uses now. My van, the gym repair van, has F1 TSO on, and I bought111 JO, for my wife, Joanne. So we have quite a few. There’s also 1 LGO, 5 EBS, 2 BHM, 6 AVS, 52 DB and50 PAM.” Would he sell them if he received good offers? “Oh yeah, they’re all on the market. I had 8 DWB on my Chrysler, I think I’ve sold that now. And I’ve sold 33 PAM,99 DB, KPS 3, V8 BMW, 44 DB, RAC 5, NAC 1, and 4 GGY. I’d consider buying more, but the price would have to be right. I’ve made a bit of money on them.”
As a child who had to work a paper round in order to afford a bicycle, Duncan probably never dreamed that he would, one day, own several cars with personalised registrations. He was born in Clydebank in 1949. His family was not well-off, and the young Duncan began looking for opportunities at an early age.