I’ll just tell you where I am….
Deborah Meaden, star of BBC show Dragons' Den, has made many millions of pounds through shrewd deal making over the years. Here she tells SB editor Tom Idle why of late she has been channelling her money into sustainable businesses
They are the words every plucky entrepreneur dreads hearing when entering the Dragons’ Den: “Let me just tell you where I am.”
Then comes “this is not a serious business proposition”, or the “margins just aren’t going to be big enough for what I need”, or a more blunt “you’re wasting my time”. And what usually follows is an irrevocable “I’m out”. It’s not a place for the thin-skinned.
But when Jerry Mantalvanos and Paul Merker stepped up to the plate on the BBC’s hit primetime TV show, there was one Dragon in particular that was confident in not ruling herself “out”. Deborah Meaden stumped up the cash the pair needed to drive their haulage business forward.
JPM Eco Logistics is no ordinary logistics company. Its fleet consists of Euro 5-compliant Volvo artic tractor units, which run on 100% biodiesel made from locally sourced rape seed oil. And this was the attraction for Deborah, an investor with a keen interest in ensuring every business she works with gets its act together when it comes to environmental performance.
Since taking part in Dragons’ Den two years ago (“it feels like longer,” she tells me), Deborah has made eight investments. Three of these are businesses with the environment at the fore; along with JPM Eco Logistics, she also owns a stake in eco-furniture business Reestore and construction waste and recycling outfit Prowaste. It seems that her strategy within the Den has been to focus her interests on green businesses. And, while she is quick to reassure me that she’s just trying to make money (“I’m looking for a good investment”), what impresses me is her desire to influence change within the companies she becomes involved in.
“I would invest in a business that didn’t have good green credentials if I felt I could change those credentials,” she says.
“The environment is on my agenda. If I’m involved in a business, I will raise environmental issues. I don’t claim that every business I become involved in will become incredibly environmentally friendly, but I will ask the right questions to make sure the environment is on the agenda.”
The Dragons aren’t renowned for their pioneering environmentalism. Harsh, brutal and damning? Yes. Environmentalists? No. “I’ve always been very careful and very aware,” protests Deborah, going on to remind me of the very first pitch that was made to her in the Den by a worm composting business, “and I already had one in my back garden.” “I’ve just always had a feeling to do the right thing.”
Deborah was just 19 when she set up her first business – a glass and ceramics import firm supplying upmarket stores such as Harvey Nichols. After that, she bought a franchise for an Italian footwear and clothing company called Stefanel – one of the first in the UK.
After selling her stake in that to her business partner, she embarked on a number of business ventures including running a bingo concession at Butlins. Then came the amusement arcade business; starting on the shop floor she worked her way up to managing director, and then owner, of Weststar Holidays – growing the business from one to five holiday parks.
She sold up in 2005, pocketing £33M while retaining a 23% stake. She then sold this remaining stake when Weststar was sold to Parkdean Holidays for £83M. Today, she says she’s in “the fortunate position of being able to choose my investments and pretty much do what I want in life”.
And being considered a fair and ethical investor is all part of this position for Deborah. On her website, she says: “People can call me what they like – ugly, fat, sour – but tell me I’m not ethical; that’s what bothers me.” I wonder why it’s so important to her. “Why would I do something that doesn’t sit comfortably with me,” she retorts.
When it comes to sustainability, she really gets it. Take, for example, her involvement with JPM Eco Logistics. Owners Jerry and Paul were experienced transport industry professionals on entering the Den and what they had established was a unique haulage business, slipping into a market niche, satisfying clients that demand logistics with a lower carbon footprint. But once Deborah invested £100,000 for a 20% stake in the business – shared with fellow Dragon Theo Paphitis of his children’s inheritance – she wanted to see JPM go even further. “They were good people with the right idea,” she says. “But, as they will themselves admit, they didn’t go far enough. They made the mistake of standing in the Den saying ‘we are green because we have biodiesel vehicles’. But I asked them: Where are the vehicles made? What are their environmental credentials? What is the carbon footprint of the factory that is producing these vehicles? What’s the life of the vehicles?”
Despite looking slightly puzzled and taken aback, Jerry and Paul were open minded. And, on leaving the Den, the first thing they did was switch manufacturers. “They found another one that was more committed and their carbon footprint was a lot better,” adds Deborah, rather proudly.
She insists on constantly reviewing and improving environmental performance and her ability to alter business models that tap into the changing agenda make her an attractive Dragon to have on board. We discuss her decision to invest in a biodiesel-driven company amid the furore surrounding the sustainability of crops being used for fuel. Her reassurance is that JPM sources its crop locally: “We are not taking food out of the mouths of poor people,” she says.
But her assessment of the future supply of biofuels is honest. “Whatever the debate is, my answer is a mixed answer. If the whole world goes across to biodiesel, boy have we got a problem! We don’t know what the answer is, but it’s bound to be mixed. But, because we always think about how things will affect the environment, we will do whatever is the best thing to do at that time.
“We might be proved wrong – who knows. I hear so many things that are brilliant and then a year later they’re the worst thing to have done.”
Currently, JPM runs 12 vehicles on 100% biodiesel and is running tests with Volvo on the length of the life of the parts within the vehicles. “It’s all very well running biodiesel, but if it shortens the life of a lorry by two years, it’s not environmentally friendly,” Deborah admits. “Who knows, our next set of vehicles might not be biodiesel. We might choose something else.”
JPM Eco Logistics will no doubt prove a success. But there are still plenty of green-minded companies out there looking for a leg up that have no chance of getting started. That’s because some of the ethically minded start-ups – or “crusaders”, as Theo Paphitis calls them – fail to recognise the current buying process of the general public, argues Deborah. “Sadly, people’s buying process is still very much: Do I like it? Do I want it? Is it a price I’m willing to pay – first.
“And secondary is the environment and the ethical side of it. That’s the way we are at the moment. That might well change. But, if you’re going to have a sustainable business, you’ve got to be able to fulfil those first things before the second one happens. Not everybody will think ‘it’s ugly, brown and dowdy but I’ll buy it anyway because its good for the environment’.”
Regular viewers of the TV show, which has been on our screens for four years, may have picked up one of Deborah’s bêtes noirs: packaging. Or, to be more precise, over-packaging of goods in society.
“I have been known to stand at the check-out at a supermarket and physically unpack all my goods and leave the packaging with the cashier,” she says. “How much packaging do you need for four apples?”
What’s the answer? “Alternative packaging – corn starch, maize. But, if people say, ‘I want less packaging, I want less packaging, I want less packaging,’ eventually it will get through.”
So, if you’re looking for investment from Deborah Meaden, here’s some advice: whatever your product, don’t over package it. Oh, and you better have a sound business model too. As she says: “What they can’t rely on is the fact they are just green.”
“I don’t think, ‘right, I’m going to invest in a green business today.’ But, if a pitch hits my desk that I think has a firm business plan, it’s a little bit more interesting to me. Not only is it dear to my heart but, because environmental and ethical issues are
going to be bigger in the future, it could be a really good opportunity for me.”