Sunday 17 December 2017

'If you want to compete against me, you will come a bad second'

John Griffin has worked with The Beatles, kicked Rod Stewart, and sold his car business for €360m. Now he's backing Irish TV

John Griffin. Illustration: Don Berkeley.
John Griffin. Illustration: Don Berkeley.
Nick Webb

Nick Webb

John Griffin is a diamond geezer. Sitting in Buswells Hotel in a black anorak and slacks, he could be a taxi driver. He is – of sorts. One who has just sold the biggest mini-cab company in the UK for €360m.

With Kerry and Mayo roots, Griffin is the financial welly behind Irish TV, a new television channel aimed at the diaspora that is going to create up to 150 jobs when it is launched next month. The venture was set up by Mayo entrepreneurs Pierce O'Reilly and Mairead Ni Mhaoilchiarain and Griffin is now the chairman.

"I've now put £15m (€18.2m) at the disposal of the company. I'm going the full distance with this one," he tells me as we make our way down to a quiet meeting room in the bowels of Buswells.

"A friend of mine runs a pub, the Oxford Arms in Camden town. I got a call from him one day and he said that there was a fellow in the pub that he wanted me to meet. He'd never rung me before. So I went," said the Bentley-driving Griffin. He was blown away by Irish TV co-founder Pierce O'Reilly and the vision behind the new station. "So I took out my cheque book and write him a cheque for £50,000. I said put it in the bank and ring me tomorrow. I didn't even know his second name or where he lived!" Griffin has made a fortune backing hunches.

It's a tough ask though, as Ireland is littered with failed television ventures or moves to tap into the wealth of the diaspora. Big money from the likes of the Barry's Tea family and Feargal Quinn went up in smoke in the ill-fated Channel 6. David Harvey's City Channel also went wallop. Only TV3 has managed to wash its face in the domestic market.

But Irish TV is banking on interest from the tens of millions of the diaspora, which it believes will want to see local stories from back home. It's like the TV version of hankering for Tayto Crisps in New York. Coupled with some pretty smart tech, Irish TV may just have its timing spot on.

"When I put the money in – and I've already put a few million in, I left them with a majority stake. They have 51 per cent. I wanted them to have it. I could have taken 55 per cent or 75 per cent or whatever, but that would have been a mistake because they would have been demotivated. Please God they'll make millions out of it," he says.

"It's not really a money thing for me. This is more a thing that I feel good about. The connection back to Ireland is a bonus for me."

Griffin was born in Willesden, London during the Second World War. Although the Blitz was over, the Germans were still sporadically bombing London. "As soon as I was born, I was taken to Ireland," he says, munching a biscuit. Griffin is quite the story-teller and talks without pause for nearly an hour and a half. He lived on Achill Island until he was nine. "As was the tradition in that part of the world, you didn't wear any shoes going to school." He bounced in and out of school, before catching TB on a camping trip to Devon, which led to an 18-month stay in hospital and no qualifications from school. He drifted around at the end of the 1960s, working as a stage-hand for the Beatles and Eric Clapton and doing some grunt work on the classic 1969 heist movie The Italian Job. He sounds just like Michael Caine. He also played football with Rod Stewart.

"Then my first son was born and I began to re-assess where I was going. Then my second son was born and I decided that I had to do something more meaningful with my life."

So he started to train as an accountant. Two years into his articles, Griffin left to help his father – a Kerryman – with his struggling civil engineering business. While he was doing this, he took a nixer as a mini-cab driver to get extra money. "I quite enjoyed it – the meeting people – and I found that I was good at remembering roads. Even now, if I see a road that I don't know, I'll go down it to see where it goes." Griffin moved out of the driving seat into the back office, where he realised that he was a smoking-hot manager and organiser. "From being a bloke who didn't really care, I became really ambitious. I was focused. I called myself the 'White Tornado'. I loved it." He was also hyper-competitive. "If you want to go down the route of competing with me, you will not win. You will come a very bad second."

In 1975, he went out on his own, picking up a tiny private-hire firm in return for sorting out a tax bill for the chauffeur of the Bee Gees' manager. Addison Lee started off with just one driver. London in the mid-Seventies was The Sweeney. Lots of sheepskin jackets and tough guys.

"We had a few run-ins. It was south London. There were some heavy people about. Gangster types, yeah," he said. "If you want to come and take money from me, bring plenty of people. Don't come alone. But they never came," he said. "No one bullies me. It's in my genes. I was afraid of no one." While Griffin was brash, he was also pragmatic. He positioned a sofa in the middle of his mini-cab office, which meant that if any one tried to attack him, they could only do so in single file. Smart.

Addison Lee – named after a swish-sounding road in London – grew rapidly. Griffin was a phenomenally early adopter of technology, learning the moves on a new-fangled BBC computer, "one of the first ones." This was one of the key advantages as the firm mushroomed to become London's largest mini-cab company over the next three decades. It culminated in a fleet of almost 4,000 mini-cabs and 100 private hire coaches, generating sales of about €240m per year. It was even named-checked in a One Direction song.

"The company kept expanding. I was given a lifetime award by the London Chamber of Commerce. My speech was, 'Started with one car. Sold for £300m.' That was it. Then I sat down. There's nothing else to say," he said. Point made.

In April 2013, private equity behemoth Carlyle coughed up around £300m to buy the company. Griffin owned 51 per cent of the business, with his family and the son of an early business partner holding the rest. He'll have grossed around €184m from the deal. Griffin hasn't been slow to spend some money. Having lived in the same house in Potters Bar for the last couple of decades, he splashed out £21m to buy a terrific pad in London's Regent Square. He figures that since he moved in nine months ago, the house has risen in value to about £31m. Griffin is still chairman of Addison Lee and retains "a minimal stake". His son is managing director.

But private equity barons like Carlyle get on his wick. "Raping and pillaging is their thing. They are at the arse-end of what I am about. It's purely money for them. If somebody dropped dead in front of them, they'd just step right over them," he says, half smiling. "They have what is a dark art. I never knew that art could be so dark. I just couldn't do it. I just want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and give myself the thumbs-up."

Selling Addison Lee for €360m has given Griffin serious firepower for getting some other investments moving. He's nothing if not spectacularly ambitious.

"I now have two iron-ore concessions in Brazil," he says. "One of the concessions has been valued by Deutsche Bank at $5bn." Details are a little bit sketchy. Griffin owns 57 per cent of a concession "south of Rio". It's all a little vague.

"It's in the middle of nowhere. It's a two-hour drive from the airport."

The projects are owned by his Max Iron business, although he's in the process of tidying up corporate structures.

"It's cost £10m so far. This is a big boys' game. The richest man in the world was a Brazilian man in iron ore . . . I thought let's not mess about." Brazilian tycoon Eike Batista was the seventh-richest man in the world in 2012, with a resources-fuelled fortune of $30bn. A crash in stock and material prices, coupled with the perfect storm of monster debt obligations saw his fortune almost completely wiped out. The route to El Dorado is littered with skeletons. But Griffin has street smarts. He seems to know what's around the corner. And what's more, he says he's lucky. Ridiculously lucky.

"We could be in production in two years' time," he forecasts. Griffin is taking a longer-term view of his mining project – there's also an interest in gold. Prices will rise and fall but ultimately, steel is the most valuable resource in the world, he believes. This is the fundamental belief behind the logic of his plans. Also he could just find the resources and flip them to a big player. Timing is everything. Griffin's other interests include an innovative puncture repair company in Bournemouth.

"It's another thing that I just thought was a good idea."

Between setting up a new TV station, digging holes for iron in Brazil or trying to re-invent puncture repair, Griffin is well outside his comfort zone. That's where he wants to be though. "The question is . . . can I really do it? So I have to take something in a different area and do it there. I don't think it's any more complicated running a sweet-shop than it is running a conglomerate. It's the same basic business practice. If I can do it in another area, then I can look in the mirror and say that I really am an entrepreneur."

Or a miracle-worker.

'Sometimes all you want is a curry'

* If I weren't doing what I do, I would be ... "Writing a book."

* The last meal I really enjoyed was ... "La Gavroche, although sometimes when you come home, all you want is a curry."

* The best gift I've given recently was ... "I paid off someone's mortgage."

* My favourite piece of clothing is ... "It'd be a sad man who was in love with his jumper! I have a £4,000 Savile row suit that I like."

* My greatest indulgence is ... "Golf."

* The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is ... "I have two houses in Kerry and the walls are covered in oil paintings by a local artist."

* The last music I downloaded was ... "I like everything from traditional Irish music to quite heavy rock, Status Quo and Rod Stewart."

* The books on my bedside table are ... "I read the Alex Ferguson book recently."

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