Duncan Bannatyne at the Cheltenham Literary Festival

Article published on October 12, 2013. Reviewed by Mark Dolphin

Best known as the wry and occasionally abrasive fire-breather from BBC’s Dragon’s Den, Bannatyne presented to the audience at Cheltenham Literary Festival to promote his autobiography Riding the Storm. Being a fan of the show and having some fondness for the man, but not knowing much more than his TV persona, my expectation was of a business success figure who would be admirably candid but perhaps slightly too dazzled by his own achievements.

And my first impressions of Bannatyne were as expected: him coming out in the ubiquitous “business casual” look of jeans, white shirt (unbuttoned to the chest to dangerously Simon Cowell-esque proportions) and jacket, but the first topics of the discussion were a surprisingly personal recount of the break down of his second marriage.

Notified by text to end a 12 year relationship, Bannatyne started drinking more heavily alone in the house, and even entertained suicide. His state of mind was traumatised to obliquely tweet that “suicide is a considered option,” and he came close to jumping in front of a train. Thoughts of his six children stopped him, as did the cases of some of the beneficiaries of his charities (for which he has done an incredible amount of good work). Bannatyne was careful to make no more than factual comments about the experience, and made the audience laugh with his revelation that as filming had to continue on Dragon’s Den he found his mind wandering during presentations, only to come around thirty minutes into a pitch and find that all the other Dragons had already dropped out. He offered to match Hilary Devey’s investment on one pitch purely because she’d declared an interest.

Duncan’s first stories of his entrepreneurial nature are fairly well known but bear repeating. Told he couldn’t get a job as a paperboy until there were a hundred names for deliveries on his street, Bannatyne door-knocked until he got them all and his job. After a dishonourable discharge from the Navy (after a court martial for threatening to toss an officer off an aircraft carrier) Bannatyne bought his first ice cream van on a notorious Glasgow district, where he had to occasionally use his fists as well as his acumen to maintain his patch.

Asked what the secret of his success is, Bannatyne put it down to hard work. Hard, hard work. Twelve hour days and seven day weeks until a profit is squeezed out. It would be interesting to hear what Bannatyne thinks of Oliver James’ attitude towards the most successful and latent psychopathy.

Asked whether he’d marry again, Bannatyne ruefully admits he would but only with a pre-nup. His experience of the family court seemed particularly toxic with his second wife wanting to dissolve his businesses and put his children out of work in order to claim her fifty percent share, while an over-inflated valuation from the Financial Times Rich List meant lawyers spent months pouring through his accounts looking for phantom assets.

Bannatyne also proved to be more self-aware and modest than I imagined, discussing his desire to instil a work ethic in his children. As a self-made man he worries that his children who have wanted for nothing could easily grow up not to share his values. His preferred solution being to push them into his philanthropic work – to use the privilege they’ve been born with to make the world better.

Like seemingly all entrepreneurs Bannatyne can’t stop, despite being by anyone’s definition a success, comparing his desire to build a business as an artist’s to paint or make music. He did genuinely warm though talking about what makes him happy. It’s a stock answer to say it is to love and be loved in return, but he clearly meant it, and his happiest times are when he’s messing about in boats with his son or hosting and cooking for his daughters. And if he can never give up business, then he is, ever so slightly, starting to wind down in favour of family quality time.

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