East End donor's lessons from life

25th June 2004 at 01:00
His success owes nothing to education but Jack Petchey OBE shares his wealth with schools. Helen Ward reports.

A superior education is not behind the vast riches of Jack Petchey, who failed his 11-plus and then went on to amass a fortune greater than the Queen's.

In his biography, The Man with the Midas Touch, he said: "Perhaps one of the great advantages I have is that I am not educated in the academic sense but have learned from the university of life. Knowledge is fine, of course, but the ability to get things done is the most important thing in my book.

The harder you work the luckier you are."

He does not, however, wish to confer the advantage of his poor education on others. As one of the most generous individual sponsors of specialist schools, he has donated more than pound;500,000 towards 46 schools. His charitable foundation has also pledged pound;2 million towards a pound;30m academy planned for Hackney.

The foundation has given out pound;10m in grants since September 1999 and this month Mr Petchey was awarded an OBE for his charitable work.

Jack Petchey was born in east London to a working-class family. He learned his first lesson in marketing at the age of 11 when working for Eric Woods, a greengrocer. He was given a box of tomatoes and told to label half at one price and the rest higher. "Some like them cheap and some like them expensive," he was told.

He later had a brush with the school board and Mr Woods was hauled up before magistrates for employing him under-age, but the case was dismissed when his solicitor argued that while his summons said he was carrying vegetables, in fact tomatoes are fruit.

"It was my first experience of a court case but one that has probably stood me in good stead since," laughed Jack, his biography records.

He left school aged 14 in 1939 to work as an office boy, and at 17 volunteered for the Royal Navy and became an electrical fitter stationed with the fleet air arm in Essex.

After the war, Mr Petchey was given a pound;39 gratuity and returned to his old firm. But after being told he was not management material, he quit and used the cash to buy a car and start a taxi firm.

His taxi firm expanded into car hire and sales, and by the time he was 30, he had already made enough money to retire comfortably.

One of his claims to fame is being the first London dealer to use bikini-clad girls draped over the bonnets of his cars in his advertising.

He also earned a reputation as a ruthless dealer. In 1965 he took over Woods Motors of south London. "I paid pound;205,000 for it, then closed down the business and sold off the premises for pound;351,000. I'd like to do a deal like that every year," he told a Sunday Express reporter.

In the 1960s Mr Petchey moved into property development and, prompted by the taxman, moved his investments to Portugal. While the 1974 coup somewhat upset his plans, he was soon back on track setting up a holiday complex and timeshare business in Albufeira.

Mr Petchey, who will be 79 next month, does not give interviews to the press but his name is rarely absent from the business pages. His most recent high-profile deal was a loan of pound;15m to the consortium who took over the troubled Leeds United.

In this year's Sunday Times rich list Mr Petchey's fortune was estimated at pound;263m.

His biography only briefly mentions the court case he won against Westminster city council, when the authority alleged his timeshare company, Holiday Ownership Exchange, misled the public by promises of gifts. And it does not mention at all that his resignation as chairman of Watford FC in 1994 came after a series of protests by fans, culminating in a pitch invasion when police dogs were used to control supporters who tried to storm the directors' lounge, as the club fought against relegation from the first division.

Mr Petchey, a widower with four children, has said he will leave most of his money to The Jack Petchey Foundation, an organisation set up to help develop the potential of young people aged 11 to 24. It gives grants to community projects, supports the training of youth leaders, provides grants to schools and youth clubs, and sponsors young fund-raisers.

Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust Council, who persuaded his fellow businessman to contribute to the specialist schools'

programme, described Mr Petchey as very chatty and personable.

Andrew Billington, chief executive of the foundation, said: "Although he is 79 in a few weeks' time, Mr Petchey still comes to the office every day and retains his amazing entrepreneurial skills."

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