Everyone likes a success story. There is something compelling about people who not only have a light bulb moment but act to turn the dream into a reality – and make millions along the way.
Most business people remain under the radar or certainly don’t find fame beyond the regional business scene.
But there are some – lots actually – who become household names by virtue of personality, straight talking or dividing opinion.
The age of social media has helped, it has given everyone a voice and those who want it can find a 24/7 audience.
By contrast, there’s Sir Richard Branson who had to make a record breaking journey by hot air balloon to catch the public’s attention.
Here we profile some of the UK’s most famous business leaders and take a look at what has made them stick in the collective consciousness.
Sir Tom Hunter, businessman and philanthropist
Famed for becoming Scotland’s first homegrown billionaire, Sir Tom Hunter started his career working for his father in a small grocers, before selling shoes from the back of a van. He went on to build one of the biggest sports retailers of the 1990s, Sports Division, before selling the company to rivals JJB Sports in 1998 for £290million.
Worth an estimated £729million according to the Sunday Times Rich list, he boosted his fortune by £100million by selling his stake in The Hut Group of which he was an early backer.
Milena Mondini de Focatiss, Chief Executive Admiral
Milena Mondini de Focatiss is the chief executive of Wales’ only FTSE business in car insurance to loans group Admiral.
Milena, who joined Admiral in 2007 to become chief executive of its Italian venture ConTE, took up the role at the helm of the car insurance to loans group last year – succeeding David Stevens, a co-founder of the Cardiff-headquartered firm, which employs 7,500 in Wales with its other offices in Swansea and Newport. With insurance ventures in Spain, Italy, France and the US, it has a global workforce of more than 11,000. The business has a market capitalisation of more than £7bn and annual revenues in excess of £3bn.
Despite uncertainties over the long-term outlook for its core car insurance business – assuming a mass adoption of autonomous vehicles reducing accidents and premiums – under Milena’s leadership Admiral is not waiting to see what happens, but is taking affirmative action by continuing to diversify and even has an effective research and development company, Admiral Pioneer, to develop new products and companies.
She also believes that Admiral has a key role to play in South Wales’ emerging fintech sector, which has been identified as a UK leading cluster with significant growth and high-skill job creation prospects.
Admiral has just been voted the fourth best large employer in the UK to work for.
Julie-Ann Haines, Chief Executive Principality Building Society
Aberdeen-born Julie-Ann Haines became the first female chief executive of the Principality Building Society in 2020.
After attending university in Glasgow, her first job was in Leamington Spa before she moved to London.
She first joined the Principality as head of digital in 2007 when the balance sheet was less than £5bn and rose through the ranks to become customer director in 2013 before joining its board.
By the time she was appointed chief executive of the mutual, the society was worth £11bn.
Prior to Principality, Julie-Ann held a number of senior roles in sales, marketing and technology, working in leading customer-centric businesses including Sainsbury’s, Reckitt Benckiser and HBOS.
This year, Julie-Ann has been leading the society towards a carbon neutral status as it looks to become net zero by 2030 and committed to keeping all its branches and agencies open until at least the end of 2025.
Joanna Swash, Chief Executive Moneypenny
Recruited as Moneypenny’s first sales person in 2005 – today, Joanna is Group CEO of an international business that has grown to employ more than 1000 people across the UK and the US.
Under Joanna’s watchful eye, Moneypenny has grown to become the leading outsourced communications provider in both the UK and US.
Joanna’s passion and vast experience means that she is a valued member of The CBI, Be the Business and the Northern Powerhouse.
In 2021, she was Management Today CEO of the Year and joined the Forbes Business Council, an invitation-only growth and networking community for successful business owners and leaders worldwide.
Denise Coates CBE, Founder and Chief Executive bet365
The 54-year-old risked everything when she took out a £15 million bank loan to launch the business from a portable cabin in a car park more than 20 years ago.
Today online gambling bet365, is a multi-billion pound company, based in Stoke-on-Trent, which employs more than 5,000 people in the UK.
And Denise – along with her brother John and father Peter – are estimated to be worth a massive £8.4 billion.
Today Denise – who was recently named the UK’s biggest taxpayer for the third year in a row – is one of the wealthiest women in the UK.
Her charity,The Denise Coates Foundation, donated £1million to help families in Ukraine in March.
Ranjit Singh Boparan, Founder and President 2 Sisters Food Group
Ranjit and his wife Baljinder Kaur Boparan are behind a huge empire that includes food production giant and poultry processor 2 Sisters and big name brands including Bernard Matthews and Carluccio’s restaurants.
The businessman’s career in food began behind the counter of a butcher’s shop in Bilston – the town where he was born.
He is now known as the ‘chicken king’ for running the UK’s largest poultry business which specialises in white label manufacturing for names including Aldi, Asda, Co-op, KFC, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.
The couple are estimated to have a personal fortune of around £680million .
Baljinder Boparan runs the Boparan Charitable Trust which supports disadvantaged children across the UK.
Last year, Ranjit announced a £7.5M investment in new technology and upgrades at 2 Sisters Food Group’s UK poultry site in Sandycroft, creating more than 200 new jobs .
The site processes one million birds per week and is one of the biggest sites within 2 Sisters employing more than 1,300 staff.
He has spoken out about the challenges facing the food production sector – with a “perfect storm” of Brexit and Covid hitting workforce numbers.
John Caudwell, Founder Phones4U and philanthropist
The Stoke-on-Trent-born entrepreneur made his fortune with the Phones4U empire and other business interests, racking up a personal wealth of £1.5billion according to the latest Sunday Times Rich List 2021 .
He sold the business for £1.5 billion in 2006 – at the time the firm was selling 26 phones a minute.
He lamented the demise of the brand that he had built in the mid 80s when eight years later it went into administration with the loss of more than 5,000 jobs in 2014 .
He remains active in the business world but now devotes most of his time to his lifelong philanthropic ambitions. As a signatory to the Giving Pledge, John is committed to giving at least 70 percent of his wealth to charitable causes during and after his lifetime.
In June 2020, he urged the Government to adopt his Covid-19 economic recovery plan – to borrow up to £1 trillion to invest in Britain’s future post-lockdown.
Steven Bartlett, Dragons’ Den investor, Co-founder Social Chain and Flight Story
Steven Bartlett shot to national fame earlier this year when he became the youngest member of Dragons’ Den. During his first series on the hit BBC One show, the entrepreneur invested in several companies.
He first made his mark when he dropped out of university to co-found Social Chain in Manchester with his best friend, Dominic McGregor. He left his role as chief executive in 2020 and has set his sights on investing in a wide variety of companies ever since.
Mr Barlett has since gone on to host his Diary of a CEO podcast, co-found Flight Story, invest in Huel and help launch Thirdweb, among many other business interests.
He also took his Diary of a CEO podcast on a live tour earlier this year.
Matthew Moulding, Co-founder and Chief Executive THG
Matthew Moudling co-founded THG with John Gallemore with a £500,000 investment in 2004 and focused on entertainment products including music and gaming.
In an interview with the Manchester Evening News , Mr Moulding said he came up with the idea for an online retailer while working for Caudwell Group, which includes the now-defunct mobile phone retailer Phones4U.
Mr Moulding initially took the idea to his bosses at Caudwell, but they said no, so he decided to go it alone.
Mr Moulding was born in Burnley, Lancashire, and attended Ss John Fisher and Thomas More RC High School in Colne.
He was expelled from college for truancy but was persuaded to finish his education and went to the University of Nottingham before going on to qualify as a chartered accountant.
He started working for John Caudwell, the Phones4U billionaire, where he became finance director of the Caudwell Group’s distribution business.
THG completed one of the largest ever floats on the London Stock Exchange in September 2020.
However, since then its share price has tanked and there are rumours of private equity firms weighing up bids to take the company private again.
Shirine Khoury-Haq, Chief Executive Co-op
Group CFO and CEO of Co-op Life Services Shirine Khoury-Haq has become the the first ever woman to lead the Co-op since it was founded in 1863.
Long-service Chief Executive Steve Murrells will leave his role with the Manchester-headquartered company in May after its annual general meeting.
The new boss is expected to see her salary increase in line with Mr Murrells’, who took home £2.2m in 2020. Ms Khoury-Haq was paid £1.1mi in salary and bonuses in 2020.
She first joined the Co-op in 2019 and is also currently a non-executive director of Persimmon Homes.
She started her senior career at McDonald’s as finance and operations manager before moving on to become an associate partner at IBM.
She has also held roles with the likes of Catlin, Lloyd’s and the Post Office.
Sir James Dyson, Founder Dyson
Name a British living inventor and the chances are it will be James Dyson. The outspoken figure is best known for his bagless vacuum cleaner and being an advocate for Brexit.
Last year, Sir James moved his residency back to the UK from Singapore, according to filings for his companies, which include his family office. He is one of the UK’s biggest tax payers – coming in at number 11, whose tax liability is £101m, on a wealth of £16.3bn, according to the latest Sunday Times Tax List .
However, he has been criticised for moving his global HQ from Wiltshire to Singapore, which officially opened at St James Power Station in Singapore in March 2022.
But it is still creating jobs in the UK. It has announced plans to create 900 UK jobs in its largest engineer recruitment drive.
Dyson’s UK base currently employs some 4,000 people of 59 nationalities.
Dyson has launched new air purifying headphones – the firm’s first wearable tech.
Last year, Sir James was in the press again over tax-based texts with PM Boris Johnson at the height of the search for ventilators when Covid-19 first struck more than a year ago.
He operates the James Dyson Foundation is a charitable trust that offers financial support and other resources to young engineers.
Tim Martin, Founder and Chairman, J D Wetherspoon
Wetherspoon founder and chairman Tim Martin has been a passionate supporter of Brexit and in 2021 denied reports that his pubs were impacted by Brexit-related staff shortages despite hospitality reporting recruitment problems across the board .
Not scared to speak out against the government, the pub chain most recently criticised the government’s “hypocrisy” for holding parties at 10 Downing Street while restrictions forced pub sales to crash in May 2020.
And it spoke out against the VAT rise for hospitality and leisure businesses, arguing it would add 40p to the cost of a meal at its pubs.
The business celebrated its 40th birthday in 2019. The first pub opened in Colney Hatch Lane, Muswell Hill, north London and now there is barely a town or city that doesn’t have its own ‘spoons – as locals call it.
Pilloried for serving cheap pints with a full english at breakfast time it is also hailed for saving some of the UK’s most historic buildings and keeping them in public use.
The story goes that the chain was named after a former teacher who said that Tim Martin would never amount to much but Tim admitted in an interview in 2018 : “That’s a myth, but it has lasted because it is such a good story.’
Actually, it was named for a teacher who could not command a class during his schooldays in New Zealand.
And in case you wanted to know what Tim’s favourite thing is to order on the Wetherspoon’s menu : “I like a breakfast wrap though I’m told there’s too many calories but it is gorgeous.”
Deborah Meaden, Dragons’ Den investor
The Somerset businesswoman is best known for the role in BBC’s Dragons’ Den. She joined in series three – the longest serving Dragon aside from Peter Jones.
Her latest investment on the show was £25,000 into March Muses , making black Christmas decorations, with Peter Jones.
Before TV, Deborah Meaden ran Weststar Holidays – a multimillion-pound family holiday business, before completing a management buyout and later selling the company to Phoenix Equity Partners in 2005 in a deal worth £33m, whilst retaining a 23% stake and an active role within the firm. She sold her remaining stake in the business when Weststar was sold to Parkdean Holidays for £83m .
She widened her fanbase after appearing on Strictly Come Dancing in 2013.
An avid Twitter user, she is known to be straight talking and is vocal in her support for business, most recently advocating for the Platinum Jubilee extra bank holiday to become permanent.
With a personal fortune said to be £60million, she divides her time between London and Somerset where she lives with her husband Paul and an array of animals including horses and geese.
Sara Davies, Founder Crafter’s Companion and Dragons’ Den investor
Sara Davies runs County Durham crafting firm Crafter’s Companion, but is probably best known for her TV appearances on Dragons’ Den and Strictly Come Dancing.
She started her business while still a student at York University and has seen it become one of the region’s fastest growing companies, winning a number of awards and reaching turnover of nearly £40m. Part of her work at Crafter’s Companion saw her selling its products on shopping channels in the UK and overseas, sparking a TV career that has seen her become a household name.
Ms Davies was awarded an MBE in 2016 for services to the economy and in 2020 won the Outstanding Contribution to British Business Award. She has recently published an autobiography called We Can All Make It, which has been billed as a book that “answers all the questions for women in business today”.
Roisin Currie, Chief Executive (designate) Greggs
Roisin Currie will have big shoes to fill when she takes over as chief executive of Greggs in a few weeks’ time.
Ms Currie has been Greggs’ retail and property director but became chief executive designate when Roger Whiteside announced his intention to retire from the Newcastle food-of-the-go business in January.
She first joined Greggs 12 years ago, after working at Asda where she held people director roles, being responsible for the organisation’s retail and distribution operations. She is a trustee of the Greggs Foundation and is chair of the Employers Forum For Reducing Re-offending.
Ms Currie has been credited as being a key figure in Greggs’ huge growth in recent years and she has vowed to keep this going as the company aims to have 3,000 stores around the UK.
Sir Graham Wylie, Co-founder Sage
One of the North East’s best known entrepreneurs, his contribution to the area has been acknowledged with honorary doctorates from both Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, plus the freedom of the city of Newcastle, as well as a CBE in 2003 and a knighthood in 2020.
Since selling his stake in Sage, he has had a number of other business interests and has indulged his passions for horseracing and golf. That latter interest saw him buy and develop Close House golf club in Northumberland and develop it into a championship course that has hosted the British Masters tournament.
He has also become heavily involved in charity work, setting up the Graham Wylie Foundation and helping the NewcastleGateshead win its bid to host the 2019 World Transplant Games.
Dr Neil Hudgell, Founder Hudgell Solicitors
Legal Personality of the Year in the eyes of the Law Society, Neil Hudgell has just marked a quarter of a century at the helm of his eponymous business, while chairing his beloved Super League team Hull KR.
The firm he established in his home city, while growing significantly in Manchester, has played pivotal roles in the righting of incredulous wrongs, huge scandals that have rocked British institutions.
From the Post Office IT failings that saw innocent people jailed to serial killer Stephen Port’s inquest exposing police investigation inadequacies, Hudgell has been there.
Most recently his firm has been representing victims of the Manchester Arena bombing during the Ariana Grande concert.
Brought up by his grandparents in Seventies east Hull, he said he was advised to “do your best and find a job through a trade or a scholarship”.
He failed at school but then qualified via night school, securing his first job in a private practice with Max Gold. He founded Hudgell Solicitors in September 1997.
Paul Sewell OBE, Chairman Sewell Group
Leading regional entrepreneur Paul Sewell OBE chairs the Sewell Group, a £100 million turnover entity covering construction, facilities management and retail.
Having passed up a path into the family fruit business in an attempt to pursue footballing stardom, when that didn’t work out he went on to drive a once-modest building firm to ever-higher achievements, topped with a Queen’s Award.
Headquartered in Hull, and with more than 500 employed, it thrives on public sector partnership work, with specialisms in health and education.
It also has operations in West Yorkshire, with a strong presence across northern England.
Sewell was a key figure behind the Yorkshire International Business Convention launch and Humber Business Week – continuing to play a prominent role to this day – and during lockdown published his autobiography, Half A Lettuce, supporting Hull Animal Welfare Trust, the organisation his wife Sue established in 1982.
Mark Smithson, Founder Marks Electrical
The boss of one of Leicestershire’s best known companies is taking on the likes of AO and Currys.
Mark Smithson started Marks Electrical back in 1987, buying and selling second-hand cookers out of his dad’s Leicester garage.
A few years ago it moved from a well-known shop in King Richards Road, in the city, to a 200,000 sq ft warehouse near the Beaumont Leys Shopping Centre, on Leicester’s outskirts.
And a few months ago Marks raised £30 million through a listing on the AIM stock exchange, which valued the business at £115 million.
Mr Smithson, who still owns 70 per cent of Marks, said there was no reason why sales couldn’t keep growing thanks to his straight-forward business model.
By comparison, back in January Currys said its sales dropped over the key Christmas period as supply issues left it short of stock for some popular tech products.
Mr Smithson said Marks, which has 182 staff right now and could soon have “several hundred more”, was succeeding where other retailers were struggling because much of its stock was sourced from the EU rather than the Far East, so it hadn’t been hit so hard by recent global trends.
Jason Ashby, Founder UK Flooring Direct
The boss of one of the fastest growing companies in the East Midlands was named 2021 LeicestershireLive Business Executive of the Year.
Jason Ashby, the founder of Hinckley-based UK Flooring Direct, picked up the top award at the black tie celebration which took place at the Leicester Tigers Welford Road stadium.
Mr Ashby was also named top executive within a large business – beating Brian Duffy, chief executive of the Watches of Switzerland Group, and Jon Jorgensen, chief sales officer at Loughborough-based business software specialist Access Group.
Launched with a £299 website investment in 2005 UK Flooring Direct is now one of the biggest online flooring retailers in Britain and sells everything from wooden floors to laminates, vinyl flooring and underlays to the public and trade.
It is now expanding into selling carpets and Mr Ashby said he hopes to hit £1 billion of turnover in the coming years.
It has a 12 per cent share of the category with B&Q taking a 15 per cent market share.
In October 2020, it took on a 54,000 sq ft unit in Coventry to complement its headquarters in Hinckley, creating around 50 new jobs.
Jon Jorgensen, Chief sales officer Access Group
In 2021 global business software developer Access Group moved its headquarters to a £20m purpose built office block on the Loughborough University Science and Enterprise Park in north Leicestershire.
The tech unicorn, which has been on a big acquisition spree in recent years, is reportedly valued at £3 billion, and on course to become the UK’s biggest software company within the next couple of years.
The business is in the process of recruiting 500 more staff, and has seen revenues rise 50 per cent in the last year to around £500 million.
At the official opening of the group’s new global headquarters in Loughborough, Mr Jorgensen said they were already contemplating building a second block next door to make room for further growth.
Mr Jorgenson was part of the original MBO of Access Group.
Lord Alan Sugar, The Apprentice and Founder Amstrad
As the face of BBC’s The Apprentice, Lord Sugar is probably the UK’s best known businessman.
A self-made man, he left school in Hackney aged 16 and started selling electric goods out of a van he bought for £50. In 1968, he founded Amstrad and now, over 50 years later, he has an estimated worth of over £1 billion.
A former Chairman of Tottenham Hotspur FC, he sold his Amstrad empire to Sky in July 2007. His other companies include Amscreen, the UK’s largest digital media owner and property investment firm Amsprop. Until 2014 he was chairman of Viglen, a manufacturer specialising in computers, networks and solutions.
In 2000, he was knighted for his services to business and he holds two honorary Doctorate of Science degrees, awarded by City University and Brunel University respectively.
He was appointed to the House of Lords as Baron Sugar of Clapton in the London Borough of Hackney.
Lord Sugar is a philanthropist for several charities including Great Ormond Street Hospital and Jewish Care.
But it seems his savagery is not spared on the winners either, as he appears to have cut off yet another of his chosen victors.
Just weeks after he hired new entrepreneur and this season’s winner Harpreet Kaur, Lord Sugar is said to have parted ways with 2018 winner Sian Gabbidon, reports The Mirror .
Sir Richard Branson, Founder Virgin Group
Arguably the original disruptor of the business world, the billionaire reached the edge of space on board his Virgin Galactic rocket plane – the first of the new space tourism pioneers to try out their own vehicles, beating Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk.
Born in Surrey to a barrister father and flight attendant mother, he started Virgin as a mail order record retailer in 1970 before creating Virgin Records that went on to sign household names from the Sex Pistols to The Rolling Stones. There are now more than 40 Virgin companies worldwide in over 35 countries, including airline Virgin Atlantic and healthcare providers Virgin Health.
Richard is best known for his record breaking adventures, including the fastest ever Atlantic Ocean crossing, a series of oceanic balloon journeys and kitesurfing across the Channel.
He has an estimated personal wealth of £3.79billion according to The Sunday Times Rich List . He primarily lives on a luxe British Virgin Islands retreat, Necker Island, which he bought for $180,000 in 1978.
Critics have pointed out that he has not paid any personal income tax in the UK since he moved to the island more than 14 years ago . Branson has denied making his permanent residence there for tax reasons.
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