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David Gold interview

by: Leslie Bunder - Last updated: 2008-10-09

David Gold

David Gold

From growing up in poverty in London’s East End, David Gold has proved that hard work combined with business acuman can bring success.

The owner of Ann Summers and Birmingham City Football Club talks to Leslie Bunder about his motivations, business TV shows, owning newspapers, Jewish roots and taking Ann Summers to Israel.

What motivates you in your life?
For many years, I was motivated by the fear of going back to the poverty that I remember so well. That’s what drives me - fear of going back. Until about 10 years ago, I used to have a recurring dream - it was more like a nightmare - and the nightmare was, at the time I had a Bentley, returning to 442 Green Street where I lived during the war, and arriving in my Bentley bizarrely, but with no money and my toolbag in the back of the car. And going back to the building site that I remember as a young boy working on the scaffold, laying bricks, with my Bentley down in the street.

What do you consider to be your best business deal and why?
I think probably the best business decision was not the one that made me £2million pounds but the one that actually got me started. And it was the decision to go into a little bookshop off Charing Cross Road that had failed five times with five previous owners. I went into that store, selling my motorbike, raising money, borrowing money from my mother and brother and getting into business. Why? Because I think it was the stepping stone to everything. I was 21 years of age, I was serving my apprenticeship which fi nished on my 21st birthday and two weeks later I was in this little shop in the Charing Cross Road.

What have you learnt from your less successful deals and what were they?
Well, I can’t say I’ve ever been asked that question. I would say to you that I’ve made a number of mistakes - too few to mention - but I think that to cut your losses is what I learnt from those mistakes, cut your losses, don’t let your pride get in the way. You’ve been successful or you are currently successful, you’re doing a deal - I remember bringing out a magazine that I stuck with for a year and ploughed a million pounds into it, but it was more out of pride. I realised it wasn’t going to make it, my business mind was saying to me it’s going to fail but I’d put my heart and soul into this magazine. And my daughter was also involved as well - the magazine was called Bite - and I persevered with it and lost another million pounds when in actual fact my heart was driving me and not my business acumen. I think that’s a useful lesson you can carry forward - you can fall in love with an idea and everyone’s advising against it but you press on and press on, and people say ‘that’s the entrepreneur who carries on regardless. I have to say, it’s a romantic notion but odds are stacked against it. And of course, the stories you hear are the one in a thousand where the entrepreneur stays in, sells his house, gets divorced, borrows money - and succeeds. Those stories are very very rare.

So what inspired you to write your autobiography, and how long did it take?
It took a year, what inspired me was that I was pressed by a publisher and sports writer who really wanted to do it. So the two of them tried to persuade me, but I really was just too busy, especially when they said they wanted me to go to a holiday resort for a fortnight to do it, they felt that was the only real way to get my full attention because trying to do a book with busy businessmen they find they’ve only got 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there. And like everything I do, I wanted to do it the best I could’ - I would in fact work an eight hour day doing it. And I have to say things came out are bits of my life I can’t share with you - but the author was very good, he said ‘say it’ because by this time we were pals, we would have dinner together and I became very friendly with him. I still have dinner with him to this day. But I said I couldn’t do this - firstly some of the stories had no endings with the bits taken out because I couldn’t face my demons, the story was fragmented.

And he said, ‘what aren’t you telling me?’ and at dinner I told him a number of things happened in my life which were too painful. So he said, ‘do it, tell me, and afterwards if you’re uncomfortable with it we’ll take it out’. And he said to me, ‘I think you’ll fi nd it cathartic’. At the time I didn’t know what the word cathartic meant, so I said OK, and went and looked it up, and it meant it would make you feel better - that by putting pen to paper you would get rid of the pain - and he was right. Once I’d actually said it, and told this story that had been very difficult for me, that I’d buried in my life – my wife, who sadly now is dead, I never told her. We were married for 13 years, together for 25 years, and I never shared the issues in the book with her once. My two daughters didn’t know.

Was it a difficult decision to sell Sport newspapers?
Yes it was difficult because there comes a point where the money won’t impact your life. So selling the newspaper won’t make a difference to my life, but I have lost a son in a way and that’s what it’s like selling a business.

Would you consider owning another newspaper?
One of the things that I’ve learnt is never to say never. I’m tempted to say no, I’ve got so much in my life anyway but that’s not to say that if my friend David Sullivan came along I wouldn’t. But I’m very very happy - this afternoon I’m going to Birmingham in my helicopter to the training ground, I’m going to see the manager, to chat to a few people, to do exactly what I want. When you get too many businesses hardly a day goes by without there being some issue that will take you away from what you really want to do. I love what I do, I love business, but at the same time you must be careful that it doesn’t take you over.

How Jewish do you feel and what aspects of being Jewish do you embrace?
I’m very proud of being Jewish. I’m not a religious man, but I am very proud of my roots. My grandfather and grandmother were the archetypal Jewish family and I remember just before my grandmother died I went to a Jewish wedding and part of my family was there and you just felt this warmth, but I guess my most vivid memory would be the anti-Semitism as a young boy which was at its worst. You can’t be proud of being Jewish, you hide it, you’re almost hiding under a coat saying ‘don’t hit me, I’m not Jewish’, and when I look back I feel like a traitor, but you’re only a kid. My poverty - that was OK, you were living in the East End of London but you didn’t feel that you were the only one. But probably the worst bit which was soul destroying was the Holocaust. I tell a story in my book where I go to the local pictures and see the Belsen Camp on the news. I’m probably 11, and there are the pictures of dead Jews, and I couldn’t get my head round it.

Are you involved with any Jewish causes today?
Yes, I’m an avid supporter of the CST, and I think that’s a fantastic cause but it does alert us to the fact that we still have problems and we must remain vigilant. But the wonderful thing is for me over the years I slowly became proud of having a Jewish connection and a Jewish heritage.

Did you have a Barmitzvah?
No because my grandmother was terribly ill and I guess it was just a moment in time when it wasn’t to be, I regret that.

Do you experience any anti-Semitism today?
No but only five years ago I was pursued by Combat 18. Thankfully seven members were arrested and sent to prison for 25 years but trust me, if you think they’re gone forever, forget it. Do not become complacent, I guarantee you that in some corner of our lovely country that scum is there somewhere waiting, just waiting to come out again. Are they hiding away somewhere waiting to reemerge? We have to think that’s likely to be the case so we must remain vigilant and don’t become complacent.

Before buying Birmingham City were there any other teams you considered and what made you choose Birmingham?
Well I did actually buy West Ham shares, we owned 29.9 per cent and we did for a number of years, and strangely to this day I got the feeling that the owners of West Ham were certainly anti the Golds. Now I’m not sure if it’s because of our business or because of our Jewish backgrounds, but we were never warmly received. We were ostracised within the football club despite the fact we owned a signifi cant amount. And then having sold our shares an opportunity at Birmingham City came up. Birmingham just looked like a fantastic sleeping giant. They were in the old third division and it took us ten years to get them into the Premier League.

Would you consider West Ham again?
Never say never! But my affection is for Birmingham City. I’ve got lots of friends there. I think Alan Sugar was amazing the way he stayed at Tottenham for all those years even though he was maligned and lambasted. In my view Alan Sugar was one of the best things that ever happened to them and they should rue the day that he left. I was there with him that day the fans turned against him, I felt so sorry for him.

Have you ever been approached by any of the popular business shows like The Apprentice or Dragon’s Den?
I was asked to do Dragon’s Den but I was just too busy at the time. I regret it because even though I would have made the worst dragon in history - I would have been a complete failure because it’s not my style to beat people up, my style is to encourage. My friend Theo Paphitis - he actually sold his business, and I would not be at all surprised if he was not infl uenced to sell so he could actually concentrate more on the programme. Then I had 12 businesses and half of them have now been sold so if I was offered something like that today I would probably have more time to do it. There’s a couple I’ve been approached on so there’s every possibility I’ll pop up somewhere.

Have you ever been approached to launch Ann Summers in Israel?
We’ve had a number of franchise enquires from Israel - we’d had some bad experiences and we realised you can’t go with a one man band franchise, you have to go with a company which has several. We wanted to consolidate our position and make sure we were completely dominant in the United Kingdom, and we are now actively seeking a joint venture. And we believe Israel would be perfect.