If any woman on the planet looks like they have it all, it’s Deborah Meaden, but she doesn’t – of that she is emphatic. What she does have is a brilliant business mind, a happy home, a wicked sense of humour, a cat, two dogs, five horses, eleven chickens and four ducks.
Here, she talks exclusively to Claire Bates about why parents can make great entrepreneurs, why she loves business so much and why she has no regrets.
The second our interview begins, Deborah Meaden’s computer pings.
“Interview with Claire Bates” she laughs.
And I smile.
Even though I’ve never before met her, there’s something reassuringly Deborah Meaden about the scene.
If there was a stereotypical Meaden in my mind, it would be a woman whose life was punctuated by a series of computer pings.
But then the Deborah Meaden I spend the next hour talking to was very much more than that.
It’s very easy for journalists to label her the “Dragon from the Den,” a lazy, short-hand, mother-in-law-joke type way of pigeon-holing the woman in the pack as a steely, hard nosed businesswoman.
And given that there are clearly many deeper facets to her personality – not least that being a woman is not remotely important to her in terms of business – I wonder if this irritates her.
She sighs slightly.
“I am tough, I’ll give you that, but the real me is very different to the Dragon’s Den me,” she says.
“Look, it’s my money that I’m investing in these people and these products, and it’s my business at stake, so of course I wouldn’t be laughing and joking in the Den.
I guess the ‘Dragon’ is an easy thing to label me with, but take me out of the Den and I think I’m pretty likeable.
I hope I’d like me if I met me. Meet me in real life or on say, a chat show, and I would be a completely different person.
She’s right. I like her. I feel like we could have a real good natter over a glass of decent wine and at points, she laughs very hard, almost naughtily, over things she says.
Of the few previous interviews I’ve read with Deborah, almost all of the journalists like her – but are also surprised by that!
“You don’t have to guess with me,” she explains, “I am very clear – you know where you are with me, and I guess in the Den, that comes across as ‘tough’ so people always seem to be a bit surprised by the real me.”
Deborah, now 50, left school at 16 with O’levels and a definite desire to go into business.
She attended business school and at 19, with very little capital, she set up her own ceramics import company, supplying upmarket stores like Harvey Nichols.
There then followed a foray into fashion with a friend, when the pair bought one of the first Stefanel franchises, which flourished.
But it wasn’t enough for a Deborah who was already showing the entrepreneurial drive for which she is famous for today.
She sold her share in it to her friend and joined the company her mother Sonia had originally started – characteristically it seems for the family – with very little.
Interestingly, given that Deborah now appears in the Dragon’s Den opening credits nimbly leaping from her helicopter, she still maintains it was those humble days running the rifle range at her parents’ holiday park during which she learnt the most valuable business lessons.
She liked the rifle range so much, she bought the company. Kinda.
She actually bought holiday park business Weststar, along with her stepfather Brian and later sold the company in a deal worth £33 million – while retaining a 23 per cent stake. In August 2007, she sold her remaining stake for £19 million when Weststar was sold on again for £83 million.
In recent times, avid Den viewers have seen Deborah invest in a number of parent/child products and she tells me that her holiday park days had much to do with those decisions.
Her newest ‘babies’ are the BuggyBoot – a bag that attaches to the back of a pushchair for extra storage and to reduce tipping accidents – and the Buggyboot Plus – which provides an added board for a sibling to ride on.
“For years I watched families struggling to the beach with buckets, spades, picnics, cool bags, towels and small children. I knew from all my experience working with families that this would be a brilliant product.”
And so far so good. Mothercare has snapped it up. She is brimming with confidence for the product and “so pleased” for its inventors mothers Charlotte Evans and Carolyn Jarvis.
“They are fantastic,” she enthuses. “They are the type of people who came up with a problem and set about fixing it. And they didn’t just blunder on ahead – they did market research, thought it through and came up with a proper business plan.
“As mothers, they saw there was this issue with shopping with small children and they solved it. It’s great and they were impressive.
“You can have the best product in the world but it needs to be priced right and behind it needs to be people with the right drive.”
I ask her if parents are just those kinds of people.
“Entrepreneurs can be men, women, have children, have no children, but I do think that there are certain characteristics present in all the entrepreneurs I know and those characteristics seem to be present in parents too – of being able to face issues practically, deal with them and just to get stuff done!”
Another of Deborah’s favourite investments is Magic Blackout. Again, it was parents Neil and Laura Westwood who came up with the idea.
They were fed up with taking their newborn to other people’s houses to stay where there were none of the blackout blinds that most parents swear by to ensure their baby sleep. So they adapted a product they had already invented, to come up with a cheap, but incredibly effective in-the-pocket blackout.
“Neil and Laura were the perfect example of people fixing a problem at a price the customer was prepared to pay.”
Another duo making it big in the world of parenting products are long-time friends, and working mothers, Polly Marsh and Helen Wooldridge. Their product Cuddledry – an innovative babytowel/apron – has expanded rapidly but with one difference – without Deborah’s backing.
The mumpreneurs turned down hers and James Caan’s offers of 45% and 40% respectively for their entire requested £100,000 investment.
They didn’t want to give up such a sizeable chunk of their business which is going from strength to strength.
I mention Cuddledry and Deborah laughs a little ruefully – not regretfully, you understand, but ruefully.
“I never say I have regrets, I’m not really a regret-type person” she says, “but I would have liked to have worked with Polly and Helen, because I liked them and they had a good product.
“They are great and doing very well. I think they agree that things might’ve taken off more quickly if they had a Dragon on board but they will get to where they are going without me.
“I’d even go as far as to say they made the right decision – see, not a Dragon!”
Deborah and her husband Paul (who caught her eye when he worked at Weststar in the eighties, during a break from university) live in a “project” in Somerset. It’s a beautiful house once owned by William Pitt The Elder.
It’s Deborah’s passion away from business, though she readily admits it’s probably not her most profitable investment.
She’s lovingly renovating it and “piling probably too much” into it, an admission that makes me warm to her more.
They don’t have children, though she has said in the past she would’ve liked to have them but that “it just didn’t happen”.
But it hasn’t affected her eye for brilliant parenting products in the least.
She says discovering something special is like “all the switches turning on in a row in my mind” and that happened for both the Buggyboot and the Magic Blackout.
So, I end with the question that all mothers itch to know the answer to. Can women have it all?
Surely this multi-millionairess TV celeb with more successful businesses than animals on her Good Life-esque smallholding, in the grounds of her idyllic West Country home, watched over by a loyal husband, has it all?
“Nobody has it all! I think that’s crass and that’s not a female thing or a male thing – no-one can have it all.
“We all know people who seemingly have fantastic lives but are unhappy in some part of it.
“I’m extremely lucky and very happy on the whole but life is about balance, not about having it all.”
She really doesn’t see herself as remarkable in any way and that’s why Deborah Meaden is so liked by those who interview her, but more importantly by those who work with her.
And with that, my computer pings.
“Interview Deborah Meaden” it says. An hour late.
I guess that’s why I’m about to get in a cab, not a helicopter.