He's one of the richest men in the country and almost certainly Britain’s highest income tax payer. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell, 61, has a net worth estimated at £1.5 billion and he has a passion. “I just love old buildings,” he says.
You might think the mobile phones magnate would love stainless steel and sheet glass, not stone carvings and mullioned windows. “But I love magnificent architecture,” he explains. “In general I hate modern architecture, especially the stuff put up in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. With just a bit more skill and effort from the architects, and without that much extra build cost, you can end up with something so much more beautiful.”
Caudwell, 61, hit the headlines last month when it was claimed he plans to tunnel between his two homes in Mayfair — one formerly owned by Prince Jefri, the playboy brother of the Sultan of Brunei — to create a “mega-mansion” with a potential value of £250 million. It would feature an enormous games room, sauna, pool, media room, car park and plant room. The two-storey basement would be 14,000sq ft, and the lower-ground floor would have bedrooms, staff quarters, security rooms, two suites and a laundry room.
It was a great story. Here was yet another greedy fat cat planning an underground “iceberg” extension. Columnists queued up to speculate that the property would have a floorspace of up to 50,000sq ft, making it only slightly smaller than Westminster Cathedral.
In fact the story wasn’t accurate. The two houses are already linked at basement level. By developing and restoring the property Caudwell hopes to increase its value so that when he dies, it will benefit his charity.
He wants to make lots of money on the luxury development — but only to give it away. When he sold Phones 4u back in 2006 for £1.5 billion, he pledged to give at least half of his wealth to good causes in his lifetime.
Some people might call it a midlife crisis, he jokes, but “it was much more like a midlife illumination”.
When Caudwell sold the mobile phone company, he began to focus on London. His current interest is “grand Mayfair architecture”.
Caudwell bought two homes in Mayfair that are linked at basement level
“I looked at all the normal places — Knightsbridge, Belgravia and Mayfair. And what I saw within Mayfair was a phenomenal potential. What I call Mayfair village has these nice quiet backroads and lovely cobbled streets, beautiful architecture and it’s a fantastically convenient place to live. Harrods is a 10-minute walk away, Hyde Park, three minutes.”
He is increasingly attracted by London property and is now working on plans to transform what he calls “an unbelievably ugly Sixties eyesore” — Mayfair Audley Square multistorey car park —which he bought for £155 million in 2012. He plans to turn it into super-prime residential apartments and townhouses. “We’ll have this beautiful building, feature-rich, clad in Portland stone. It’s just so exciting from an aesthetic point of view to be in that privileged position to be able to change a part of Mayfair that has become ugly and run-down.”
But Caudwell is a mass of contradictions, as he cheerfully admits. An “out-and-out capitalist”, he believes that corporates should pay their fair share of tax; he has personally contributed more than £200 million to the Treasury in income tax over the past five years.
A self-confessed adrenaline freak whose hobbies include motorcycles, helicopters and planes, he is also passionate about philanthropy. “I have this very strong view that society has become far too polarised between rich and poor. You’ve got to encourage people to create wealth, and in creating wealth they create jobs and often get wage escalation for people down the chain, and it’s all a big success story. But where I struggle is, ultimately, certain people can become so wealthy that it’s inequitable in a society where people in Britain are suffering, whether through illness or low wages.” The answer, he claims, is to lead by example and make it almost socially unacceptable not to give away large tranches of your wealth. After he made his declaration, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett followed suit and set up The Giving Pledge.
Rags to huge riches
Self-educated after leaving school at 15, Birmingham-born Caudwell is clever and highly likeable. Yet he remains a cartoon figure for some of the press. Perhaps because of the snobbery surrounding his origins — he was a second-hand car dealer before forming Phones4u.
We meet at the infamous “mega-mansion”, which still doesn’t have heating. Caudwell bought the two properties for £81 million last year, planning to restore their original period grandeur. He and his partner, Claire Johnson, and their young son have a top-floor apartment in the larger of the two, a Grade II-listed, 22,000sq ft mansion, built in 1877. Most of the time they live in his family home in Staffordshire, a lovingly restored, 50-bedroom Jacobean manor house with crafted timbers. “I’ve managed to keep it absolutely in synch with the period, both inside and outside.”
The London house, which features marble floors and a ballroom, and is thought to be the largest of its type outside the Crown Estate, is actually a showcase for his charity fundraising events. Prince Jefri may have spent millions decorating it with ornate gilt and lacquering, but it’s not to Caudwell’s taste.
“When I first came to look at it, I felt a combination of awe and horror. I didn’t know whether to love it or hate it. And those instincts were absolutely right. What I loved was the Beaux Arts architecture of the outside, the grandeur of the scale of the rooms inside. The ballroom I absolutely adore, and I run a lot of charity events from there. We have big dinner parties for 80 people, it’s great for networking for charitable purposes.” He knows celebs will pay for a through-the-keyhole tour. The problem is it doesn’t work as a house, he says.
“The basement level is dreadful. It was converted into an Arabesque swimming pool. The commercial kitchen is underneath the mews house, if you can call it a mews house,” he jokes. “And the dining room is right at the front door, so the food has to come all the way along the basement and up the stairs.
“At the front of the house where the swimming pool is at the moment, I’ll put the original living accommodation back in there, just as it would have been in the era of Upstairs Downstairs, plus the bow windows, which are whited out at a basement level — madness. So I’m redesigning things to be traditional and more functional. Yes, it will involve digging out more basement, but most of it is already there.”
It would be a pity if Caudwell were simply dismissed as “the man with the Mayfair man cave”. He is bullish to raise funds. In 2001 he founded Caudwell Children, which provides treatment and equipment for sick, autistic and disabled youngsters. It has already raised more than £10 million. Last year Sir Elton John was guest of honour at their annual fundraiser. With Hollywood actress Eva Longoria, Caudwell co-hosted a gala at the ME Hotel in the West End last week for the Global Gift Foundation, dedicated to philanthropic events worldwide.
Broughton Hall, Staffordshire, the 50-bedroom Jacobean manor house where Caudwell, partner Clair Johnson and their son live most of the time
For a very rich man, he has known hardship. His father suffered a stroke when Caudwell was 14 and died four years later. His mother went out to work at 7am each day. “The trauma that lack of money held made me realise that financial security was very important, but, equally, so was good health.”
He left school before A-levels and did a variety of menial jobs before gaining an HNC in mechanical engineering at Michelin Tyres. He ran a corner shop and mail-order business selling motorcycle clothing.
In 1987 — while living in a caravan — he bought 26 mobile phones. It took a year to sell them on, but he had found his niche, and his firm, Phones 4U, grew rapidly. For his head office in Stoke-on-Trent he rescued a derelict Victorian tile factory.
“It had no roof, no windows, the walls were blown out. I refurbed all the pitch-pine beam, had thousands of bricks specially made, and created an incredibly beautiful building.”
An early marriage to Kate produced three children. Rebekah, 34, is an interior designer, Libby, 25, is a journalist, and Jakob is 18. Caudwell also has a daughter, Scarlett, 11, from a relationship with Jane Burgess, and son, Jacobi, nine, from his current relationship with Claire.
Today he owns Bentleys, a racing car and helicopters, but nothing beats cycling through London, he says. “Many a time I’ll wander off the beaten track and discover a little gem, like a Victorian garden square with big, red-brick houses.”
There are foreign holidays to private islands, but travelling to cities such as Ghent and Bruges are a pleasure: “I’ve always sought out the medieval town centres for the cosiness, the intimacy. I love the Shambles in York. I get an energy out of these places. There’s nothing more boring and soulless than the big, modern high streets with wall-to-wall shop windows.”
Ironic, perhaps, when along with Carphone Warehouse chairman Charles Dunstone, Caudwell helped to build the high street in the Nineties.
His least favourite London buildings include the old American Embassy — “I’ve always thought the fascia was an atrocious, ugly monstrosity” — and the Shard at London Bridge. “I think it’s spectacular and it’s good for that area of London, but I’m not sure what part it plays in the long-term future. How do you preserve these big glass structures and make them look right in 100 years’ time? I suspect you don’t.
“People make their money out of them for the next 20, 30 years, there’s a rise in value as the area becomes esteemed because of the Shard, and then what happens is the building starts getting jaded. The properties around it come up in value, as it diminishes,” he warns. “Then, at some point in the next 100 years, somebody says: ‘So long as we can get the right planning permission, this is a knockdown and build again’.”
His own children are expected to earn a living — Rebekah is carving out a successful career in the States. “I want them all to understand the importance of family, friends and doing what’s right for society.” Though he openly admits philanthropy has made him a shrewder property developer.
“When I look at my car park development, I see that ironically it will be sold to the richest people in the world to support the poorest people in the world. And not only that, it will be transforming part of Mayfair. I’ll be leaving behind a legacy that I absolutely believe will be standing there in 500 years’ time.”