An Exclusive interview with entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den star Duncan Bannatyne

Duncan Bannatyne, OBE is the no-nonsense entrepreneur who we’ve all come to know and love after his 10-year stint on Dragon’s Den and last year’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! Simon Grant donned his bets suit to pitch his idea for an Exclusive interview and, happily for us, Duncan said: ‘I’m in!’

He’s been such a mainstay of British television over the last decade that Duncan Bannatyne is one of those charismatic TV personalities that everyone feels they know. However, as you’ll come to learn, there is much about the straight-talking Health Club magnate, that might surprise you. Not least that the 67-year-old Scotsman is a passionate charitable campaigner, a doting family man, and was once-upon-a-time given a dishonourable discharge from the Royal Navy!

Hi Duncan, thanks for speaking to Exclusive Magazine. Firstly, out of everything you’ve achieved in life, what is your proudest accomplishment?

That’s a very easy question. My children and grandchildren are undoubtedly my greatest achievement. We are all very close and they are happy and well-adjusted. Family time is the most precious time of all.

You support many good causes and were recognised for your charitable contributions with an OBE. Why is it important for you to give back so generously?

I wasn’t raised with a silver spoon in my mouth and I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am today. I’m privileged to be able to help charities and organisations that make a real difference to people’s lives, not just with money but with my time. For example, I’ve travelled to Mexico and Vietnam with Operation Smile teams to see the amazing work the surgeons do for children with cleft palates – it’s life changing.     

It was in 1999 when I really began to understand how it was possible to make a difference to people’s lives, when I saw for myself the abject poverty of the street children in Romania. My own children were still quite young and the thought of them spurred me on to support UNICEF and Scottish International Relief (now known as Mary’s Meals). All the charities I support help people who are in a very vulnerable position and can’t help themselves.

You famously began your entrepreneurial career with the purchase of a £450 ice cream van and never looked back. What prompted you to go in that direction?

After leaving the Navy with a dishonourable discharge, which has been well-documented, I was looking for an opportunity to make some money. I was working in a bakery when I saw an old ice cream van for sale. Something clicked in my mind and I bought the van. It was a relatively easy business to run and I expanded, bought more vans and eventually sold the business for £28,000. Right place, right time and an eye for the main chance!

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You’ve had a very varied career since, from nursing homes, to nursery chains and latterly health clubs and hotels. What does it take to make you say ‘yes’ to a business idea – do you follow your head, heart or both?

You can’t go into a business expecting to succeed without knowledge, so in that respect: head. But I also see in my heart that I can do things better. The care homes are a good example. Most of the homes I visited when I was researching were awful places. I knew I could do it better and still make money.   

The move into health clubs came when I broke my leg in a skiing accident and couldn’t find any decent fitness facilities locally to help my recovery. Of course, sometimes you have to go with your gut. You should always trust your instincts.

What have been the highlights of your 10 years on Dragon’s Den? What’s it like behind the scenes, particularly your relationship with the other dragons?

I had 10 very exciting years on the Den and made some great friends, such as Peter Jones, Theo Paphitis, Deborah Meaden and Kelly Hoppen. It’s no secret that I had more time for some Dragons that others. I did enjoy my time on the show though. It was full-on and the filming schedule was very demanding. All the Dragons are very successful in their own field, so of course they’re going to be competitive and sometimes this spilled off screen. However, behind the scenes we’re all very normal.

Are there any business propositions, either on Dragon’s Den or otherwise, that you wish you hadn’t turned down?

The only one that I would say got away is Tangle Teezer (the detangling hairbrush). It was a great product, backed by a very nice guy. However, that said, I never look back and never regret anything. I’ve done all right with the opportunities that I’ve taken.

Where does your business acumen originate? Did your upbringing in Clydebank play a part in that?

I suspect that my determination to succeed was driven by wanting to improve on my start in life. I had an incredibly poor childhood, as the second eldest of seven children. I was told by my mother that she couldn’t afford to buy me a bicycle, so I asked the local newsagents if I could start a paper round. Told I would need a list of 100 potential customers, I painstakingly knocked on many doors and eventually drew up a list of 100 names and addresses. I got the job, bought a bike and never looked back.

Who is your biggest inspiration, business or otherwise, and why?IMG_9155

Magnus McFarlane-Barrow (founder and CEO of global hunger charity, Mary’s Meals) is my inspiration in life, apart from my family. I have known Magnus for the best part of 20 years and have seen him start his charity with nothing and grow it to feeding over one million children every day. Only amazing, dedicated people can do that.

Magnus and I started off in 1999, opening our first orphanage to house children with HIV and Aids in Romania. Magnus grew Mary’s Meals to what it is today. A great read is Magnus’ book “A shed that fed a million people.” if you only read one book this year, then make sure it’s this book. It has been, and still is, a great pleasure to consider Magnus a true friend. I can honestly say he changed my life.

For those who haven’t read your biography, you volunteered and served in the Royal Navy. What was that experience like and how did it shape you as a person?

I volunteered for 12 years with the Royal Navy as a junior second class engineering mechanic stoker at RNTE Shotley, near Ipswich. I served in the Navy for several years before receiving a dishonourable discharge for threatening to throw an officer off a boat landing jetty in Scotland.

This was in part a reaction to this officer’s abuse of his authority, in part a dare by my shipmates and in part a way of getting out of the Navy, with which I had become disillusioned. Afterwards, I had to serve nine months in the tough Colchester military detention centre before being discharged aged 20. I’m not sure that it had that much influence on the way my life shaped up to be honest.

You have several health clubs and spas in the Manchester area – do you venture to the North West much and, if so, where do you like to visit and why?

I do visit all my clubs, including those in the North West. I particularly love to visit Manchester and often, because I think Manchester is a great city with great entertainment. The health clubs and spas there are always really busy with fantastic people.

What was it really like in the jungle on I’m a Celebrity? What was the best and worst thing about it?

There were times when it was very hard in the Jungle. The boredom was very difficult to deal with; I’m used to being busy. And the negativity of certain people certainly made it a less than pleasant experience at the time. Although, I did meet some great people, forged friendships, had a lot of fun and challenged myself completely out of my comfort zone. I’m not in the first flush of youth anymore, so I’m pretty proud of how I dealt with the physical challenges – even if I did come away with a black eye!

We know you as the busy, non-stop entrepreneur. But what do you like to do to unwind?

Spend time with my family and girlfriend. I have a lovely home in Portugal where I can completely relax and chill. I keep myself fit and am at a stage where I can enjoy myself without worrying.   

Find out more about Duncan Bannatyne and all his business and charitable interests at www.bannatyne.co.uk.