The Human Factor

14 April 2008

Phin Foster meets James Caan, the latest dragon in the hit BBC show Dragons' Den.

James Caan has been creating, building and selling businesses for over 20 years. In 1985, he set up the Alexander Mann Group, one of the UK’s leading HR outsourcing companies, and achieved a turnover of £130m before selling it to a private equity firm in 2002. He also co-founded executive headhunting firm Humana International.

1. Why did you agree to join Dragons’ Den?

Unlike the existing dragons, spotting talent is what I actually do for a living. My core expertise is understanding people and what drives them.

2. Have you learnt anything from the experience?

In Dragons’ Den, I was introduced to an array of different businesses that I wouldn’t have considered in a million years. Such diversity is particularly intellectually stimulating.

3. Will this affect your day-to-day business practises?

I will certainly keep a much more open mind than I’ve done in the past. Before, if somebody came up with an idea I’d never considered, I tended to shy away. Today, nothing will be dismissed out of hand.

4. Has the profile of those contacting you changed?

In the past, I was predominantly attracting people from my own area of expertise. Now I’m getting 200,000 hits on my website a month. It’s phenomenal. I’ve got to the point where I’m struggling to keep on top of it all.

5. Does the show just provide entertainment?

It’s made entrepreneurship and business ‘cool’. There’s a shift in mindset. A successful CEO can now enjoy similar status to those in the entertainment industries.

6. But does this heightened profile play a role in the diminishing shelf life of the CEO?

Perhaps. They are so much more visible now: more accountable, scrutinised and in the public eye. And the City is brutal, and you are only ever as good as your last set of results. On the other hand, those who do consistently deliver stay around for a long time.

7. With those pressures in mind, do you think it is now harder to find a healthy life-work balance?

The key is an ability to build the right team around you. When I was running my own business, I placed too much emphasis on the concept of control. The better you get at team building, the more opportunity you get to find a balance.

8. Is team building a question of leadership?

Being a CEO is not just about you. It comes down to your ability to attract a team. It is teams that build and run businesses. Without real leadership skills, these people will not come. The ability and confidence to employ people as good, if not better, than oneself is what drives success. Look at eBay. The guys that set it up hired Meg Whitman, a highly talented, credible CEO.

This was recognition that they needed a corporate CEO – frankly, someone better than themselves. I’ve seen firsthand how having the right people onboard can transform a good business into a great one.

9. Beyond leadership ability, what other fundamental characteristics underpin the people you back?

They’ve all had a tremendous passion for their product or service and total belief in what they’re doing. Knowing, believing and understanding your product or service is paramount. An idea, even a good one, will not take off by itself. Execution is critical.

10. Is the person as important as the product?

More so. Take Laban Roomes from the last series. He’d been in the gold plating business for ten years and really understood the concept. The product itself was quite mediocre, but I saw a guy willing to back it 100%. I’m not coming in to run the business. My job is merely to provide the capital. If I’m not passionate and neither is he, the chances of success are extremely limited.

11. Where does that 100% commitment come from?

The whole world wants to be successful. What I try to do is separate ‘want’ from ‘need’. Need is hunger, drive, determination and tenacity. People who merely want don’t have that. Laban comes from a broken family and was out working from the age of 11. There was need there. He had nothing to fall back on.

12. Have you had a mentor to fall back on during your career?

My father was somebody I admired enormously growing up. Seeing how he had built up his textiles business and the disciplines and work ethic he demonstrated was a lesson that has stayed with me throughout my journey.

13. Was he surprised you did not enter the family business?

In Asian culture it is a given, and for me not to follow him was a devastating decision for my parents. On the one hand, I had a guaranteed future and salary, and on the other, I had nothing. My need was to prove to my father that I could make it on my own.

14. At what point were you able to demonstrate that?

When the business hit its first million pound profit, it demonstrated that this was a real company and that I was pretty good at running it. I remember delivering the results to my father over dinner. I could see he knew it was an achievement. The next big thing was launching Humana International with 100 offices around the world. That made him immensely proud.

15. How influential has he been in business terms?

One of the key messages that I learnt from my father was to adopt a win-win formula. He always preached the importance of not seeing business as a question of winning – that only means somebody has to lose. When you’re making decisions, it’s just as important to look at the other party’s position. Seeing things exclusively from one’s own perspective leads to short-term decisions. There needs to be a longer-term relationship.

16. This accounts for your emphasis on corporate responsibility, but is this being taken on by business?

There has been a real shift. What’s particularly fascinating is that people are taking the issues on board with ownership. I don’t just write cheques to charities. I want physical projects and the responsibility for their delivery. When you take something on yourself – building a school, perhaps – the sense of satisfaction is far higher. Bill Gates is managing large-scale projects as a business. There are very clear strategies, deliverables, and he’s looking for a clear return. Giving is better than receiving, and returns don’t have to be financial.

17. Is this a part of what keeps you going?

The concept of success is quite addictive, and I’m hooked on it. Take it away and I have nothing to look forward to. The golf course doesn’t appeal. The businesses I’m involved with still drive me.

18. So loss of motivation is never a danger?

Whenever you hit a summit, there is always another mountain to climb. I’ve never run out of challenges. But you do hit a stage where you get to your level of skill or ability.

19. Can this not be seen as a sign of weakness?

The person who starts a business is not necessarily best suited to taking it forward. We all have limits, and the sign of a great leader or CEO is knowing when that stage has arrived. It’s not failure. It’s an inherent understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses.

20. You have been deeply involved in investing in entrepreneurial talent in Pakistan. What are you attempting to achieve?

A dictatorship quashes the opportunity for new talent to come through. But economic strength and power is everything. In my own small way, if I can provide people with the opportunity to be in business for themselves and help promote economic freedom, then confidence and, in turn, leaders should emerge. We need that more than ever following the death of Benazir Bhutto. No contender for power is untarnished by past events.