John Caudwell is one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs and a passionate philanthropist. He has offered BB an exclusive interview.
BB How and why did you start CAUDWELL CHILDREN?
JC I started it 11 years ago. All I had done up to then was build my business and like most people, I didn’t exactly have this yearning ambition to do something charitable.
The NSPCC had asked me to help with an event for sexually abused children. I had a meeting with Lord Stafford who was involved with the event and was invited to look at some videos of abused children at one of the NSPCC centers, and the whole thing really got to my heart. I actually ended up taking over the whole event. But then, I realised that it is not just about sexually abused children – that there are lots of children in society that are born into a terribly bad situation – it is purely the luck of birth. There is nothing they can do to change their life. They are just saddled with whatever they are born with. I started thinking, it is really so devastatingly unfair that they are brought into a life of misery.At least rich families have the means to be able to do what they need to help their children. It then became so apparent and appalling to me that some children are born with such terrible challenges in life, yet their parents have got no money whatsoever to provide for the most fundamental basic needs of their child. This is not a world that is acceptable. You have to do something about it. And that motivated me to set up my own charity, Caudwell Children. I’ve still carried on supporting other charities, but Caudwell Children became very close to my heart.
We just went out to try and help every child that we could find. In some cases we’d cure the problem, but in most cases, we’d just make the life of a child a lot better – a lot more sustainable and enjoyable. We have provided a huge amount of help like this.
Sometimes you come across a child whose expected lifespan is perhaps only 20 years no matter what you do, but you can enhance the quality of these 20 years massively.
In one case I remember this child who had muscular atrophy (a degenerative muscle disease whose victims’ bones often struggle to realign). The child was sleeping on a mattress with wedges in it to hold the body in line while she was in bed. The cost of a special orthopedic mattress was £1000, but the parents couldn’t afford it, so the child had to have an operation every 2-3 years as a result. Her weak unsupported body deteriorated, – something that could have been reduced or avoided just by having the right equipment and that right equipment being simply a special mattress.
I am committed to paying all the administrative costs associated with the running of the Charity, so people who donate to the charity know that every pound goes directly to a child in need.
The trouble with donating to charities in general is that finding an organization that’s using the money properly and effectively is so very time-consuming.That is always the really big worry for donors. Whereas in my charity every pound donated is made to provide two pounds in value. All our people working for Caudwell Children are trained to negotiate with hotels, medics, airlines and other service providers to try and keep the costs down. This sends a very strong message across to potential donors.
BB Do wealthy people give out of sense of guilt, compelled to do so because they have such vast wealth.
JC I am sure with some people out there it would be guilt. There are all sorts of emotions. My personal emotion has nothing to do with guilt. It is just a feeling that I have to do it. It is different from guilt, although, I’d probably feel guilty if I did nothing. I feel great sadness to see people’s lives blighted by illness and I also feel that we, as a society, are required to help in a sustainable way. I can go to a charity event and get as much pleasure as I do from flying a helicopter, for example – because I am doing something meaningful. Doing something enjoyable is limited and of personal value only, whereas helping others is not only enjoyable, but has long-term, measurable results.
At a charity event, people go and have a great meal and a fabulous time. But one doesn’t get the same sense of fulfillment as with helping improve life. You see kids who are struggling yet are so grateful for so little, and you think, they should not have been born with so many traumatic challenges in life.
BB Assuming that you have a lot of different friends, do they have anything in common that you can identify?
JC I would say they are all good people. Good is such a general concept but I don’t tend to have friends who have serious moral issues.There are people who are perceived as good and great by everyone around them but if I detect a personality flaw – something that is seriously negative – I won’t bother with them. I should point out that that does not apply to somebody who has already become a good friend.
BB What do you most value in friendship?
JC Friends are people whose company you enjoy. I like people who are active and fun and share my interests, my love of cycling and skiing, for example. Friends are also people who are supportive when it matters – as I am to them.I might not do the small things for them that other people could, but for things that are seriously important, I would be there for them and expect them to be there for me too.
BB Do curiosity and zest for life abate with age?
JC I think recklessness abates with age, but I am very lucky in that my zest for life is huge and I still want to do a lot of things – many more than I have time for.
I am also adventurous and like a challenge.
I am doing the hardest stage of the Tour de France next week, which is a 110 miles ride with 14 000 feet of climb and in temperatures probably over 30 degrees. I have only just started training 4 weeks ago (most people train for months and are quite young).
The main thing that scares me is the fleet of coaches and two police officers on motorbikes who ride behind the cyclists and take out the slow ones out of the race.
I am 99% certain that I am not fast enough to stay ahead of them, but am doing it for Caudwell Children.
People think I am being modest when I say this but they don’t realise the toughness of this challenge. Last year 6000 cyclists failed to do it.
BB What do you hold sacred?
JC Truthfulness. I hate dishonesty and I can’t deal with liars.
BB Define happiness
JC For me personally, happiness would be a combination between leading an active life – the challenges that keep me alert on a day to day basis – and more importantly, being surrounded by the people who are important to me.
There are always problems in life and nothing is as easy it seems from outside. But I am happy because overall my children are well balanced and good people. When your children are decent people, the world is a better place with them in it.