Published in The Financial Times, 1999
A big ego loaded with cash, ketchup.
Reuben Singh, the UK’s youngest self-made millionaire, is ignoring me. Arriving late for our meeting at the Reform restaurant in Manchester, the charismatic entrepreneur is moreinterested in the in-house blonde seater than in my introductions.
Minutes later, with the all-hugging and kissing woman extricated, Singh’s mind has turned to more important issues. “Could you stick a pound in the meter after an hour?” he asks a young receptionist, handing over a set of car keys. “It’s the black Bentley. You can’t miss it.”
Singh and I are the same age (22), the same religion (Sikh) and we are both British Asians – but, so far, the conversation is as smooth as a growth of weekend stubble. My outstretched hand goes unshaken, my greetings unregistered and my initial questions unanswered until we have shifted from the bar to the plush club room.
It is only after a phalanx of restaurant staff have catered for his every need (“Is the lighting OK, Mr Singh?” “Can we get you a drink, Mr Singh?”) that the man sitting opposite – who became a household name after setting up the Miss Attitude fashion retail chain at the age of 17 – finally acknowledges me. Slowly slipping out of his state of self-absorption, he hands over some press cuttings and begins complaining how hard it is to keep up with all this press attention.
Just the other day he was featured in a national newspaper after a meeting with Tony Blair and he still hasn’t had a chance to look at the piece. “There have been over 6,000 mentions of me in the newspapers – I don’t read much of it,” he claims, before asking me how big this particular feature will be. “One page? Half a page? I don’t give long interviews normally. It’s usually just a quick chat over the phone, but I want to give you the exclusive on my two new ventures.”
Saying we should order some food before beginning, Singh efficiently opts for the pesto tagliatelle as a starter. In an odd display of childishness, he asks the waiter for tomato ketchup as an accompaniment to both the starter and the main course of vegetable risotto.
I order the soup of the day and the lemon sole meunie`re and think how strange it is for a self-proclaimed, clean-living man, who wears a practising Sikh’s full beard and turban, to choose to have lunch in a restaurant decorated with candlesticks fashioned from brass busts of naked women. A good Sikh mother would certainly not approve.
But Singh has never followed the rules. While his schoolfriends were still flicking ink at each other behind the teacher’s back, he was working 20 hours a day in his home city of Manchester, juggling A-level studies and entrepreneurial activities to set up the Miss Attitude chain, selling fashion jewellery under his logo 4U2NV (say it out loud). The business was sold to a venture fund investor in February this year, after expanding into a chain with 40 outlets.
A serial entrepreneur, Singh is now working on a new rash of business ideas. “One of the things, within the next three months, will be an internet venture,” he announces proudly, playing with the strap of his diamond-studded Rolex. “It’s one hell of a concept. It will be an e-commerce internet site called 24hourbabyshop.com and will sell baby products online. I’m so excited about it. We are going to launch it big.”
Before I get a chance to ask him to elaborate, he is enthusing wildly about his second venture, “a new nightclub-based entertainment chain” aimed at young people. “It will get them away from bars and alcohol and give them somewhere else to go,” he says, refusing wine in favour of a bottle of mineral water.
Singh seems to have inherited his precocious entrepreneurial streak from his parents, who came to England in the 1970s and ran a Manchester-based company called Sabco, importing and distributing fashion accessories. At the age of 13 he was going on buying trips with his mother to east Asia. By 16, his father was paying him a salary to run the sales department.
It was from this salary that Singh paid for his first shop in
Manchester’s sprawling Arndale Shopping Centre. And although he has sold his launch company, he still runs a host of others. “Being an entrepreneur is a drug, making money is a drug and spending it is an even bigger one,” he says, clearly practised in churning out perfect sound bites.
Although his paunch betrays that he is an old hand at business lunches, the entrepreneur – who looks closer to 42 than 22 – turns out to be a surprisingly awkward lunch companion. Only half-answering most questions, he becomes obsessed with the fact that the tomato ketchup has not arrived with the starter and barks at the waiter.
His mood isn’t improved when I ask him how much he got for Miss Attitude. Press coverage at the time put a #22m price tag on the sale of the business to Klesch Capital Partners, but observers have since suggested that Klesch actually paid as little as #500,000 for the chain.
“I would love to publish the amount I sold it for and end these rumours, but because of a confidentiality agreement I can’t disclose the figure to you,” he says defensively. “These stories are just rumours based on jealousy and are a total misrepresentation. One day I will be able to reveal the figures and we’ll see who is right.”
Nevertheless, the speculation has been strong enough to remove Singh – previously said to be worth about #45m – from a high position on The Sunday Times Rich List. The complex structure of his businesses makes it impossible to verify his actual worth, and the hype surrounding him has faded somewhat in the subsequent debate.
To counter the negative tack of our conversation, Singh tries hard to portray himself in a good light. Regularly referring to himself in the third person, he drops frequent references to his supposed vast wealth (“It’s a well-known fact that I could completely give up working today and live on the earnings I have amassed so far”), his “dozen secretaries” and his “two Rolls-Royces, Bentley, Porsche and two Mercedes”.
He also proves to be surprisingly unselfconscious about praising himself. He refers me casually to a Sunday newspaper article describing him as the “British Bill Gates”.
He is equally outspoken about the unpaid work he does for charities and government bodies.
“I spend a lot of time on pro bono work,” he declares, mentioning a couple of government initiatives on which he is involved and a charity on which he is acting as a trustee. “I don’t believe that there’s any other 22-year-old in the country doing this.”
Singh’s favourite subject, however, is the work he has done recently to campaign for young entrepreneurs, trying to get politicians and businesses to recognise the talents they offer.
“I have instant access to most ministers, most politicians and most pioneers of industry,” he says, with characteristic immodesty. “I have met Tony Blair many, many, many times and I think he is listening and acting. I’ve also had some very successful meetings with [William] Hague.”
As an eager tip-seeking waiter clears away the table after the main course, Singh possibly senses he has been too quick to sing his own praises and launches a defence of what he calls his “self-confidence”. “One of the main reasons behind my success when I was 17 was the fact that I had a very big ego,” he argues. “If you don’t believe in yourself, then how will anyone else believe in you? You have to love yourself.”
It is only the subject of his brother, Bobby, another successful retail entrepreneur, that suggests a more humble, sophisticated creature lurks behind the flash talk. “My younger brother is a better entrepreneur than I am,” he gushes, with feeling. “After eight months, his audio-visual retail chain is already more successful than my business was after two years.”
Excited by this thought, Singh ends our meal abruptly before the dessert has arrived and insists we look at Bobby’s store, Sound Image, based just outside Manchester city centre. We will pop there in the three-week-old Bentley, he says, while efficiently taking care of the bill. “It’s not as good as my new Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph but it’s still pretty nice.”
We walk down the red-carpeted staircase to the car on the city street. Taking the keys and settling into the ridiculously comfortable leather seats, Singh goes quiet for a second. “Apparently,” he eventually observes, “I am the youngest Rolls-Royce owner in the world. I’ll give you the number of someone you can check it out with, but I think you’ll find that it is true.”
Copyright Financial Times Limited 1999. All Rights Reserved
For an update on Reuben Singh’s recent shenanigans, log onto The Manchester Evening News for his Wikipedia Page