2 years ago if you’d asked the man in the street who James Caan was the likely answer was the star of blockbusters such as The Godfather, Rollerball and Misery. What a difference those years have made. Now the James Caan most people have in mind is the serial South Asian investor and new star of BBC’s The Dragons’ Den who has taken to his TV role with all the panache of the Hollywood veteran.

James Caan has burst into British consciousness like a super nova. And his electric personality has breathed new life into a format that was, let’s face it, beginning to become something of a turn off. Dragons’ Den was in danger of becoming a parody of itself as the ‘dragons’ reckoned a pithy put down of a budding entrepreneur somehow made for better television – no doubt confusing their audience with that of Big Brother.

Since Caan’s arrival in the red brick warehouse that passes for a torture chamber, the programme has perceptibly changed for the better. A lot of that has to do with the fundamental humanity that lies behind Caan’s impressively smooth exterior. He instinctively understands what the candidates are going through because in many ways he has been there himself.

“As a boy, I learnt two very important lessons while watching my late father work long hours, seven days a week to make a success of his textile business.” he tells Asian Entrepreneur.

“Firstly, nothing is achieved without dedication and effort. Secondly, there is little point in hard work if you can’t take time to enjoy the rewards and, if you are lucky enough to be able to, give something back.” He admits he is also driven by ambition.

“My passion is building businesses – but I back people rather than just their ideas,”
he explains. “I relish seeing them grow and achieve their ambitions. It’s a huge buzz to join them on their journey to success and see them fulfil their potential. I love my work, but not at the expense of spending time with my wife and daughters. To me, there has to be life outside of business. I travel regularly to the south of France where I have a home. I enjoy skiing, tennis and snooker and vintage cars are another of my loves. I gave myself a year off when I turned forty and learnt to fly air planes and helicopters. I also took up sailing in between my studies at Harvard Business School”

Like many who have enjoyed hugely successful business careers, Caan now dedicates much of his time and energy to charitable works. “I’m not a fan of chequebook philanthropy,” he says.

“I believe in getting out of my comfort zone and going to see what needs to be done, I think this kind of work makes the greatest difference all round. I bought a plot of land in my native Lahore, in southern Pakistan, and built a school there. I was thrilled to be able to invite the local children who could not afford education to attend for free. The adrenaline I get from doing this is greater than any deal and it is something I plan to devote much more time to in the future. In 2000 I visited Kosovo with Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) and was appalled by the suffering I saw there. I chose to adopt a village where 600 children lived and gave the families a monthly allowance which helped them rebuild their lives. After Kashmir’s devastating earthquake of 2005 I helped provide relief by building houses.”

“Closer to home, I am delighted to fund raise for Great Ormond Street Hospital and the NSPCC Full Stop campaign. I’ve been very fortunate in my own life and I feel privileged to be able to help those who have been less fortunate”

James Caan is the CEO of private equity firm Hamilton Bradshaw and has been building and selling businesses since 1985. He founded the Alexander Mann Group in 1985 – first operating in a boxroom in an office off London’s Pall Mall – as an executive head hunting firm. It developed into a company with a turnover of £300m and operations in 50 countries, which he finally sold in 2002.

Then he also co-founded executive headhunting firm Humana International with partner Doug Bugie and grew the business to over 147 offices across 30 countries.

“In 2001 I was thrilled to be awarded the BT Enterprise of the Year award for outstanding success in business,” he says.
“I was also named PricewaterhouseCoopers Entrepreneur of the Year 2003, having initially been a finalist in 2000. That same year, I graduated from the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School and won the Entrepreneur category in the Asian Jewel Awards.”

“I set up London-based Hamilton Bradshaw in 2004.” The firm specialises in buyouts, venture capital, turnarounds and real estate investments and development opportunities in both the UK and Europe, by investing up to £10 million in each individual transaction. Two months ago Caan joined the panel in the fifth series of BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den, alongside Duncan Bannatyne, Peter Jones, Deborah Meaden, and Theo Paphitis.

“I’m with a very good bunch of people who are, without doubt, extremely successful in their own right so it’s a really excellent panel to be part of. When you walk into a situation where everybody knows each other, that can actually be quite hard for the new person, but they’ve been really friendly and gone out of their way to help me feel comfortable. A lot of people said to me, Are you scared that you are going to put all this money in and it won’t work? Funnily enough, that was the least of my concerns because investing money and taking risks is part of my character, it’s what I do for a living.”

Translating his everyday job of picking investment winners into the studio did, however, create special problems for James Caan. “The Den posed its own unique set of challenges to contend with. Apart from adjusting to the cameras, the accelerated process of doing deals came as something of a shock as I’m used to conducting transactions over the space of days – weeks, sometimes – rather than an hour. “That was when reality set in – I’m sitting in the Den and I’m thinking, I’ve got five minutes to work the person out, I’ve got ten minutes to work the product out, I’ve got three minutes to work out the financials and I’ve got two minutes to do the deal. At the same time I’m competing with four other people who’ve been doing this longer than me.”

“Occasionally, the other dragons’ experience can also count to their advantage because the entrepreneurs are more familiar with them and their specific areas of expertise. I think as a new dragon you actually have to work quite hard to convince the individual that you can add as much value as everybody else. If it’s a good deal then we all want it and sometimes the person is more interested in going with somebody he or she has seen on TV or read about. I quite understand that, but we’ve all got something different to offer a business and I think that people can get a sense of who’s right for them – it’s not just about the money.”

As Caan sums up his attitude to the programme, he reveals the ‘tough but fair’ attitude that has won him admirers both in the world of business and now among the millions of viewers that enjoy the programme.

“What I’m looking for in the Den is as much about the person as their idea. Through mentoring and development, I am confident I can turn anyone who demonstrates real potential into a success. That said, I’m no pushover and can quickly tell when somebody is completely out of their depth. Viewers constantly see people walking into the Den with delusions of grandeur. Reality is different. When these people make mistakes it isn’t theoretical money they’re wasting – we’re dealing with real money. So, though I make decisions quickly, I never make them lightly. Dragons’ Den is a lot of fun, but investment is a serious business.”