When you have spent goodness knows how many tens of millions and four years renovating your £250 million mega-mansion, you can be forgiven for wanting to keep it pristine.
So when billionaire John Caudwell welcomes me into his London pad it is a shoes-off-at-the door affair, presumably to protect the newly installed marble flooring and stunning oriental-style carpet covering the six-storey staircase that sweeps majestically around a grand chandelier-strewn atrium.
Who can blame him? The ‘mobile phone king’ as he was once known — courtesy of the device that made his fortune — combines an affection for eye-popping extravagance with a laudable eye for parsimony. He doesn’t like waste or unnecessary expenditure. Yes, really.
‘I was just repairing the car as you arrived,’ he tells me. ‘It’s so much easier doing all these jobs myself than getting somebody to come in, because often I can do them more quickly and they might bodge it up anyway.’
Incidentally, that’s repairing one of the cars stored in the eight-car stacking system in this double basement house — bang in the middle of Mayfair — which also houses a private cinema, spa and nightclub.
There’s certainly the space for it: at 45,000 square feet, the house, as Caudwell cheerfully writes in his newly published autobiography, is the most expensive private home in London — and twice the size of the Royal Albert Hall.
Phone home: John Caudwell with partner Modesta and baby William at their Mayfair des-res
When you have spent goodness knows how many tens of millions and four years renovating your £250 million mega-mansion, you can be forgiven for wanting to keep it pristine. Pictured: John Caudwell’s Mayfair mansion
So when billionaire John Caudwell welcomes me into his London pad it is a shoes-off-at-the door affair, presumably to protect the newly installed marble flooring and stunning oriental-style carpet covering the six-storey staircase that sweeps majestically around a grand chandelier-strewn atrium
There’s a vast formal dining room — the largest after Buckingham Palace — and even an indoor stream, stocked with tropical fish, which snakes through his more intimate and very beautiful dining area.
While the small section of stream under the dining table is under glass, guests have to navigate little wooden stepping stones to reach the safety of the solid dining room floor. Has anyone fallen in when they’ve had a few?
‘Oh yes, that happens,’ says Caudwell. ‘It’s not deep though so no one’s injured themselves.’
All in all, not bad for a second home — his primary residence being Broughton Hall, a vast timbered Jacobean manor house in Staffordshire. Then there’s a place in Monaco and a 73-metre superyacht, Titania, currently being hired out to the makers of The Crown as a stand-in for the Jonikal, the boat owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed upon which Princess Diana spent much of her final summer.
It’s all a very long way from Caudwell’s roots in working-class Stoke, the son of an engineering products salesman and a mother who worked in a post room to make ends meet.
The journey he chronicles in his surprisingly candid rags-to-riches tale depicts not only his business struggles and failures en route to the 2006 sale of his Phones 4u firm for a staggering £1.46 billion, but also his colourful romantic life.
Given the latter features one ex-wife, one ex-partner, a former mistress and a current girlfriend 30 years his junior, there’s plenty to go on. Between them Caudwell —who has just turned a sprightly 70 — has fathered six children spanning four decades.
The eldest, Rebecca, by his childhood sweetheart and first wife Kate McFarlane, is 42, while his youngest, by his girlfriend Modesta Vzesniauskaite, a former Olympic cyclist, is 18-month-old William.
Between them are Kate’s younger two children Libby, 34, and Rufus, 27, and his 18-year-old son Jacobi by former long-term partner Claire Johnson. Then there’s 20-year-old Scarlett, the product of an affair with violinist Jane Burgess and who Caudwell did not see for the first seven years of her life, an episode about which he writes with admirable honesty.
Meanwhile, Modesta, 39, revealed earlier this week that she is now expecting a baby girl.
Who can blame him? The ‘mobile phone king’ as he was once known — courtesy of the device that made his fortune — combines an affection for eye-popping extravagance with a laudable eye for parsimony
John Caudwell’s home comes equipped with a private cinema (pictured), spa and nightclub
‘William is three months older than Moses, my 15-month-old grandson by Libby,’ he says.
‘But when Modesta gives birth next March, she’ll be 18 months younger than him. It is a bit mind-blowing.’
Not in the least, because all the players in this rather complicated scenario are firm friends.
‘They wouldn’t choose each other as best friends, but they’re all very friendly, they are all very happy to be in the same room,’ Caudwell says. ‘It’s one of the things of which I feel proudest.
‘At Christmas all of us spend time together, swapping presents, laughing and catching up. And Jane is included in major family events too, which makes me happy because it makes Scarlett happy.’
To understand this complicated dynamic, of course, you need to turn the clock right back.
Caudwell met Kate when both were teenagers in Stoke. They married when he was 21 and she just 17. Three children and all manner of good times followed, but the couple’s relationship eventually foundered against a backdrop of Caudwell’s workaholism.
They separated in 2000, although they did not divorce for some time and when they did, it was amicable — so much so that four years later Kate was asked to be godmother to Jacobi, Caudwell’s son with her successor, former model Claire.
By then another drama had unfolded: in 2001, as his new relationship with Claire was blossoming, Caudwell simultaneously started a relationship with violinist Jane, who had made front-page headlines a few years previously when she was revealed as the mistress of Tory MP Rupert Allason.
As he writes in his book, for a short time during 2001 Caudwell was ‘torn’ between the two women, but just as he decided his future was with Claire, fate played its hand. The evening before taking a maiden voyage on his then newly purchased yacht with Claire, Jane told him she was pregnant.
Blindsided and apparently feeling himself ‘deceived’ — a word he used then — by the time Scarlett was born in March 2002, Caudwell had vowed to have nothing to do with his erstwhile lover.
Only now has he revealed that it took another seven years for his feelings to thaw sufficiently for him to meet his daughter for the first time, an encounter he depicts movingly in his book as akin to finding ‘a missing piece of his heart’. The father-daughter relationship has flourished ever since, although he acknowledges today that it was not always easy getting back on equable terms with Jane.
‘We had a lot of challenges getting through those years. But I’m not a person that remains vengeful. I move on. It’s way better for you as an individual and so I try not to let anything eat me up,’ he says.
That applies to writing about it too. ‘I had an objective to be as honest as possible while at the same time with an objective to minimise any pain,’ he says. ‘So I ended up writing the Scarlett chapter and taking full responsibility for it, and I’m glad I did.
‘Scarlett and I are very, very close and I’ll happily have Jane at a party in the same room, so it’s as good as it can be under the circumstances.’
Enviably so, it seems: Kate developed a good relationship with Jane and Scarlett was a bridesmaid at Libby’s wedding at which Jane was also a guest.
Many a divorced parent will surely look on with envy at this marvellously modern blended affair. ‘I think you can only do it if you are smart at the beginning, and by smart at the beginning I mean choose the right woman,’ he says. ‘I chose well, but there’s probably a bit of luck as well that enabled me to have these wonderful women in my life who are comfortable with each other and with the children.’
At 45,000 square feet, the house, as Caudwell cheerfully writes in his newly published autobiography, is the most expensive private home in London — and twice the size of the Royal Albert Hall
All in all, not bad for a second home — his primary residence being Broughton Hall, a vast timbered Jacobean manor house in Staffordshire
The older children are now scattered around the globe, although Caudwell is keen to emphasise that they have made their own way. ‘They’ve had the luxury, but I kept them quite short of money in their teenage years, still do, because I want them to have the pride of fighting for themselves, learning the value of money, the value of life,’ he says.
‘I’m very proud of them in that respect. I brought them up to understand that if all you’re doing is chasing luxury and the next best thing, it will just lead to a very unsatisfactory life.’ And Caudwell insists he does try to practise what he preaches.
‘I’m quite extreme really. I can be on my boat, which if you put a star rating on it would be ten to 15 compared to a five-star hotel — but then the next minute I’ll be cycling through the Alps staying at a €30 B&B.
‘Modesta and I don’t really ever think about it either way.’
He has certainly earned his wealth: Caudwell’s autobiography lays bare the highs and lows of the road to billionairedom — the 20-hour days trying to run first a corner shop, then a mail order motorcycling business and a car showroom.
Even when, in the late 1980s aged 35, he landed on the mobile phone business that would go on to become Phones 4u, the path was fraught with years of pitfalls. It took Caudwell eight months to sell his first consignment of handsets and for the first two years the business ran at a loss every month.
‘It always felt like a house of cards — it was a constant battle,’ he recalls now. He remembers one terrifying moment when he was shipped stock by his supplier, Motorola, only for them to promptly drop the price the next day. ‘They dumped this equipment on me and suddenly my stock was devalued by £10 million. Ten million! That’s three years’ worth of profits and I had to find a way of fighting through that,’ he says.
‘Every day there was a crisis. Not life-threatening crises, but crises nonetheless.
‘It’s one reason I wanted to write the book — to show the years of difficult graft and grind. It’s been tough and that’s what I want people to see. Not particularly for my own egotistical point of view, but for how you can fight through adversity if you’ve got the wherewithal and the dedication.’
Some of Caudwell’s determination came from an innate sense of his own mortality: a combination of affection for adrenaline sports and genetics meant he always assumed he wouldn’t live past 40.
‘I rode fast motorbikes and my friends who watched me all said I would be dead before I was 18,’ he says. ‘My diet was pretty bad too. In addition my father, his father, and my great-grandfather all died in their 40s and 50s — so why was I going to buck the trend?
‘That pressure to achieve was greater because I didn’t expect to have 70 years.’ Today, fuelled by an excellent diet, vitamin supplements and competitive cycling, he cuts a dapper figure, although the adrenaline junkie is still there.
It’s all a very long way from Caudwell’s roots in working-class Stoke, the son of an engineering products salesman and a mother who worked in a post room to make ends meet
He has certainly earned his wealth: Caudwell’s autobiography lays bare the highs and lows of the road to billionairedom — the 20-hour days trying to run first a corner shop, then a mail order motorcycling business and a car showroom
Even when, in the late 1980s aged 35, he landed on the mobile phone business that would go on to become Phones 4u, the path was fraught with years of pitfalls
Last summer he had a cycling accident in Italy that left him with a punctured lung, 12 displaced fractures in his left shoulder and a smashed ribcage. But life, overall, is much more relaxed these days.
‘There’s not that urgency or desperation to do anything, so although I work hard still, it’s not the same. There’s not that pressure, that desperation,’ he concedes.
He even changes nappies these days, and recently spent two weeks home alone in charge of William while Modesta was in Monaco organising a fundraising ball for his charity, Caudwell Children, founded in 2000 to help underprivileged children.
This is where Caudwell’s passion now lies and he has already pledged 70 per cent of his fortune to charity before and after his death. He also encourages others to give, hosting regular lavish dinners in the vast formal dining room of his London mansion to persuade the UK’s wealthy to sign up to his Life-Changers Circle and pledge a million pounds over a ten-year period. ‘I wine them and dine them, make a fuss,’ he says. ‘So, yes, it’s a monster house, but it’s doing a great job for charity.’
Unlike many of his wealthy peers, Caudwell famously pays his taxes, handing over £300million in the last ten years to the Exchequer.
‘I want Britain to succeed and prosper, and if I want that I’ve got to play my part, so I’m happy to pay my taxes as long as they’re reasonable,’ he says.
Unlike many of his wealthy peers, Caudwell famously pays his taxes, handing over £300million in the last ten years to the Exchequer
‘I couldn’t see the gain’: He was not impressed by Liz Truss’ plan to abolish the current top rate of 45 per cent and is glad there’s been a U-turn
He was not impressed by Liz Truss’ plan to abolish the current top rate of 45 per cent and is glad there’s been a U-turn.
‘I couldn’t see the gain,’ he says. ‘They weren’t going to keep people in Britain by doing it and they weren’t going to attract people. I don’t know quite up to what level I would be prepared to pay, but I’m certainly happy to pay 45 pence in the pound.’
Critics may carp that he can afford it — not that he cares too much what other people think.
‘People always have the instant reaction, ‘Oh, it’s OK for you, you’re a billionaire’.
‘And of course that’s true, it is OK for me, my living standard won’t alter, but I believe in fairness,’ he says. So much so that he’s only heating a few rooms of both his mansions this winter.
‘I’m trying to limit consumption,’ he says. ‘And a bit of cold never did anyone any harm.’
- Love, Pain & Money by John Caudwell is available from Amazon priced £14.95. Proceeds go to Caudwell Children.