James Caan Reveals His Plans To Take Little Chef Worldwide And The 'Caan Legacy'

James Caan from Dragons' Den launches the new book 'Success from Pitch to Profit' at Waterstone's on Oxford Street in London.
James Caan from Dragons' Den launches the new book 'Success from Pitch to Profit' at Waterstone's on Oxford Street in London.

James Caan came to attention as one of the millionaire entrepreneurs in the Dragons' Den from 2007. The British-Pakistani entrepreneur made his millions in recruitment and then his private equity firm, Hamilton Bradshaw.

Caan left the Den in 2010 amid reported spats with fellow Dragon Duncan Bannatyne. Caan later got involved with government initiatives, being picked in May 2012 to run its Start-Up Loans campaign, which sets out to offer £112 million in loans to young people over three years to help them start their own businesses.

Caan was also brought into government by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to be a "social mobility tsar". However, the announcement quickly got bogged down by allegations that he had been hypocritical in hiring his own daughters while telling parents not to do the same for their children.

Caan is worth an estimated £70m and was recently nominated as "Smith & Williamson Entrepreneur of the Year" in the National Business Awards.

HuffPostUK caught up with the ex-Dragon to hear of his plans for the future, including how he hopes to take roadside cafe chain Little Chef to the Middle East.

So James, what are your plans over the coming year?

What's really exciting for me now is watching other young entrepreneurs coming through the system and what we've created with Start-Up Loans has become the highlight of my career.

There could not be a better time than now for a young person to start up a business. This week we're up to 5976 new businesses started in the last 9 months. With 30 new businesses starting every week, I think that for me has become the pinnacle of my career.

So you're focused on Start-Up loans rather than Hamilton Bradshaw now?

Hamilton Bradshaw is obviously my day job. In the last twelve months, we have pretty much had our best year ever. We're currently averaging a new investment every eight weeks.

I think where I'm very proud of the fact that we've got an exceptional management team in Hamilton Bradshaw and to a large extent the model has been developed to such that we're getting new opportunities every week and seeing different businesses.

We've got over 40 businesses we manage now through the Hamilton portfolio so it's very much a case of keeping my business focus around ensuring Hamilton Bradshaw continues to grow from strength to strength.

Are you still interested in taking over the roadside cafe chain Little Chef, as reported?

We certainly looked at that opportunity and were very keen to pursue it.

We had ambitions of acquiring Little Chef and expanding that into the Middle Eastern region. We have a number of very strong relationships with financial institutions in the Middle East and because the Middle East is investing so much money, literally billions of dollars in infrastructure, what we identified was that across most of the motorway network, they don't have that kind of concept of those service stations.

A British brand in the Middle East is typically well received and we had a lot of interest from our investor base to say we would back that venture with you. The fact that we're competing with McDonalds, Burger King and Pret a Manger [for Little Chef] so my instinct is they're probably going to be quite aggressive in their bid.

The final decision will be announced in September as to who the lucky winner was.

After Dragons Den, have you got any future TV projects on?

We're just focusing on our TV show with CNBC which is a Business Class with James Caan. That show did amazingly well. It was one of the top shows on CNBC last year that they made.

There is a huge interest in doing a second series this year. I hope we'll be doing that in the next four to six weeks.

Did the media controversy in your first day on board as the government's social mobility tsar depress you?

I just thought, welcome to the world of media!

Previous government tsars from the world of business have been left feeling short-changed, like Mary Portas. Did you ever feel any nervousness about it?

Not at all! I've enjoyed working with them and it has been an extremely good experience with Start-Up Loans so I have no issues with it.

One of the big business issues is the UK's relationship with the EU, what is your view?

Clearly Europe is an extremely valuable trading partner to the UK economy. It has been one of our most important trading relationships. Maintaining, protecting and building on that relationship is without a question of doubt in the interest of the UK economy.

You've never had any frustrations with EU regulation yourself?

At the end of the day, there are regulations but they are there for a reason. I think as entrepreneurs and business people, we've got to learn within the confines of regulation as they are there for a reason.

Vince Cable says the Apprentice TV show risks putting young people off business, what do you think?

Remember that TV shows are made for entertainment!

But other shows like Dragons Den are praised for more realistic business portrayals, so there are more realistic TV shows...

Yeah and I think the individual viewer has a choice that they can make a decision as to what sort of show they want to watch is appropriate.

At the same time, remember the Apprentice does get 6 million viewers a week so there are still a few people out there who find it extremely entertaining.

What's your ultimate goal you want to achieve in your entrepreneurial career?

The Caan legacy for me would be the fact that I'd like to see Start Up Loans creating 30,000 new businesses for the UK economy and for those businesses to create 100,000 new jobs.

It's commonly said Thatcher's Britain was much more entrepreneur-friendly than now, would you agree?

I think the concept of starting a business is more mature now. There is more information available, more funding available. The subject is better understood. There are more case studies and so generally speaking I think the principle of enterprise is an evolving and developing area and each year we as an economy and country get stronger on the subject.

What business trends excite you the most?

If you look at most UK companies today, every single business should be asking themselves the question - how well are we using digital media? I see huge amounts of opportunity for investment and job creation in that area.

Today there are more apps are downloaded that songs. A few years ago you may have had 5 billion songs and maybe a hundred million apps, but today the app market has exploded.

Were firms like HMV, which fell into administration, victims of technological 'progress'?

I think it's more than that. Businesses need to be very consciously aware of their market and in the global age that we live in today, they must change and evolve. If you don't evolve your business with the times, you'll be left behind. If it is left behind, it generally goes backwards.

You could have anticipated that the business model of buying music as a product in a retail store was flawed 5 years ago. There's no retail experience in walking into HMV and buying a CD, so frankly you could do it just as well sitting on your iPad.

I think HMV could have recognised what so many businesses do today which have built very credible online platforms and changed with the times, listened to their customers and acknowledged that they needed to evolve their propositions.

If they did that, there's no reason why HMV should not have become the biggest online music retailer in the country!