I was born into an irish family in london after world war II. We lived in Notting Hill in enormous poverty. We had two rooms, it was dirty and drafty. There were rats and flees. We used a toilet on the floor above which we shared with 12 families. We lived two or three miles from the centre of the British Empire, the Houses of Parliament. So there I was, homeless at five, taken into a Catholic orphanage at six. Every day for three years, we were reminded by the nuns that we were social failures. It put me off charity a bit. At 10, when my family got a council house, I came out.
Then I started to get into trouble at school. I shoplifted, I stole cars, bicycles. I was put into correctional institutions, prisons. I didn’t learn to read until I was 16 and in a correctional institution. I spent most of my 20s in and out of crime.
I met Gordon Roddick, who later married Body Shop founder Anita, when I was hiding from the police in Scotland. We became friends.
In my 30s, I started a printing company which turned into a publishing company that created magazines and books which turned into a business that helped lots of other people. I worked devastatingly hard. I couldn’t work for anybody else.
When I was 45, I re-met Gordon Roddick, who was by now a multimillionaire. I was finding it difficult to settle down. I was psychologically damaged. Unfullfilled, very aggressive.
Mentally and physically, I was an incredibly powerful person. I was able to start a job on Monday morning that finished Thursday night and never go to sleep, which is what I did every fortnight for a publishing house I worked for.
If you said to me I need this in 24 hours and if it meant me printing for 22 hours, I’d do it—so long as there was a profit in it.
I was a walking wounded, but living through it. I hadn’t given up and I didn’t feel sorry for myself.
When Gordon Roddick met me again, he said, “You’re like a time bomb about to go off. You’re tough, you’re ruthless, you’re unsentimental, but you’ve got passion.”
I struggled to contain the demons.
I would go and stay with Gordon for social occasions but after about a day or so he would say, “Can you go now?” I would say, “But you’ve invited me for three days!”
And he would reply, “You just wear me out. You talk all the time about all sorts of stuff that nobody should talk about, you’re very rude to my wife Anita, you’re rude to my children, rude to my friends, and to me. You think you have the answer to everything. If you don’t get yourself something big, something that’s going to wear you out, you’re going to go mad.”
Gordon asked me to start a street paper in London so that we could mop up a lot of people who were living on the streets but not able to earn; there wasn’t anything available for them. He said, “Why don’t you do a feasibility study?” It was 1991, I was 45.
All the people in the homeless world in London were being given something for nothing. They could go to soup kitchens, get a sandwich, get their clothes washed, be entertained, get counselling. There were 501 homeless organisations in London.
But there was nobody in homelessness, in social business or even in business itself that was giving these people something legitimate to do, a way of making their own money. I came up with this idea of a hand up, not a hand out.
If I could produce a magazine that they could sell on the streets, that they could use as a means of securing a legitimate income, then that would mean that they would get out of crime, get out of wrongdoing, and would be able to morph their lives away from the streets into flats and rooms and houses.
That to me was an entrepreneurial, a Road to Damascus moment, though other people saw it as a social moment. When I suddenly went “wow!” that “wow!” to me was a commercial moment because I thought that these people were in desperate need of legal work; I can produce a product that they can sell and out of that I can create a social business.
So the big event in my life was when I realised there was a hole in the market.
I went to the police and to homeless organisations and told them what I was doing. I talked to hundreds and hundreds of homeless people and said, “Look, I’m going to create the product that you’re going to sell on the streets of London and if it goes well, you’ll make money and we’ll make money.”
I knew that the public would be able to see that these individuals were workers, tradespeople, mini-businesses. If you’re an entrepreneur, you try to develop products or services that are of use to people, are sustainable, and are going to lead to profits and longevity.