GEORGE Houghton is a tough man with strong views. The entrepreneur and football club boss talks to Alastair Gilmour.
THE invitation to "go on, feel that" isn’t normally extended during a business interview. One of the North East’s most colourful characters does things his own way, however.
George Houghton runs the Executive Care Group, the GH Group, is chairman of Darlington Football Club, and has just flexed his left biceps. It’s like handling a tightly-coiled knot. The other arm, presumably, feels the same.
It has quickly become apparent that this is normal behaviour – almost expected. George has, after all, previously run his finger over his teeth, claiming the set of incisors owes its near-full complement to a lifetime of fresh food.
Wellbeing is important to him – a "fit in body, fit in mind" attitude means he starts every morning in the gym at six – while mid-twenties Darlington footballers remark he has a better body than theirs, which is pretty good going for someone in his late sixties.
George Houghton has a black-and-white opinion on everything – nothing wrong in that – but straight talking has not particularly endeared him to officialdom and red-tape dispensers. His way is his way and but there’s no doubting this approach has reaped success.
The Executive Care Group he started 20 years ago – and is now operated by his wife Jennifer – began as a single care home partnership and now involves around 25 care homes, employing 1,500 staff in the region. His own GH Group of property and hotel businesses employs double that amount in the UK, US, Gibraltar and China.
He has owned one of the most successful motor dealerships in the North East and headed a direct holiday company where he worked closely with Sir Freddie Laker.
The holiday business – which controlled 2,000 beds in Malta and leased its own planes – collapsed in 1979 when the cost of fuel rocketed overnight from 70p to £1.10 a gallon. He lost the lot, including the car business and his home. Typically for someone who spent much of his early childhood working out how he could make money, he started again.
"I believe everybody gets three chances in life to get somewhere," he says. "I’ve had three now and grabbed every one of them. I work seven days, 24 hours a day, that’s why I’m successful. If you focus on getting somewhere you’ll get there, you’ve just got to put yourself out."
He borrowed an old estate car and drove to London to buy videos to sell to independent rental shops, later opening his own retail outlets. He then bought the video rights to blockbuster films, travelling to the US to negotiate the legalities and to set up a distribution network.
Once he had a "fighting fund", he started speculating with property and moved into healthcare by buying care homes. He and Jennifer built 60 homes over two decades. He continued to expand his other business interests – principally property – and GH Group now employs thousands of staff internationally. In 2006, the football fanatic jumped at the chance of buying Darlington FC, believing great potential lurked in its huge, state-of-the-art, under-utilised, all-seater stadium.
He is building alliances with football clubs in the US where he expects great growth in the sport over the next decade and has discussed the possibility of two Polish football clubs and the Schultz Academy in Fort Lauderdale acting as "feeders". He is also reported to have tried to persuade David Beckham to become an ambassador for Darlington FC.
He says: "Every morning you get up you have to have a target. That’s what I have. I make money every day and if I don’t I make double the next (he shrugs), that’s the kind of guy I am. I work hard and I train. When I was young I was in for the junior Mr Universe. I trained with a guy called Ted Gutteridge. In my thirties I was a champion squash player. I like a challenge, I like speed, everything has got to be fast for me, I’ll never change."
In conversation, George regularly refers to his younger life; his upbringing has obviously left its mark and formed a toughness of attitude and strength of mind which have served him well through business and personal highs and lows. A ready smile, plus a friendly cock of the head, also reveal a sense of humour and a character well acquainted with mischief.
"There are two different sides to me, I’m a Jekyll and Hyde," he says. "Do you know what my wife keeps on giving me for a Christmas box? ‘Go and see a psychiatrist’.
"My mother used to go to four places to buy bread to save half a penny. What people have to get into their minds is there are no handouts. Get up and work and you’ll get somewhere in life. I’ve only ever worked for anybody else for two years – I was an apprentice motor mechanic because I loved cars.
"I’ve never drawn the dole and always worked for myself, I went out and got it, never had handouts and don’t believe in them, either. We work hard for our money – we have to as a private company and you’ve got to make every day count. But what really concerns me at the moment is that there’s a big black hole there and nobody has the answer – the Government hasn’t got the answers. Every group of people it seems to me is going to the Government and asking for a bail-out, so where’s it going to end?
"The UK work ethic is just crap. If you ran the UK as a company like I do, it would be a success. You know what expenses are going out, you know your costs at the end of the day and you know your bottom line.
"I have targets for Darlington Football Club like everything I do in life. I’ve got two years of my five-year plan left – last year we were very unfortunate not to get promoted.
"I’ve got the infrastructure there and I’ve got it right with a great team now. I’d be very annoyed if we don’t go up to the First Division. Then we can get around to filling the 27,500-seater stadium for the fans.
"My plan when we get into the First Division is to see if 27,500 is needed – at Middlesbrough (in the Premier League) they get 20,000. I said we’d take one of the stands out to make it work and use it for other things; it has to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but I’m getting very frustrated with Darlington Council.
It’s now been two years dealing with planners. It’s been holding up the building of the academy of sport. I expected to start that in March but time and time again they keep putting meetings off.
"I keep asking myself, does Darlington Council want a football club? I bought Darlington because it was a big white elephant. It has the ability to be something – I can see something that’s different and make it successful, but I’ll walk away because life moves too quick. I take no prisoners."
As an example of his Jekyll and Hyde persona, the affable, racehorse owing, jet-leasing, car fanatic George Houghton not only reveals a soft spot for shoes and watches but for charismatic characters who just might make a difference.
He says: "I’ve got 20 good watches but I never buy them retail, I always buy them when someone has a problem and they’re half price. I love shoes and pure white shirts because with a white shirt and cufflinks, if you can’t afford a new suit, you can still look a million dollars.
"It’s the same with shoes; kids don’t shine shoes today. I do like they do in the Army, polish the bottoms as well, that’s the way I was brought up.
"I go home, take them off and clean them, putting a toothbrush in between (he points to the welt). People notice everything; sometimes you don’t think they do, but they do.
"The guy I really admire at the moment is Barack Obama. In this world, people either have it or they don’t – and this guy has it.
" I believe everybody was put on this Earth for a reason. I’m really strong on this one. I’m watching him because I go to the States a lot and I think he’ll be massive in the history books.
"When Obama came in there was a good feedback – now that feedback’s got to keep going. UK is grey, there’s a bad feedback. The way the banks are behaving, if they don’t get the money very quickly to the market – get loans out – so they can make money for themselves and businesses can make money there’s going to be a disaster like you’ve never seen in your life. It’s going to be like the Thirties."
The duality that George’s wife perceives in his nature is further highlighted by a summing up of all that’s wrong in British business and industry. "I’m totally against the 35-hour week," he says. "Everyone should work a minimum of 50 hours a week, it’s the only way to get anything out of them. If you total up the hours – by the time they get there and have a tea break, what are they putting into the job?
" And I’m totally against the level of Government employment in the North East; it’s a disaster, it’s getting worse.
"I find most people who work for the Government have an easy job; they work at 50% of capacity and also when you delve into it, most of them only work 50% of the year what with holidays and sickness. They’re also on higher salaries than most people. I’ve got a real problem with that.
"I work in China a lot, they’re very busy with healthcare there; there are no institutions, they want five-star for old people.
"They have a population of 1.3 billion with 130 million of them over 65, that’s why I’m in China – and America as well.
"The big towns are bursting at the seams so they’re building next to them. What I’m doing is buying land – a bit like Disney did in 1974 when they bought all those orange groves for $1,000 – and what’s it worth now? Billions.
"China is a new world, they have vast amounts of land, they want investors from all over the world for growth. In my opinion, the way they’re going they’ll take over the rest of the world – no danger – in ten years’ time."
Chances are, though, the Houghton muscles will be ready and flexed to kick off a couple of five-year plans.
Page 3: The Questionnaire
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The Waggon Inn, Ponteland – organic food
Who or what makes you laugh?
Only Fools And Horses and Steptoe And Son
What’s your favourite book?
Hitler I and Hitler II. I also like Harry Potter, they’re good books. I like the world of fantasy.
What was the last album you bought?
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Got it! Or movie star
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Work harder to survive. Carry no passengers.
What’s your greatest fear?
Locked in a lift.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Surround yourself with better people than yourself. Always have a challenge, have a strategy.
What’s the worst piece of business advice?
Trust professional people.
What’s your poison?
Tea and cream cakes.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Racing Post, Northern Echo and Evening Chronicle.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£1.90 in old money as an apprentice motor mechanic.
How do you keep fit?
It’s important to exercise regularly.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Seeing staff smoking outside buildings.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Shoes and watches. I have a private jet which I let out for ten or 11 months of the year between Newcastle and Teesside.
Which historical or fictional character(s) do you identify with/admire?
Alexander the Great – history repeats itself.
Which famous people would you most like to dine with?
Abraham Lincoln, Chairman Mao, Alexander the Great, Barack Obama, Bob Hope and Jesus.
How would you like to be remem- bered?
Do not give a ****
Page 4: Reflections
The thoughts of Chairman George.
I don’t believe in handouts. Get up and work and you’ll get somewhere in life.
If you focus on getting somewhere you’ll get somewhere, you’ve just got to put yourself out.
Every morning you get up you have to have a target.
There are two different sides to me, I’m a Jekyll and Hyde.
I’d bring in hanging tomorrow. I’d do what the Arabs do and chop people’s hands off. I’m tough like that, I’d give no quarter.
A bit of snow and the whole country stops. I think people should go to Russia and see what real snow is.
I’m totally against the 35-hour week. Everyone should work a minimum of 50 hours a week, it’s the only way to get anything out of them.
People moan and groan but I think they should visit children’s cancer wards then think how lucky they are to have turned out how they have.
Everybody who comes in to see George gets a buzz – either a kick on the arse or a buzz.
Cream cakes? I’d buy a coffee shop like Betty’s and use it for myself – sugar is my weakness.
I have five-year targets for everything in business, everybody needs them.
Planning is now ridiculous in this country, it now takes you two years to get a conference call.
I’m in the gym every morning at six o’clock. I’m ready for my breakfast then, ready for everything.
If you can’t afford a new suit, with a white shirt and cufflinks you can still look a million dollars.