DIRECTOR Jeremy Middleton likes to keep busy. There are the nine small companies in his investment portfolio, a stake in FTSE-200 company HomeServe and a hectic few months ahead of him on the political front – plus plans for a trip up South America’s biggest mountain before the year end.
“I have quite an eclectic range of interests,” he says. “You do your early career and are interested in getting ahead and starting up in business, which is what I was. But as soon as things started to become reasonably successful, I was looking at other things that would be challenging and worthwhile to do.”
“Reasonably successful” is one way of describing insurance and maintenance firm HomeServe, which is now worth around £1bn. Middleton remains on its executive committee.
It came out of a business consultancy Middleton ran with friend Richard Harpin, whom he met while they both worked at Procter & Gamble in Newcastle.
“I was always trying to find a big business idea and together with Richard, we set up a whole series of different businesses based on Osborne Road, where we started out,” says Middleton.
“One of those developed into HomeServe and became very successful. At one stage, when it clearly was successful, Richard and I looked each other in the eye and decided that he wanted to focus exclusively on driving the HomeServe businesses and I wanted to arrange different things.”
Harpin, who now lives in York, moved out of the region with HomeServe, which is now based in the Midlands – from where Middleton himself hails. But to him, the North East is now home – even though he freely admits he may have achieved his political ambitions if he had moved elsewhere.
“I think that I would have had a good chance of going into politics, becoming an MP at the time I wanted to if I had been prepared to move,” he says.
“But I wasn’t really interested in moving for personal reasons, and I didn’t want to represent somewhere that I didn’t live. There are lots of other ways to be involved in your community.”
He was on David Cameron’s ‘A list’ of potential MPs for a number of years before deciding to withdraw and he says he no longer has the desire to spend his life in the House of Commons.
“I decided there were too many other things to do in life and if you really want to be successful in politics, you have to be exclusively focused on it,” Middleton said.
“And I might have been prepared to be exclusively focused on it when I was 30 but I’m not prepared now when there are other things I want to do, of which the business is one of them.
“I’m close enough to see what it involves and I think people who get to the top of political parties, it’s popular to vilify them, but they are normally pretty talented people anyway – and the demands made on them are unbelievable.
“You’ve got to want to do absolutely nothing else at any point in time in your life – and I’m quite happy not to do that! I’m quite happy to make my contribution.”
That contribution is as the current chairman of the Conservative National Convention, which is the party’s top voluntary post, and he is deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Board.
Middleton says: “I’m very much involved in the planning for the General Election from a volunteer perspective – I’m only doing this job for a few years, this particular position.
“I’ve been doing it nearly a year and I’ll probably do another two years, but if you’re a capitalist and a Conservative, then this is the time to do it.
“I think we’re at one of those moments where there is a prospect of an important change of direction in the country and of Government, so it’s a bit like 1945 for the Labour Party or 1979 for the Conservative Party and 2010 is a chance to be part of that change of direction.
“And to be a spectator at the scene of great events is an interesting thing to be – a contributor and a spectator but not a player, not a politician.”
His business, Middleton Enterprises mainly funds start-up firms based in the North East, often in conjunction with North Star, and he has various property investments.
“I wanted to put my money where my mouth was and see if we can’t make the right investment decisions and help people develop their business into something more significant,” he says.
“I’m involved with nine small businesses. When I achieve a successful exit, then I’ll do another one but I’m not looking to expand the number of businesses I’m involved with.
“They say you start out with a portfolio where you may invest in 10 businesses – this is what people in venture capital always said – and you’re looking for one that really works.
“You expect three or four of them maybe to not survive; you can expect three or four of them to just bumble along, and you’re looking for one or two of those ideas to really work.
“Now at the point at which you invested, you thought these are great people, these are great ideas, this could be a fantastic business. But doing private equity investments or business angel investments, there are so many things where things can fall over, it’s so high risk that you need to do a certain number.”
He says that HomeServe was “exceptional” and he is not looking to create something else on that scale.
“Frankly, if you start up a company and it manages to become thriving and profitable, employing people and giving a sustainable future, that is a success in itself,” Middleton says.
“All I ever wanted to do was to work for myself because I didn’t like having a boss. I came to Newcastle, I worked for Procter & Gamble, which is where I met Richard, we then went into consultancy. We decided we would do that because you’re never going to own your own soap company but you might own your own consultancy.”
Always with an eye on the bigger picture, Middleton believes it’s vital to have a good idea about where you’re going.
“I think you’ve got to be quite conscious of the passage of time, what it is that you want to do with your life and then make sure that you’re doing it.
“I think it’s important to do that each year – ‘what am I going to do?’ It’s a pretty good idea to write it down at the beginning of the year and then every now and again look at it, because otherwise, life can just go by. If you want to do something, you’ve got to plan and make it happen.
“For the first period of my life, I just wanted to work for myself. For the second period I wanted to achieve commercial success and having done that, I personally thought ‘what do I like to do?’
“That took me down a more plural route which is exploring politics, looking at venture capitalism as a means to get into business start-ups, doing some of the adventure walking stuff and starting to help philanthropically in a few ways.”
He started the Middleton Community Enterprise Fund in 2007 after becoming involved with St Oswald’s Hospice in Gosforth.
“I was interested in whether you can apply the private equity principles in philanthropic areas so although with the Foundation you give money – you don’t expect any return from it – but can you try to support sustainable commercial operations with arms of charities.
“The idea is, you put money into charities to help them to raise more money.”
His work with St Oswald’s also sparked a new personal interest – pushing himself to the limit walking to far flung locations such as the North Pole and Everest Base Camp.
“I first did it for St Oswald’s – I did Kilimanjaro, which is one of the things you read about doing,” says Middleton.
“I was thinking of doing something different and I wanted to raise some money for the hospice. I thought it was ‘adventure lite’ – it was tough enough to be challenging for me but not dangerous enough to think I’m not going to come back.
“I found it such a rewarding experience that I’ve done a few other things like that. But I’ve not, for example done Everest – I’ve looked up at it and that’s enough.
“It’s like rolling a dice when you do that, it’s too dangerous. The statistics are that one in six or seven people who try to go up Everest don’t come back.”
His own ‘adventure lite’ hasn’t been without its hairy moments though.
“When we got to the North Pole, we woke up that night and they had to lift us off the ice because it was breaking up and the aircraft landing strip was going to break up. They had to helicopter us off.”
Next on the agenda is Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak.
“I’m going to be 50 at the end of this year so I have to do something,” muses Middleton.
“And when you pick something, you have to pick something that’s a bit harder than the time before.”
But before that, he may be literally roped into bungie jumping with eldest daughter, Jessica, 18.
“My daughter is determined to bungie jump and I’m certain that she will – it’s awful because it probably means that I’ll probably have to do it!”
He says out of his family – there is also wife Catherine and younger children Lucy, 16, and 13-year-old James – he is “the only outsider” to the region.
“I’ve lived here most of my adult life and my children were all born here,” says Middleton. “I think you can be happy in many places but it’s small enough to be personal whilst big enough to grow the type of business you want – or to do anything that you want.”
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Who or what makes you laugh?
My wife (sometimes).
What’s your favourite book?
What’s your favourite film?
Spartacus, It’s a Wonderful Life and Terminator 2.
What was the last album you bought?
Paolo Nutini, Sunny Side Up.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Personal life coach.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Always look on the bright side of life.
What’s your greatest fear?
Dying young – so I’m getting less fearful pretty rapidly!
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
It’s not what you do in life, it’s what you don’t do that you regret.
And the worst?
Sell HomeServe shares.
What’s your poison?
Sticky toffee pudding.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Sunday Times, The Telegraph and Money Week.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
75p per hour as a petrol pump attendant.
How do you keep fit?
Gym, squash and running.
What’s your most irritating habit?
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Arnold Schwarzenegger – he made it in sports, movies, business and politics and when he went to the States he couldn’t speak a word of English – not bad.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Jennifer Aniston, Scott of the Antarctic, Winston Churchill and Warren Buffett.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a ‘doer’.