A Dragon at ease

The Apprentice is over for another year and Sir Alan is caged.

Duncan Bannatyne

SUNDAY lunch with the PM at Chequers, Elton’s famed White Tie ball to look forward to. Life is glossy for the Bannatynes.

Filming has started on another series of Dragons’ Den and Duncan is champing at the bit.

Sitting in front of the dragon himself you are where dozens of scared, hopeful, awestruck and even desperate people have gone before.

In the plush surroundings of his eponymous Darlington hotel however, the atmosphere is significantly less tense than the Dragons’ Den studio which is Duncan Bannatyne’s second home. Though it has to be said, the man is causing something of a stir among the ladies who are lunching.

As he poses in front of the hotel by the seriously shiny Maserati Gran Turismo – with its DB numberplate – he looks tanned, toned and wealthy.

Something to do with his reported £320m fortune of course, not to mention the well-documented cosmetic surgery. Then there’s the workouts – on Dragon’s Den Duncan uses his filming breaks to hit the gym rather than laze over lunch. His look, having just hit 60, is the result of effort: pristine, glossy and expensive. And when the camera turns on him the million-dollar smile and brown eyes almost elicit a toothpaste-ad ‘ping’.

The result is a man who is holding back the years nicely. By his side, long-term partner and wife of two years, Joanne, 42, looks pretty well-maintained herself. Glossy blonde bob, today’s outfit of choice, a soft pink Stella McCartney bow top. She is tiny – thanks to more effort with a personal trainer, though insists, “I watch what I eat at home and I work out but I never hesitate over the wine and pizza.”

Their life is pretty much perfect to the outsider. Home base is a modest five-bedroomed house in Wynyard where the couple live with their children young children Tom and Emily. Duncan has four older daughters from his first marriage and has just become a granddad to Ava.

They have a flat in Covent Garden and a £3m mansion near Cannes where they spend as much time as possible. Neighbours include Roger Moore and fellow dragon James Caan and designer Theo Fennell. It is party palace, bolt-hole, success symbol and retreat all in one and a place which welcomes friends and family all year.

Duncan’s profile, wealth and sometimes contentious past inevitably makes him one of those people who are loved or hated. Thus the couple are seasonally dragged through the tabloids when someone hopes to make a fast buck with an allegation about the gadabout dragon but they are remarkably well able to accept that it comes with the territory.

“No comment is the best way to deal with all that”, says Joanne with a weary smile. They have strong enough ties with family and friends, particularly in the North East, to know that the stories are laughed off by people who matter to them.

They met when Joanne worked as director of nursing for Duncan’s Quality Care Homes business. They got together after the breakdown of Duncan’s first marriage and had two children together, Emily, ten and Tom, eight. For a couple of years they split up and Duncan enjoyed some serious partying – but realised he couldn’t live without her and proposed in Barbados.

Duncan wrote his biography to put the record straight about his story of his amazing rags-to-riches journey on the record. He’s been in prison and much had been said about his Royal Navy dishonourable discharge – after he ‘threw’ his CO off the side of a ship.

Read the book and you find that he didn’t actually do it – only nearly! And that his mum found out from the TV news and was devastated.

“I wrote the book to stop people making decisions about who I am. I wrote the truth and that’s it. People can think what they want.”

His huge rise to success is well documented. His fortune was made through the sale of his Quality Care Homes and the Just Learning nurseries.

Both businesses were the result of Duncan tapping into an idea at the right time – when the Thatcher government brought in subsidies of £260 a week for every patient in a care home and then years later, similar subsidies for nursery schools. Duncan’s reasoning being that if the Government are paying you there’s guaranteed income.

Today the Bannatynes live off the sale of Quality Care Homes and Duncan doesn’t draw a salary from his businesses. In the past five years since the sale of that business and the expansion of the Bannatyne gym, casino, bar and hotel business, his rise to prominence has been stratospheric. Not least because of that chair in the Den.

It has propelled him to huge celebrity status – and let’s not kid ourselves, he loves it.

He is admired by men, women and children from all walks of life. The Prime Minister invited the family to Chequers for a stay just a few weeks ago: “We were picked up by helicopter and landed on the lawn at Chequers – out came Gordon Brown’s two boys with their nanny to take Tom and Emily to play. We found ourselves eating alongside Stephen Fry, Kevin Spacey and Eddie Izzard!”, recalls Joanne.

Centre stage is where Duncan is comfortable and he has a passion for acting – especially in regionally produced drama – though these days he is too recognisable as himself to be able to try for other parts

Fame sits easily, “I am a member of the Ivy Club in London and the reality is that famous people recognise and talk to each other. I met Lenny Henry there and he told me he was enjoying reading my book! “

Joanne and Duncan will be mingling at Elton’s famous White Tie & Diamonds ball this summer – about as A-list as it gets. And when the mood and occasion takes them, the pair are pretty good at throwing a party themselves.

Joanne’s 40th was a case in point. She revamped a Bannatyne warehouse in Darlington for the lavish bash which had Human League performing. For their wedding party Beverley Knight and Chesney Hawkes did the honours for the guests – which included the fellow Dragons.

“We love a party and sharing good times with friends, family and people who work for us”, says Joanne.

“That’s what it’s all about. We realise we are so lucky.”

Not that wealth means an easy life for the youngest Bannatynes.

“I say to Tom, who is eight – “you are not rich I am”. If you want money you have to earn it. “

“We fly easyJet and I tell my children that they have to make their own money. They have to fight their own battles and get on with it,” says Duncan.

He is a man incredibly focused on the business of making money. Ruthless is a word that probably sums him up when it comes to the business world. Joanne gives an insight into the man at work; “I worked for him many years and mopped a lot of tears from his staff. You could call it aggression. Today they call it being driven.”

He is driven by instinct, research and being quick to spot an opportunity. He hates detail and is skilled at delegation, something that makes him to take a broad view of his own businesses and those he invests in on Dragons’ Den.

“A board meeting every month is enough”, he says as he cites his best investments from the series – Iglu Thermal Logistics – and the Chocbox cable protection device.

His delegation skills mean he leaves time for ‘a life’: to enjoy and to offer up time and money for charity projects close to his heart. Duncan has put millions into relief projects and his OBE was in recognition of this. Over a ten-year period he invested millions funding several projects, notably Casa Bannatyne in Târgu-Mureº, a hospice for orphans with HIV and AIDS. In March 2008 established the Bannatyne Charitable Foundation with a personal injection of £1,000,000.

He has made regular visits to Romania where he has experienced heartache, tears and frustration about facilities there and lack of government action for forgotten children. He knows plenty of the children there personally and Unicef charity staff are often guests at his home in France.

It will be one of the highlights of his life when he travels with Joanne to Romania this year for the wedding of Adela, who has HIV and was one of the children brought up in the orphanage. She has spent much of her life there, abandoned by parents unable to afford to care for her.

That she is about to embark on a new life is a genuine milestone for Duncan. He’s made it happen, changed her life, made something better, can say that he’s achieved something special for her.

In the packed diary of glittering celebrity and lavish spending this occasion will shine brightest.

An extended version of this article features in North East Exclusive magazine, now available. See www.northeastexclusive.co.uk

I wrote the book to stop people making decisions about who I am. I wrote the truth and that’s it

We love a party and sharing good times with friends, family and people who work for us

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