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Eye On: John Caudwell

August 08, 2013

(Caroline Broadhurst is director of Community Care Projects at the Rank Foundation and, through the Clore Social Leadership Programme, a visiting fellow at the Foundation Center. This is the first of a series of post she'll be writing about the motivations of UK donors who have signed the Giving Pledge. For more about John Caudwell and the other Giving Pledgers, visit the Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge.)

Headshot_john_caudwellFrom modest beginnings, 60-year-old John David Caudwell has established himself as one of the most successful English businessmen in modern times. After leaving school before earning what in the U.S. would've been his high-school diploma, Caudwell went to work for Michelin, the French tire manufacturer at the company’s factory in the West Midlands. Not content to remain an engineering foreman, however, he nurtured his entrepreneurial instincts and soon began to create money-making ventures, including a corner shop and mail-order motorcycle clothing business.

Combining his mechanical knowledge -- he earned an HNC in mechanical engineering while working at Michelin -- and his growing business experience, Caudwell eventually set up a car dealership, with many of his former Michelin factory friends among his loyal customers. Displaying the entrepreneurial sensibility that would become his trademark, in 1987 he took a chance on the nascent mobile phone industry, starting Midland Mobile Phones with his brother, Brian. Despite running at a loss in its first few years, the business turned into a huge success, and by the 2000s the company, by then called Phones4U, was the largest independent distributor of cellular phones in the UK, selling an average of 26 phones every minute and earning more than $1.5 billion annually.

Ever the shrewd businessman, Caudwell anticipated the end of the company's rapid-growth phase and sold a majority stake in it for $2.8 billion in 2006, followed by the remaining 25 percent for $72 million in 2011. He then created new business opportunities in the areas of health, real estate and the environment and became a vocal and passionate advocate for the role of British businesses in the larger European context. (He is also reported to be Britain's biggest taxpayer, having contributed almost $400 million to the Exchequer since 2008.)

Long before then, Caudwell's interest had expanded to philanthropy, including support for UK-based charities such as the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) and the Prince's Trust, as well as Caudwell Children, a charitable organization he founded in 2000.

Since its inception, Caudwell has raised $40 million for the organization, which annually provides some three thousand children with disabilities and their families with much needed equipment and respite support. Like many of his contemporaries, Caudwell takes a venture approach to philanthropy, contributing time, extensive social networks, and deep business expertise, as well as financial support, to the organizations and causes he is passionate about. An avid cyclist, Caudwell also raises funds for the organization by participating in charity bike rides all over Britain and beyond.

In early 2013, Caudwell encouraged Bill Gates to promote the Giving Pledge to wealthy donors outside the United States. As he explains in his Giving Pledge letter, his motivation in joining other Pledgers is grounded in his belief in helping others: "Everything I do now has some degree of feel-good factor." At the same time, his growing interest in philanthropy has hardly lessened his desire to create more wealth. "Making money," he writes in the letter, "is now largely driven by the knowledge that I will be able to leave even more wealth when I go."

-- Caroline Broadhurst

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