You can practically smell the money on the streets of Knightsbridge.
Lamborghinis and Ferraris with lurid custom paint jobs and number plates from far-flung countries negotiate their way through congested London traffic, while shops sell rugs which cost twice as much as my car - and they’re in the sale.
For the fabulously wealthy (or perhaps those who wish to be perceived as being so) Knightsbridge is still the place to be seen. It’s long been the haunt of Reuben Singh, a 38-year-old serial entrepreneur who’s lived a storied life, to say the least. It’s where I’m meeting him today.
At the end of the 1990s, Singh had the world at his feet. He had an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s youngest self-made millionaire. His portrait hung in the National Gallery. The Poynton-born man the papers called ‘Europe’s Bill Gates’ even had his own menu at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester.
Everyone wanted a piece of him – from the world’s media to the prime minister himself. Singh sat on government task forces when his peers were just starting to pay off their student loans. Following the sale of Miss Attitude, the women’s accessory chain he’d founded in Manchester’s Arndale Centre at 17, he was featured in the Sunday Times Rich List and was also named the paper’s most influential person under 30.
The devout Sikh was happy to cultivate a public persona of a fast-talking young playboy. He took journalists for rides around London in outrageously expensive cars, spoke proudly of his relationship with Tony Blair and proclaimed he could retire and live on the riches he’d already earned, if he wanted to.
But then, somewhere between 2002 and 2003, things appeared to go awry.
Articles in the Manchester Evening News and the Financial Times threw doubt on the figure for which Miss Attitude was actually sold. Depending on who you believed, it ranged from £22m to just a single pound. He was dropped from the Guinness Book of Records and the Rich List.
His next venture, an office services firm called AlldayPA, went into administration in 2004, and he lost control of the company the following year. A messy court case with a bank ensued and bankruptcy followed in 2007. He was branded “a liar” by the presiding judge.
Now and then
“The worst mistake I made was taking cheap advice,” reflects Singh over coffee in the lounge of a five-star hotel. “I’m proud of what I achieved. I’m also proud of myself – but it takes a jolt or two to see that we all need humility.
“Looking back, I wish I’d listened to the people who are like I am today. If I had listened to those people, I wouldn’t have made those mistakes. When you’re young, you think that you know best.”
That ‘jolt’ came in the form of the court case against Bank of Scotland, in which he represented himself – a typically Hollywood move for a man whose life often resembles an outlandish film script.
“Even though I believed in myself and believed in what I did, you have to sometimes realise what you’re dealing with,” he says. Amazingly, after the ruling in which he was ordered to pay the bank £1.2m along with legal costs, he describes “relief” at the ordeal being over.
The current chief executive of Isher Capital, a ‘boutique’ private equity firm based in London and Manchester which is currently Singh’s principle business concern, seems far removed from the flamboyant figure he cut in the late ’90s.
“I believe whatever I did at the time was sincere and I was truthful to myself,” he says. “But I think I was portrayed in a way in which I think society wanted.”
“I didn’t realise that there’s always a pay-off,” he continues. “Institutions and organisations would be taking me to front-seat at Centre Court at Wimbledon finals, or on private jets to go to their conventions. Imagine that, in your early 20s. Banks were putting me on front covers of their magazines. But if you knew about the payback at the beginning, you wouldn’t do it. That’s’ not being cynical, that’s just being experienced.”
However, Singh bristles when I ask him about an incident in 1999 where he told a journalist that making and spending money was “like a drug”, and if there was a point where he realised his relationship with cash had become problematic.
“No, I wouldn’t have said that,” he insists.
The high life?
These days, he’s more interested in the (Facebook founder) Mark Zuckerberg-style entrepreneur. “The world’s completely changed”, he says. “In the ’90s, you had to show it if you were successful. Today, you don’t. You meet guys in khaki jeans and Gap t-shirts and they’re worth billions,” he says.
Still, one gets the impression that Singh retains a shine for the high life. Nods of acknowledgement with the hotel’s immaculate staff suggest that he’s a regular in these rarefied surroundings. He’s quick to tell me that he’s not interested in expensive motors anymore and he’s currently driving “just a normal car”, but I suspect he isn’t making the journey up and down the M6 between London and Manchester in a Vauxhall Astra.
Singh remains a peculiarly contradictory character. He’s a big fan of flexible working, but claims he doesn’t see enough of his own wife and three children. Elsewhere, he speaks in glowing terms of businesses setting up away from the hustle and expense of central London… despite having an office just round the corner from Sloane Square. A conversation with him sometimes leaves you with more questions than answers. But then, as we begin to wrap up, I ask if he feels that his best work is still yet to come.
He pauses. And then, very quietly, he utters: “I hope so.”
As he departs the hotel and heads into Knightsbridge for yet another business meeting, I wonder how he’s still got the appetite for it all. But somehow, he has.
Singh’s story is something of a parable of our times – back in the boom years of New Labour, he projected an image of great wealth and success to a world which was eager to believe it. But when times got tough it quickly transpired that his empire may have been built on foundations far shakier than anyone had realised, even if the signs were there if you looked hard enough.
Wherever the next chapter of his frequently strange life takes him is anyone’s guess…