It's arranged: Reuben Singh will meet me at London's Hilton hotel, Park Lane. You can't miss him, say his office, he'll be in his yellow Bentley, personalised number plate. And, sure enough, there he is, standing outside the hotel in the spring sunshine beside the brightest car this side of a lemon on wheels.
'Do you like it?' asks Singh, instantly chummy. 'I got it last week It's the only one of its type in the world!'
And you can believe it. It's gleamy new, pounds 270,000-worth of eye-popping status symbol with walnut dashboard, black leather seats edged in yellow piping and a Sikh Khandra symbol dangling from the mirror. Singh himself is in designer Sikh mode: black trousers, black boots, black rollneck, black turban and bushy black beard tucked into his sweater. It's all rather surreal.
Anyway, he says, he can't park the Bentley here, it won't fit in the NCP downstairs(!), let's go to the Sheraton Tower, he'll leave it there. He gives the impression that he doesn't really want to let it out of his sight. And at that price, who can blame him?
So off we go, tooling through the Knightsbridge traffic, Singh clearly rather enjoying his new toy, making an impression, me sitting up front wishing I was in the back giving a regal wave.
'Oh hi, yellow,' says the doorman at the Sheraton when Singh throws him the keys. You don't forget a car like that. We settle in the hotel bar, the car still winking at us in the sunlight through the plate-glass front of the building. Singh doesn't want to use his apartment round the corner for the interview, or any of his offices.
Actually, I can't really make out if Singh, who's based in Manchester, has an office in London, or indeed an apartment, as he tends to talk in vagueries, and getting concrete answers out of him is sometimes a bit difficult. There may be good reason for this, as you'll discover by the end of this piece, but for now, let's just say I enjoyed his warm garrulousness without quibble.
What's indisputable, though, is that Singh, one-time retailer, now currency trader and dot.com owner, is the highest-profile young entrepreneur in town these days. And by young, I mean young. Still not 25, Singh made his first fortune out of a chain of more than 100 jewellery and accessories shops called Miss Attitude that he set up while still doing his A-levels. Yes, it helped that his parents run a large Manchester-based wholesaler, Sabco, which supplies a string of major retail outlets, but it was still an astonishing feat.
He sold his shops two years ago and moved on to other things, since when estimates of his wealth, and indeed his success, have varied. His profile, however, has remained on a high and seems to have convinced the Government - always on the lookout for an amenable entrepreneur - that he is a horse worth backing. And with his pedigree - young, smart and Asian - it's not hard to see why. After meeting Tony Blair in 1999, Singh was invited onto both the DTI's competitiveness council and its small-business council, and was appointed one of the country's five ambassadors for entrepreneurship (along with the likes of Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Richard Branson). He was also chosen to serve on the 'peer reviews' that report on government departments.
That's quite some approval rating and may also, perhaps, have something to do with the fact that Singh's family is close to Lord Paul, the Labour multi-millionaire steel boss. And when not sitting on government committees and, presumably, running his new ventures, Singh has worked hard to keep that profile up: he is a frequent speaker at conferences, on panels, to venture capital gatherings and the like. Everybody, it seems, wants a slice of him, and, as a proficient performer, he clearly loves it.
And he is very convincing. Meet Singh and you can see why he engenders such remarkable confidence: pearly smile, loquacious tongue, turban and beard giving him a gravitas that belies his youth. He also combines warmth and wit with a winning detachment from his own, rather flash exterior. In fact, he makes it all sound totally logical - you earn a lot of money, hence you get a yellow Bentley. Why not? It's fun.
So there we are, sitting in an empty bar in the early afternoon, Singh drinking mineral water - he's teetotal - talking 19 to the dozen, as is his wont. He tells me about his latest venture, an e-business called alldayPA.com, an internet-based virtual office service that offers data storage, web space, secretarial services, online personal organisers and more to the harassed owners of today's small businesses. Basically, he says, it provides all the back-up that he lacked when he was starting up.
'It stems from the problems I had starting my first business at 17. I had no back office, no infrastructure. I kept quiet about it because it was embarrassing, but when I got involved with the DTI I saw it was not just my problem but every small business has these problems. I had to create something that could give small business the weapon or the tools to compete against big business.'
If that sounds almost philanthropic, it isn't. It is designed to make a profit. Singh was looking particularly pleased with himself when we met, as he had just sold 10% of the business to an Arizona-based technology fund for a pounds 10.5 million. That values his stake at more than pounds 80 million - he reckons to have spent only pounds 3 million on seed funding over the past two years, so hence, perhaps, the reward of the bright yellow Bentley. The launch of the business also means he gets to spend more time in the US, which he clearly loves. He intimates that eventually he may even move there.
That would mean leaving Manchester, of course, but my guess is he could handle that. The city was the base chosen by his parents when they emigrated here from India in the early '70s. Why Manchester? Because that is where his father had come in the '60s to get his MBA. Both his mother and father were graduates from business families in Delhi who, according to Singh, married for love rather than follow the tradition of an arranged marriage, and were determined to seek a new life elsewhere. They knew no-one in Manchester, no family, no links, and put everything into making a success of themselves there, first by setting up a manufacturing business, then a jewellery import operation.
As you would expect, Singh cites his parents as the key influences in his business life. What are they like? His father, says Singh, is 'the thinker', his mother 'the driving force'. She handles sales in their firms, deals with the large UK clients, has the good communication skills. 'I am much more like her,' says Singh. 'We are very close.'
Everything in his parents' lives revolves around business. Their choice of prep school for their two sons was determined by the fact that it operated from 7am to 6pm, leaving more time clear for work. Outside of school, however, they would take their children with them everywhere, out to dinner, away to friends; they would not accept invitations unless the children could come too. This was partly because they had no extended family to support them, but it meant the boys grew up faster, their lives dominated by the same obsessions as their parents.
So the things Singh remembers most about growing up are listening to his parents talk about prospects over the dinner table, or doing his homework in the room set aside for the boys at the office, or playing football in the loading bays of the warehouse. When he was older, Singh would accompany his mother on her sales trips to the Far East, studying how business was done.
'Reuben has the same drive as his parents,' says one family friend, Anisha Sawhney. 'They treated him on the same level as themselves, they trusted him from an early age, and that makes you grow up earlier.' Hence his extraordinary maturity. But it was Singh's local shopping trips, every Saturday in Manchester with his mother, that gave him the kernel for his first business idea.
'You know what it's like going shopping with a woman,' says Singh, eyes flashing. 'You go from shop to shop. Guys can get everything from one shop; why do women have to go to so many? And Asian women are really into jewellery, so we would be going to one shop for jewellery, one shop for make-up, one for accessories - handbags, watches, purses. I said to Mum: 'Why can't you get it all from one store?' and she said: 'Because none exists that sells them all.''
Which led Singh to thinking: 'Why not?' So, as he tells it, he canvassed his friends at grammar school, thought the idea of a shop that sold it all was pretty neat, sorted out some suppliers, tried to get a site in Manchester's Arndale Centre and was told by the manager to stop wasting his time. This made him twice as determined. He went to the public library, read the retail trade magazines, worked out that you could go through property agents, convinced one he was serious and got him to secure the first site (in the Arndale Centre - ya boo sucks to the manager). Then Singh fitted it, filled it, named it, opened it and did so well that within a month he had opened another Miss Attitude. And another, and another. And this was before he had even taken his A-levels.
'I was forced by my dad to stop after three shops because of my exams, but I was already employing 30 people! The market was crying out for more and I was forced to stop,' he laughs.
Why did it take off? Because, he says, being a kid, he was able to create a place where young people wanted to go. 'We'd break all the rules about music on full-blast, turn it into a disco. We were dragging so many people through the doors - 3,000 people on a Saturday - that the shopping centres loved us.'
And being a premature adult, he was able to run it efficiently, source good stock, negotiate more property deals and roll out his chain to a template.
Eventually, exams under his belt, he could concentrate on that roll-out, while simultaneously reading business studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. By the time he came to selling up, he had more than 100 shops, plus spin-off companies handling shopfitting, manufacturing and currency trading. Why currency trading? Because Singh got annoyed at not getting the best rates when he was buying overseas. Likewise shopfitting and manufacturing. If you can't get a good price, do it yourself.
It's a pretty extraordinary story for someone not yet 20. How deeply were his parents involved? Not at all, he says. His father was against the plan from the start and wouldn't even act as guarantor with the suppliers, though clearly his trade connections helped.
Others back that up. 'They were supportive,' says Sanjay Dhir, the Leeds-based entrepreneur whose Time Design company supplied watches to Miss Attitude. 'But what Reuben's doing is different. They weren't in retail, and they are certainly not in IT.'
In fact, Singh describes Miss Attitude almost as an act of rebellion: his father had wanted him to stick to the family business, and had eased him in, letting him handle sales while still at school. He also gave him the kind of perks that would wed him to the job, including a pounds 40,000 BMW for his 17th birthday (this from a father who Singh describes as 'very conservative' - though clearly he has a romantic streak: he wanted to call his eldest son Ruby until his Jewish neighbours suggested Reuben might be a kinder choice).
Singh, however, found that the perks just made his own friends resentful. That was what made him so determined to set up on his own: to prove he could do it himself. He even gave the car back. 'Dad thought I had gone berserk,' he laughs, 'but I wanted to do things my own way so people would see it was my success, not my father's.'
So he built up Miss Attitude. By 1999 he had 1,000 employees and was talking openly about his aims for 500 stores. There was also talk of flotation and diversification - in fact, talk about everything, which, I have discovered since, is what some feel Singh's real strength is. Conference speaker, the youngest self-made millionaire in the Guinness Book of Records, portrait in the National Portrait Gallery ... His own PR is almost bigger than the achievements themselves.
Which is the way it is, of course, with young entrepreneurs in the post-Branson age. Singh sells himself hard, a trait that doesn't surprise his business contemporaries. 'With all entrepreneurs,' shrugs Dhir, '30% is achievement and 70% is personal marketing.' However, it does make a few who've dealt with Singh rather sceptical about his claims.
There are, for instance, certain blank spots that you can't get information on. 'I would be very surprised if you can find anything on paper about his companies or how much money he has,' says one who has researched Singh. Even when Singh sold the Miss Attitude chain to Klesch Capital in early 1999, it was unclear how much money he made from the transaction. Was it pounds 50 million or was it pounds 22 million? Or did he, as one newspaper recently surmised, walk away with only pounds 500,000?
Ask Singh and he becomes uncharacteristically tight-lipped. 'We sold the company on a non-disclosure agreement for between pounds 500,000 and pounds 50 million. The non-disclosure agreement lasts for four years. Only thing I will say is that within a month I'd incorporated two companies with pounds 7 million in them.'
Yet the last records filed in Companies House for Miss Attitude show a firm making a profit of only around pounds 300,000 on a pounds 4 million turnover, and carrying debt. Maybe it wasn't as successful as everyone thought? Gary Klesch, founder of Klesch Capital, doesn't want to talk about it either. Why not? Won't say.
All very mysterious. So why did Singh sell? The chain had simply ceased to be the main focus of his interest, he says, and he wanted to move on to other projects. Would he ever go back? 'I have done retail now, no challenge in it,' he says.
Actually, his first thought after selling was of retiring - at 22! - and living off the interest of his capital. He planned a five-month holiday in America, but it lasted little more than a week because he got so bored. Instead, he went to Palo Alto in Silicon Valley and started looking for new opportunities, just as the e-business bubble was pumping up. He could feel the excitement. Hence alldayPA.com. Wrong time to launch a dot.com? No, he says, he loves going against trends.
What motivates him, then? Profile? Cash? Cars?
No, he says, just 'keeping busy'. So he runs his various projects (38 companies set up), juggling ideas, looking for options. 'It's in his blood,' says one friend. 'He's a player like everyone else and he wants to win. And the more he wins, the more he wants to play.'
In that he is no different to his parents, and his younger brother Bobby, who ran Singh's shopfitting business before branching out on his own. It's a whole dynasty of entrepreneurs. And they all still live together in the family home in Manchester. Well, nominally at least, as Singh has promised his parents he will keep a base there, but he is often travelling somewhere else. Yes, he says, he does want to move to America (has he told Tony Blair?), but only if he can persuade his parents to come too, and they are keen, apparently.
Is that because America is a better place for entrepreneurs? No, he says, stroking the top of his beard, I don't think I could have succeeded anywhere else but Britain.
That's not answering the question.
OK, he says, if they move, it will be because of three reasons: weather, women and ... 'Help me, I'm looking for another W'. Finally, he gets one. 'Wealth, they are not so jealous of wealth in America.' A big chuckle emerges from the beard. 'See how great I am, I thought of three!'
Women? I thought he had said he wanted to marry a Sikh? There has been much speculation in the past about his love life, about how he had sacrificed girlfriends for business success, with the hint that he was probably a bit of a Mummy's boy - he says so himself. Why does he need to go to America to find love?
'You find me an Asian girl in this country. I've looked.'
Does she have to be Asian?
'Culturally,' he says, 'I think it is important.'
He has, he continues, become more religious since he has been successful. He recently got baptised near the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, spiritual home of the Sikh religion. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't eat meat and is now a stricter observer of Sikh religious practices than his parents. He has stopped cutting his beard as well as his hair. So a Sikh wife is best.
How long is his hair?
Actually, he laughs, most of it is dropping out, he's probably going bald like his father. Ha! His dark eyes twinkle. And later, when we have moved outside for the photoshoot, Singh is still geniality itself. He poses against a wall, squats down by his beloved car. He looks every inch the star, passers-by admire the Bentley, even ask for his autograph. Just before he leaves, he asks if we could blur the car's number plate in the pictures. Sorry? Oh, he's had a couple of threats in the past - like any high-profile businessman, he is vulnerable to cranks, doesn't want to be too visible. When he leaves, Harry Borden and I turn to each other and ask: so why buy a bright yellow Bentley with a personalised plate?
And then it all gets a bit difficult. Singh goes off to America, won't return my e-mails, won't pass on the promised contact names and numbers. Eventually he rings MT - not me - and asks for the article to be pulled. More threats have come in, he says, the police want him to adopt a low profile. No publicity, no interviews; he may even have to sell the Bentley. But it's too late to drop the piece, there's nothing we can slot in. Oh, well then, he says.
It is not, I am told, the first time he has cited threats as a reason for dropping an interview he's given. I'm puzzled, so I ring him. He sounds morose. The threats are genuine, he says, probably not racist, just people motivated by envy. Gradually he warms up, giving me a crash course in the Sikh religion when I fact-check some items, telling me about the little sword he carries, and the comb, and then his enthusiasm returns. He quizzes me on the article, telling me what should be in it, clearly keen to write it himself.
'That's Reuben,' laughs one of his friends when I tell them later. 'He just kind of takes over.'
And in the end, I am not quite sure what I am left with. A charming chancer who's moving so fast it's impossible to pin him down? Or a precocious talent who'll eventually be pushed out of this country, either by his own ambition or our petty-mindedness?
I just don't know. The Government is convinced. I'm not - not yet, anyway. What's easy to forget is he's only 24. Perhaps I shouldn't interview him like he's a 44-year-old. The only problem I foresee is that, even at 24, he is giving himself an awful lot to live up to.
SINGH IN A MINUTE
1976: Born 20 September in Cheshire, educated at William Hulme's Grammar School and Manchester Metropolitan University
1995: Founded Miss Attitude
1998: Cited in Guinness Book of Records as UK's youngest self-made millionaire
1999: Sells Miss Attitude, becomes one of the Government's Ambassadors for Entrepreneurship and is invited to sit on the DTI's competitiveness council
2000: Invited to sit on the DTI's small-business council
2001: Invited to sit on the DCMS Government online advisory board.