What it means to be wealthy

Fantasies of making megabucks and living the life of Riley are one thing, but how does the reality measure up to the dream? Three self-made entrepreneurs talk about their money - where it came from, what they do with it and whether it has bought them happiness.

by Emma De Vita
Last Updated: 16 Jun 2016

The rich rarely bare their souls about their money. Talking about your money remains taboo in polite British society and, unlike our American cousins, we are still as likely to scorn those who have amassed a goodly pile as we are to make role models of them. Besides, who wants to hear about what it's like to be minted while the rest of us navigate another recession?

Actually, MT does. For good or ill, the wealth gap in this country is widening, and the richest members of society inevitably play a bigger part in the economy than the rest of us. They spend more money and create more jobs than the average man or woman in the street, so if the UK is to escape the economic mire, it will need their help.

So, in an effort to understand the nature of wealth and the wealthy, we asked three self-made multi-millionaire entrepreneurs to spill the beans on what it's like to be worth a fortune, at least on paper. What drove them to succeed? Has becoming rich changed them? And - the $64,000 question - has money bought them happiness?

Laura TenisonFirst into the confessional box is Laura Tenison, founder of JoJoMamanBebe, the mother-and-baby products retailer that now turns over £30.4m annually. She is also a past winner of the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Award. 'Wealth is a theoretical issue when you're running a business,' she says on the phone while wheeling a bicycle with a punctured tyre in the pouring rain. 'Having a successful business, not the money, has changed me' - not least by helping her realise her own abilities. 'I didn't succeed at school and I grew up thinking I was a failure. It took me until 35 to get over that. Money itself I'm not interested in.'

She has two sons and clearly regards JoJoMamanBebe - which she founded in 1993 - as her third child. 'I put the requirements of the business before mine for a long time,' she says. And most of her money is still tied up in it, so although a multi-millionaire on paper, she is paid the same salary as her fellow directors. 'I don't milk the company,' she says, adding that despite having lived in her south London home for 12 years she took the decision to pay off the mortgage completely only last year.

Does she ever feel guilty about her wealth? 'No, because I know I've worked extremely hard and I've done my best in running the business. Money is just a by-product of hard work.'

Becoming rich isn't often the prime motivation for entrepreneurs, confirms Professor Adrian Furnham, a psychologist at UCL and author of The Psychology of Money (Routledge). 'One of the most interesting things about successful entrepreneurs is that they don't set out to make money but to be successful. Money is the metric of success.' What's more, people's attitudes towards money are set in childhood. 'Profligate parents beget profligate children; obsessional, miserly hoarders are copied by their children or, in oppositional triumph, they spend it all.'

Tenison comes from a fairly privileged background (her father, Sir Richard Hanbury-Tenison, was a diplomat), but one where frugality was the norm. 'My family had no cash, but we had a big house and a lot of land (in Wales). We ate out of the kitchen garden,' she says. It has stayed with her - she may have the largest office at work, but she never puts the heating on.

Having money means security and being able to pay her kids' school fees, rather than living the life of a lottery winner. But she appreciates being able to share it. 'I enjoy being generous. When we took on a minority investor last year, I took the children and their friends to the Caribbean for a week.' She also bought herself a new bike, though perhaps she should have invested in puncture-proof tyres.

What about friends, do they treat you differently once you've made it? Tenison says she feels it's her duty to pick up the bill when she's out with mates, but it's easy to step on toes. 'I think some of my friends and my family accept that it's fine for me to pay more. Others can take offence - the politics of envy is alive and well, it seems. I don't think wealth brings you happiness. If anything, it ostracises you.'

So what is the relationship between money and happiness? Furnham says an income of £60,000 a year - twice the national average but much less than what our three guinea pigs pull in - is enough to make you happy, 'but after that you don't get much bang for your buck.'

Perhaps our tendency to sneer at success doesn't help. 'In the US, people don't envy, they emulate,' says Furnham. 'The British want to punish the successful. It's as if the rich are undeserving.'

Michael Acton SmithMichael Acton Smith, founder of MindCandy, parent company of online children's game Moshi Monsters, agrees that there is a strange attitude in Britain. 'I don't think people should begrudge the rich, because they are free to do whatever they want, whether that's giving to charity or buying a fleet of yachts.'

Only 38 years old and already worth tens of millions of pounds (his business, of which he owns 'a fair bit', was recently valued at £125m), Acton Smith doesn't own a yacht - or even a house or car. Instead, he likes to put his money 'to good use', whether that's investing in fledgling businesses, giving to charity through the Moshi Foundation or throwing wild parties for his friends.

'I like to do stuff with my money rather than let it gather dust,' he explains. Like Tenison, his driving force is his business. 'It's more fun building stuff than sitting on a yacht sipping cocktails,' he says. What's important about wealth for him is the freedom it brings, not the extravagances he could indulge in. 'I take the bus or get a taxi. I rent a house. The business takes up most of my time.' He plans to buy a home in central London one day, but the money has become a way of keeping score with other entrepreneurs rather than for accumulating trophy possessions or splurging on lavish holidays - which he says he doesn't have the time for anyway.

Acton Smith's upbringing was relatively modest - dad was a teacher, mum a chiropodist. They lived in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where he went to the local grammar school, and they had one holiday a year. 'I have a very normal and happy family,' he says, and claims his success hasn't changed the way his friends treat him - or not that he has noticed.

One thing he particularly enjoys is having the money to say 'yes' when he is approached to invest in other promising businesses. 'I like that I'm asked to help out.'

It's usual for entrepreneurs to want to invest their money themselves rather than keep it locked up in the bank, explains Dennis Hall, MD of wealth managers Yellowtail. It's because they are confident risk-takers. He also concedes that when it comes to money, it may be easier to make it than to look after it. 'You might be good at putting deals together but don't spend much time learning about custodianship, and there are lots of people out there who want to part you from your cash.'

To qualify as rich these days you need to have between £5m and £20m, says Hall. That's just entry-level wealthy. To be classed as super-rich, you need to have a net worth of at least £100m. And for entrepreneurs who have scrimped and saved for years to build their business, reaping the financial rewards can take a bit of getting used to.

'Younger (wealthy) people can go through a period of ostentation before they settle down,' he explains. So they'll buy the Ferrari or Rolls-Royce and the footballer-style mansion, only to sell them again in due course when the novelty has worn off.

Money can take its toll on relationships and is a common cause of marital problems, notes Hall. 'Sometimes, the non-working partner might feel less comfortable than the working partner, who feels that they deserve it.'

But let's not get too upset - being filthy rich has many upsides. For one thing, money enables you to be true to yourself. Says Hall: 'It allows you to demonstrate the kind of person you are.' You can give to the causes you believe in, gain influence within your community and the power to change things you don't like. It can also give you entry into social circles you would never otherwise have access to.

Mike ClareMike Clare, the 57-year-old founder of bed business Dreams, is officially super-rich. Worth a reported £242m, he is 320th in the Sunday Times Rich List and he enjoys his money, speaking to MT from his private apartment on The World. Billed as the largest private-residence 'yacht' in existence, this vessel is 200m long, a floating city of super-luxury apartments peopled by those who can afford the $3m or so purchase price and monthly service charges of $20,000.

Clare and his wife spend three months of the year aboard, courtesy of the £230m he made on the sale of his business in 2008. He remembers vividly the day he received the proceeds, checking his current account on 8 March that year and staring at the seven noughts. 'I paid off the mortgage and bought a brand new Rolls-Royce.' But he soon regretted what he calls an uncharacteristically flashy purchase. 'I was being a bit of a show-off and I don't like to be like that.'

He spends his money on travel (including his apartment on The World), restaurants, investing in his property business and giving to the Clare Foundation. He also has more modest and quirky indulgences, such as buying the row of seats in front of him when taking his family to the cinema. Quite a distance from his modest middle-class childhood, imperilled by the sudden death of his father when Clare was 12.

Taken out of prep school, he went on to the local comprehensive in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. He thinks money is important if you can't afford to own your own property, go on holiday or have the average things in life. 'In the very early days of a business, your motivation is to be your own boss. Money is up there as an important thing but once the business has a certain success, it becomes more a measure of how well you're doing.' Initially, he admits, his newfound riches distanced him from his friends, but the good ones have remained (he throws big parties to treat them). And he has made new ones from the moneyed circles he now moves in, friends able to understand the issues that come with being super-rich.

Has his fortune changed him? 'You have a different perspective on life. You meet people you wouldn't have, such as politicians. I think that's exciting, and it's a lot about giving back to the community.' He says his four children have handled their newfound wealth pretty well, though Clare is careful to vet their girlfriends and boyfriends for what he calls 'gold-diggers'.

It's obvious that it isn't just the money that makes Tenison, Acton Smith and Clare tick, more the adventure of becoming their own boss, building a sustainable business and putting something back into society, whether through philanthropy or job creation. As John D Rockefeller (no slouch himself at moneymaking) put it: 'If your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it.'

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