The MT Interview: Mark Dixon

The founder of serviced office business Regus is no stranger to tough times - a veteran of three recessions, he's using this one to push for growth, opening 900 centres across the globe. And, as cash-strapped corporates increasingly turn to flexible working, the former hot dog vendor believes his day has come. Can he convince the City?

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Mark Dixon doesn't look like a man who is worth well north of £300m. His sandy hair is tidy enough but not slick. His suit is good but he doesn't wear it with the careful style of the plutocrat. His mien is unassuming and modest. He doesn't dominate a room, nor does his ego extend like a force field several feet out from his body. He's apparently no stranger to public transport, despite his nine-figure net worth, and you could easily pass Dixon on the street without a second glance. Except that the street you'd be most likely to see him on would be in the compact but tax-efficient principality of Monaco - Europe's 'Millionaires' Row', where he now resides.

So it's easy enough to believe him when he says of his career: 'It's never been about the money, that's a bonus. The business comes first. I am a normal down-to-earth person. Besides, all my money is invested in the business, I haven't got any oil wells.'

And that business, serviced office and flexible workspace provider Regus, is not doing too shabbily. He founded it in 1989 in Brussels to provide no-hassle, fully equipped meeting and office space, rentable for hours, days, weeks or even years as required.

Regus now has 900,000 customers and is in more than 90 countries, from Nigeria to Norway, Pakistan to Poland. It has just opened centres in Latvia and Uganda, and Dixon is even setting up shop in Kathmandu. First-half results for 2011 show a profit of £13m on revenues up 10% to £565.6m (of which the US accounts for some 40%), a healthy cash balance of nearly £200m, record occupancy levels of 86.7% and no debt. 'And we're a growth company which is paying a divi. We tick all the boxes,' he says.

But things haven't always looked so rosy. The 52-year-old Dixon has collected all the campaign medals you would expect of a veteran entrepreneur, plus a few more besides. He has started or run no fewer than nine businesses, and tasted failure too - Regus was by no means his first attempt to make it big. He's knocked about the world, been a bartender in Spain, farmhand in Asia and hot dog vendor then baker back in Blighty.

By the time he was 40 he was worth a billion, but the dotcom crash took most of that and he has never quite scaled those dizzy heights again. Oh, and his very public divorce in 2005 cost an eyewatering £28.5m, right up there with the likes of Sir Martin Sorrell at £30m and well ahead of the Prince of Wales, whose 1996 split from Diana cost a 'mere' £17m.

So if he is not overly flash with his cash, perhaps it's because he knows what it's like to make - and lose - a lot of money. But now he is safely out on the other side, he is sanguine about these dramatic reversals of fortune. 'Business is all about experience. Some of those experiences ... well, I wish I hadn't had them but they have definitely made me stronger.'

Born in Hornchurch, Essex, the son of an engineer at the Ford plant in Dagenham, his background was blue-collar middle class. Bright, savvy and energetic, he could have followed his mates to university. Instead, he left Rainsford Comprehensive aged 16, which horrified his parents. 'My father didn't speak to me for years, he thought it was a terrible thing. And I have had difficult conversations with my own kids on the same subject. But I left school the first minute I could, because for me it was just too slow. I wanted to get on with things.'

His first business - making sandwiches and delivering them on a butcher's bike - didn't last long. 'I didn't know about profit margins and I put in too much filling. My customers loved me but I got poor very quickly.'

But schoolboy errors aside, the bug had bitten: here was a bootstrapper in the making. After a couple of years working his passage around the world as everything from the aforementioned barman and farmhand, to miner and encyclopaedia salesman, he returned aged 18, bought a hot dog van for £600 and parked it up every evening by the side of the North Circular. 'It was a great starter business. Low capital, work hard, make money. And late at night with drunk people, they don't even have to be very good hot dogs.'

Fed up with always smelling of onions, he spotted a bigger and less malodorous opportunity - make the buns, not the hot dogs.

He started a bakery, the Bread Roll Company. It flourished and he sold up for £800,000 in 1989, enough money to finally do something he could get his teeth into. Looking to start a property venture in Brussels, he wanted to rent himself an office for a few days, and the idea for Regus was born.

And even though the firm is now a FTSE 250 operation with a market cap of over £700m, its boss's entrepreneurial instincts are as sharp as ever. He still owns 34% of the stock and sees opportunity where others would see only threats. 'We have had a pretty good recession,' he says, citing heavy investment in marketing, new property and services, plus a costly and slightly bad-tempered series of lease renegotiations that have put the firm's rents on a more sustainable long-term footing. Many landlords didn't like his take it or leave it approach but he is unrepentant. 'Recession should drive innovation, cost-cutting is good too, but the last thing you should do is put on your tin hat and put up the barriers. We did more new product launches in 2008 than in the previous 20 years, and now we're retailing, selling offices in WH Smith and on BA.'

That's fighting talk in this economic climate, when many firms with cash in the bank are leaving it there. The only call for tin hats in the Regus boardroom might be to protect the other directors from the stream of wizard wheezes coming from the boss.

His latest ambitious target, announced in the summer, is to almost double the number of walk-in office centres offered by Regus, opening 900 more by 2014, giving him a presence in 120 countries. He's also very excited by technological developments, such as high-end video-conferencing, and currently offers 20 so-called 'telepresence' suites - costing him £250,000 a pop - around the world, including one in the flagship Berkeley Square building where we meet. Using this impressive kit is akin to conducting a meeting via a surround-sound, high-definition cinema link, a world away from the echoing, stop-frame experience of a few years ago. It won't be long, he enthuses, 'before it will be like having the Star Wars Jedi council on your desktop'.

But, for now, the firm's bread and butter remains serviced offices, with blue-chip customers including Google, GSK, Starbucks and Accenture. 'Our core business is branch offices for mid to large-size firms all over the world.' The average is three people per office, he says, because firms wanting a larger set-up would do it themselves. But, for setting up a small outpost in a new location, Dixon's your man. 'We can do it for half the cost and none of the aggro. You can order it all on your laptop and be in business in Madagascar tomorrow if you want to.'

He walks the talk, working and sometimes apparently even living out of his briefcase. The only office he has is a small one at home; the rest of the time, trusty laptop in hand, he's his own best customer.

And he's a grafter who sets himself a punishing schedule of the classic 'if it's Wednesday it must be New York' variety. 'I learned very early in my career that you've got to get out there, talk to customers and employees. It's more important than ever now, because the bigger a company gets, the more people tell you what you want to hear,' he says. 'So next week I'm in San Francisco, Washington and New York, doing bottom-up reviews with our people there. I get them doing business development, and lift the skin to find out what people are really thinking. It's great.'

Affable and easy to talk to, it's easy to imagine him chatting to those at the sharp end, ferreting out precious nuggets that might be lost in the brouhaha surrounding a more larger-than-life character - more Terry Leahy than Alan Sugar. But for all the outward amiability, he's essentially a reserved person and doesn't give himself away easily.

All the globetrotting is a long way from his early days. Does he still get a buzz out of it now Regus has got so big? 'Yes, although it's a different kind of fun. At the beginning, there was just me and a few other people, it was about hanging on and sheer effort. Now the challenge is to develop a team to take the business forward.

'We've added more and better people to the management team and to business development. We always had good ideas, but we couldn't always execute them well. Now we can.' The latest change to the top team is a new FD, Dominique Yates, who joined from Dutch outfit LM Wind Power in August.

Rewind to those relatively early days, October 2000, when Regus floated on the London Stock Exchange. It's the height of the dotcom boom and Regus has grown massively, fuelled by hordes of eager start-ups with fat wads of venture capital burning holes in the pockets of their combat trousers. Within six months it's worth £2bn. Dixon's stake (60% back then) makes him a billionaire, at just 40. But before he gets a chance to enjoy it, the market crashes, half his customers are toast and suddenly he's fighting to stay afloat. He was especially vulnerable because, although many customers were on short-term rentals, Regus itself was locked into long-term deals with its own landlords.

In 2002 the flagship US business entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and only the sale of the UK operation for £51m and a desperate restructuring allowed him to salvage the situation. 'Those were very long days,' he says with feeling. 'But however bad things got I couldn't afford to let it show. It's about willpower and leadership, you just have to keep going.'

He did keep going and by 2006 had straightened things out sufficiently to buy the UK business back - but at considerable cost. Not only had much of his billion-pound fortune evaporated, but he had committed the cardinal sin of disappointing the markets. 'Never disappoint the markets,' he says simply. 'We're still not out of the doghouse: look at the share price.' Indeed, it is low and volatile, despite a pretty steady commercial performance. From under 70p in 2010, by March this year Regus was up to 119p, only to fall back again to the mid 60s by October. For the record, the original price at flotation was 260p ...

Perhaps the biggest casualty of all was his marriage. He met his ex-wife Trudy when he was driving a bakery van and she was a sub-editor on the Luton News. They moved - first to Virginia Water, Surrey, then to Connecticut, USA - and had two children together, Savannah and Joshua. (He also has three more kids from other relationships, making four daughters and one son in total.) But their 17-year union ended in that spectacularly expensive divorce. Was the break-up caused by his focusing too much on the business? 'Well, it didn't help. I could probably have done better at my work/life balance over the years.'

He does try to spend more time away from the business these days. 'I could work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, no problem. So I spend time with my kids, I like to sail and ski - one thing I don't do for pleasure though is travel.' He also owns a vineyard in Provence, but doesn't get the chance to spend much time there.

Consequently, he's learned to loosen the reins and delegate more. 'It's not easy but you have to do it or the business suffers. You have to let new people in, let them make a few mistakes - but not too many. Otherwise, what's it all for? If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, does it just come to an end? What a waste of time that would be.'

He gets twitchy talking about himself at any length - he much prefers to speculate about the future. This will belong to the mobile worker, he reckons - hence all those new business centres driven by remote technologies, the desire of employees to have more say in how they work and - since the recession - the imperative on firms to save money. 'There's a massive trend towards flexible working. It's the promise of the dotcom boom finally delivered, 10 years later,' he says. 'Now we're in the position where two-thirds of our customers don't have an office at all. They work from home and use our business centres when they need a base.'

Entry to this brave new vision is with the Regus Businessworld card, which gives holders access to all those business centres - complete with lounge, Wi-Fi and meeting rooms - around the globe. Starting from £200 a year, membership moves up in credit card-like steps - Blue, Gold, Platinum and Platinum Plus.

Take-up has been swift and not only among one-man-band types. 'Yell is a good example,' he says. 'It has just closed 18 regional offices and handed out 900 Regus cards instead.' Compared with an average per-desk office cost of £10,000 that's a big saving. 'The people are happy too because they don't have to traipse in to an office every day.' Regus calls it the 'flexible workplace' and there's even a slogan to match - 'Work your way'.

'It's the same in the US. We're opening up in shopping centres in small suburbs. It's hyper-local. Modern corporations still want to invest in a nice HQ, because it embodies what they're about.' People will congregate there for major gatherings and presentations, he says, but 'only a few will work there full-time'.

As with so many natural entrepreneurs, it's not obvious where his aptitude springs from. None of his three sisters is in business, nor his three older kids. 'One's a doctor, one's a teacher and the other is in films. They have their own lives and I'm happy with that.'

How about the other two? 'Well they're still young, they might,' he says. But the truth is he doesn't seem that interested in creating a dynastic company for future generations of Dixons to enjoy. 'The business is much bigger than a family concern.'

So what is the source of all that drive and vigour? 'I'm the kind of person who sees things differently,' he says simply. 'There are other people, other entrepreneurs, who do see things the same way as I do, but most people don't. I'm not trying to prove something but I do have a sense of insecurity. I feel that not making something of my life would be a terrible mistake.'

So how does he find life in Monaco? He pays himself a relatively modest £520,000 salary and is not, on the face of it, a typical resident of the world's second-smallest country, best known for F1 drivers and Euro-socialites. 'It's fabulous, I can sail from the harbour or be in the mountains skiing in a couple of hours. I travel so much that when I'm at home I like to be somewhere central. It's one of the perks of running the business that I can choose to live there.'

Hmm, presumably the fiscal policy helps a bit too?

But Monaco isn't quite the enclave of wealth and privilege that it appears, he reckons. 'It is actually a very quiet place, there are lots of ordinary people there, you just don't hear so much about them.'

Perhaps more controversially, his business is also based offshore, with registered offices in Jersey and an HQ in Luxembourg. This has led to accusations that Regus doesn't pay as much tax as it might. Dixon says: 'It's always been like that, the business was established offshore and it's moved several times. It's your duty as a business person to minimise the tax you pay, but we certainly do pay tax. We're paying a lot of tax everywhere.'

Over the years, Regus has also been the subject of numerous takeover rumours - perhaps because the stock market persists in undervaluing it. Lately, a few private equity types have also been having a sniff. After more than 20 eventful years, who could blame him if he did take the money, buy a private island and relax? Two years ago in September 2009, he trousered £36.4m after selling 35 million shares at 104p a share - although, of course, the stock price is now rather lower.

But there's no exit strategy, he insists, and he is very far from hanging up his boots. 'That's what everyone thinks, because they think about the money and what they would do. But the market is readier for Regus now than it's ever been, I'm excited, I'm still building the business and that's why I'm still here.'

THREE CHALLENGES FACING DIXON

- Convince City doubters that Regus really has got blue-chip potential and get the share price north of 140p where it belongs

- Achieve the double whammy of hitting ambitious growth targets while also preparing for the possibility of a double-dip recession in the US

- Get the 'Work your way' message out there, that the business's future is about on-demand workspace rather than the serviced offices that made its name

DIXON IN A MINUTE

1959: 2 November. Born in Hornchurch, Essex. Educated at Rainsford Comprehensive, Chelmsford. Leaves aged 16

1977: First business - a sandwich delivery operation - ends in failure

1988: Third time lucky. Sale of bakery business funds start-up of Regus a year later

2000: Regus floats for £1.5bn. US business enters Chapter 11 two years later, forcing sale of UK operation

2006: Completes turnaround, buying back UK business for £88m

2008: Launches Regus Businessworld 'office card' programme

2011: Announces plans for 900 new business centres by 2014.

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