In 2009, Chris Blackhurst foolishly challenged tycoon Richard Caring to a round of golf and was soundly beaten. Known for his famously complex coiffure and sparkling teeth, Caring, the piece noted, 'looks more like a snake-hipped, ageing ballet dancer than a business tycoon'.
Caring - who has resurfaced thanks to the HSBC tax hoohaa, allegedly withdrawing a briefcaseful of Swiss francs (over £2m) from the Geneva branch of HSBC back in 2005 - was giving little away about his wealth and where he keeps it. As Blackhurst wrote: 'Suddenly, you see how he can afford the restaurants and the art, and how estimates of his wealth - £350m, according to the Sunday Times Rich List - must be conservative.
'But getting a breakdown of how much International Clothing Designs makes is impossible - its accounts are offshore. The nearest Caring admits to is 'nine figures'.
Doubtless HSBC knows the real numbers.
Over 40 years, Richard Caring cornered the UK fast-fashion market, supplying 70% of the clothes sold by his pal Philip Green and other retailers. In a late change of tack, he built a portfolio of blue-chip clubs and iconic restaurants including Annabels and The Ivy. Now, recession or not, he's taking these brands abroad.
At the 11th hole on Wentworth's West Course, my golf ball is heading for the green. Instead of bouncing straight, it goes left, clips the edge of a bunker and ends up in the sand. 'Who put that bunker there?' I shout. From across the fairway, Richard Caring responds, laughing: 'I did!' He flashes a dazzling smile. I swear I've never seen anyone with whiter, more perfect teeth than Caring.
Golf has a reputation for stuffiness, and as one of the most prestigious clubs in England, Surrey's Wentworth should be right up there in terms of petty rules and stifling atmosphere. But it's not like that. Despite a joining fee of £15,000 and an annual hit of £7,000, it offers rooms that are relatively contemporary and a casual ambience. The service is warm and personal, the bar staff know how to make cocktails, and the menu in the main Grill restaurant name-checks dishes from London's Le Caprice and The Ivy.
Overseeing it all is Caring - at 61, a multi-millionaire Londoner who started out in the rag trade and now commands a global empire that takes in fashion, property and some of the world's most famous names in restaurants and clubs: Wentworth, Annabel's, The Ivy, Le Caprice, Cecconi's, J Sheekey, Rivington, Daphne's, Bam-Bou, Soho House, Mark's Club, George, Scott's, Electric House, Pasha, High Road House, Harry's Bar, Cote, the Bath & Racquets Club.
A large slice of Camden Market is also his, and the old US Navy building in Grosvenor Square (he plans to turn it into luxury flats) - as is Babington House, Somerset, the country arm of Soho House. That's just in the UK. Soho House club has gone overseas, to New York (it opens shortly in Berlin, Hollywood, Miami and Chicago) and Caring has just launched Cecconi's in Los Angeles. There's a Rivington in Dubai and soon there'll be a Caprice in New York.
Much of this has been accomplished at breakneck speed. While others such as Robbie Tchenguiz are paying the price for massive over-leverage, Caring is spending hard-earned money. In 2005, he was a relative unknown. He still is. He likes to keep a low public profile.
If he was known at all, it was as the man who supplied clothing to stores owned by his best pal, Sir Philip Green. Most of his time was spent in Hong Kong, where he had his home and main base. Then he embarked on a spending spree that has left the restaurant world gasping. And he shows no sign of stopping - his name is constantly linked with possible further purchases, the latest being Italian chain Carluccio's.
Caring likes to remain in the background, but there is no mistaking him. At 61, he may qualify for a free bus pass, but he looks remarkably well preserved - the result of running every day on Hampstead Heath with his German Shepherd dogs. With his thick, swept-back hair and lean frame, he looks more like a snake-hipped, ageing ballet dancer than a business tycoon.
In London, his home is a vast mansion near Kenwood House that he shares with his wife, Jacqui, a former model (they have two sons, Jamie and Ben, who both work for Soho House). It has a 55ft ballroom, cinema, a dining room that seats 30 and a two-acre garden with a lake.
His office is an anonymous modern building between Fitzroy Square and Euston Road. Caring's own lair is on the top floor. It's a huge room, with a fully equipped bar and a roof terrace that faces south across the West End. As well as the spectacular, sweeping view, it's the art that catches the eye. There are Degas drawings, a Matisse painting and, in the middle of the floor, a Henry Moore bronze of a mother and child. The sculpture had to be lifted in by crane, he explains.
When we meet, he is tired - just back from the US - but wreathed in smiles. He gushes superlatives. 'We've just opened Cecconi's in LA. It's going phenomenally well - it's already the destination restaurant for the West Coast.'
I gesture to the long board table that must be capable of seating 30. Who is the 'we', exactly? 'Cecconi's is under the Soho House banner, so it's done by the Soho House team. I share the main decisions with Nick Jones.' That's the Soho House founder he bought out last year.
He continues: 'We have our own interior designer. Cecconi's in LA is an updated version of Cecconi's here in Bond Street. In LA, I wanted a giant, retractable canopy - it's very expensive. We've got the most beautiful garden terrace. You should see it. Cecconi's LA is like London but with American touches, like valet parking.'
There's an American twang to his speech, and a wistful air about him when he talks about the US. Does he prefer it over there? 'It's becoming more of a magnet for me. It's more of a can-do society. We've just signed for Soho House in LA which - get this - we're trying to open in time for Christmas. It's fantastic, 20,000 square feet.'
Is he bored with London? 'It's my home, but we're moving along in the US very quickly. Before, I was very keen to build a presence in London, but now we've got a reasonable spread here. On the West Coast, I've had a fabulous reception. I'm looking at another site in LA for a Caprice - so we will have three different venues in LA: Soho House, Caprice and Cecconi's. It's the same in New York.' He grins. 'I'm working harder than I've ever worked.'
Surely, some of his places are suffering as a result of the recession? 'No, not really. People still want to pay for quality - more so than ever. They know they can rely on our restaurants to deliver what they want.'
It's hard to comprehend how one person can keep an eye on everything. How does he manage? 'Because of the excellent people we have in the business... I've never let anyone go who I wanted to keep. I choose the senior management myself. If we buy a business, we can evaluate quickly what they're like. We've built a team of good, committed, passionate professionals.'
There's no end game on the horizon, and he hasn't set a limit on the number of outlets he'll own. 'It's open-ended,' he says. 'Provided I can carry on to utilise synergies and to develop without damaging others, I will continue.'
His critics say he is brandishing a credit card, playing a high-stakes game of Monopoly, buying every square he lands on. He says no, there's definite method in his perceived madness. It's true that he has been adding London club and restaurant brands like there's no tomorrow, but part of his purpose, he insists, is to export some of them, to create a network that offers exactly the same standards to both local, upmarket crowds and to jet-setters who hop regularly from one major city to the next.
'I spotted an international gap in the market,' he says. In the restaurant business, 'there are single brands, but not a group of brands -which is what we do. There is only one Ivy, one Annabel's - there is nothing like them. A group of top-notch brands like them - that is what we're trying to achieve. There is a grand plan and it starts with building strength in London.'
He has identified three labels that he believes can travel: Annabel's, Caprice and Soho House. He draws three circles on a piece of paper and labels them. Each, he says, stands for different markets and values. At one end, there's Annabel's and the exclusive Birley clubs (Mark's, Harry's Bar, George and Bath & Racquets) that he bought from the legendary Mark Birley. 'They're refined, discreet, elegant.' (Detractors find them a little too Joan Collins and Oliver Tobias.) At the other, there's Soho House and its offshoots. 'They're for an arts, journalistic, younger crowd.' Between them is the Caprice group of restaurants, including The Ivy and J Sheekey.
Serving all their regular customers is Quintessentially, a universal, grand concierge operation. 'So, you might want to go from LA to Istanbul. Do you want to go private or scheduled? Do you want an upgrade? Do you want a car to meet you? What sort of hotel do you want? We will take care of all of these.' To that end, in London he's recently launched a scheme, Club Life, for members of the Birley clubs, so they can secure fast-track booking at his restaurants. 'It's going well - a lot of people are using it.'
And he's still got his fashion business, on which he says he spends three hours a day.
The son of an American GI father who settled in London after the war and married a nurse, Caring grew up in Finchley, north London. His father, Lou, set up in clothing, supplying stores like Marks & Spencer; he had his own showroom off Great Portland Street. In his youth, Caring was an outstanding junior golfer, and (I can vouch) he's still a formidable competitor. His handicap was scratch, he played for Middlesex and won a scholarship to Millfield, the sporty boarding school. He thought about turning pro but felt he wasn't quite good enough. 'I would have starved to death as a pro golfer,' he says, laughing that he even contemplated the move.
He left Millfield at 16. 'My parents thought it important I got practical work experience - they weren't bothered about university.' His first job was as an office boy for a shopping centre developer. Then his father decided he'd be better off in the family business, Louis Caring Originals, a dress manufacturer that employed seven. It was the Sixties and young fashion was lifting off. Carnaby Street was becoming a mecca and designers like Mary Quant were all the rage.
'I had a girlfriend at the Royal College of Art who was a bit of a designer. We ran up a range of mini-skirts on our machines. We sold them for 69s 6d, or £3.50 in today's money, and they cost us £2. Our target was 200 a week. After a few years, we'd turned 200 into 25,000.'
In 1971, Caring visited Hong Kong. 'I discovered Hong Kong in terms of clothing supply - I was the first to get it to move into fashion. Until then, its output was all basics like underpants.'
It can't have been that easy, I venture - not as straightforward as he pretends. 'I lived out of a suitcase. I was in one hotel room for a year - I never checked out. It's true, we had to make the same garment several times before we got it right, but once we got it right, we were able to produce it in mass volume.'
By 1979, he'd moved with Jacqui to the colony. They stayed nine years, raising their two boys there. 'Hong Kong is a transitory environment, but it's a fabulous place in which to work. I was working flat out, seven days a week. For me, then, it was all about picking up an opportunity and running with it - I didn't mind the hours.'
Caring cornered the market in fast fashion. One of the retailers he supplied in the UK was Philip Green. They became friends and close business associates. 'PG and I have known each other for 35-plus years.'
Caring is the dominant supplier to Arcadia, the Green-owned group that includes Topshop and Top Man. Theirs is not the normal retailer/supplier set-up but more of a partnership - although neither will say as much. They talk daily; they work together and they socialise together.
For Green's birthday, Caring once presented him with a Ferrari. They deny though, that they're in each other's pockets. 'We weren't just the supplier to Arcadia,' says Caring. 'We were also the main supplier to Next. In fact, we supplied most of the high street.'
How much does he supply? 'Ooh,' he says, 'about 70% of the clothing retailers in the UK.'
It's a large number to take in. Suddenly, you see how he can afford the restaurants and the art, and how estimates of his wealth - £350m, according to the Sunday Times Rich List - must be conservative. But getting a breakdown of how much International Clothing Designs makes is impossible - its accounts are offshore. The nearest Caring admits to is 'nine figures'.
Today, much of his business on the clothing side is in the US. 'It's an easier market to sell into,' he says. He employs 250 people in fashion. 'I've not lost the buzz for it.' He will quit fashion when he stops recognising and understanding the product, 'then I'll have to let it go. But I believe that for now I do understand the product. I work on all aspects - the styling, sourcing, producing, pricing - for different retailers. Nobody knows it better - I've been doing it for 40 years.'
So why the sudden shift into clubs and restaurants? 'I'd reached a point in late 2004 where I felt like doing something else, because the clothing business didn't particularly need me.'
His pal, the London property magnate Elliott Bernard, happened to phone him to see whether, as a golfer, he might be interested in buying Wentworth. Caring jumped at the chance and became majority shareholder in a deal worth £130m. The price caught the sport unawares - it seemed a ludicrous amount to pay for a golf club. When I question the cost, he says: 'It's priceless. There's only one Wentworth in the world.'
Bernard's offer came as Caring was caught up in that tsunami. He was in the Maldives at Christmas 2004, scuba-diving with his sons, when the giant wave passed over them. That morning, the dive-master had suggested they take a boat and sail to an atoll and dive nearby. It probably saved their lives. 'We were just lucky. We were about 100ft down. We dived for about 45 minutes and felt nothing. Later, we began to get hysterical calls from around the world asking: "Are you all right?" My first reaction was: "Why shouldn't we be?"'
Green sent his private jet to pick them up. 'My two sons nearly drowned with me,' says Caring. 'Did I see the light? No. But it does change the way you think, the way you look at the world.'
He later gave £1m to the Tsunami Appeal. Caring is a generous philanthropist, donating '£3.5m a year' to Fresh Start, a centre in Camden run by the NSPCC to combat child abuse and paedophilia. Through his giving, he became entangled in the Labour loans-for-peerages row. He loaned £2m, but his name was not on the list of those forwarded for honours. It's not something he likes to dwell on - suffice to say, he does not come across as a natural Labour supporter.
Having acquired Wentworth, he found the club's food needed upgrading, so he turned to the Caprice restaurant group for help. One thing quickly led to another and he took that over as well. Then came the acquisition of the Birley and Soho House clubs.
The industry was shocked at his entry into dining, but he can explain: 'Image, product, service - they're all things that apply just as easily to the clothing business as to restaurants.' And, despite the furious pace he has set, Caring says he's conservative and cautious. He stresses that he has bought only blue-chip names. His emphasis is on 'providing classic, quality dining - nothing else. We don't do sushi or tapas; we're not in that game.' He has also been careful not to change any restaurants too much.
Of all the clubs and restaurants he has bought, The Ivy has given him the most satisfaction. 'We brought it back to how it was. Left to its own devices, The Ivy would always be full, but we want a restaurant of integrity that serves a great crowd of people. Now it's back were it should be - it's as good as it's ever been in its history.'
Upstairs, he opened a private club. He wants to do the same at Annabel's, turning the rest of the Berkeley Square building occupied by The Clermont gambling club into a 'day club' with a tearoom and library.
Scott's, in Mayfair, also stands out for him. 'It was a derelict building and we turned it into London's best restaurant. If there's one place we've got the balance as I like it, it's Scott's. It's home-grown. Everything about it is just right - it's managed entirely as a business should be. We've made it into a brand. I really do believe it's the best restaurant in Europe today.'
Soho House, bought last year, came about because 'Des McDonald, our CEO at the Caprice group, suggested I should meet Nick Jones; he was in business with a multitude of partners in Soho House. Trying to get the board to do something was very problematic for Nick. To me, Soho House was the third area we weren't covering. We had Caprice and the Birley clubs, but the Soho House clientele are more arty.'
While his speed has been eye-opening, none of his deals has been simple. 'They're all different, they all require an incredible attention to detail by our team. It's not easy to find good sites - in London, in particular, they're hard to find.'
Caring has taken much flak - especially when he bought the Birley clubs - for being interested in the trade only for money. True, he does talk in terms of 'brands' and 'product', but he fiercely disputes the claim. 'Some Annabel's members said I was a "market trader", but hardly anyone has left. Annabel's has 7,000 members, and if you want to join today, it's a case of waiting for dead man's shoes. About one-tenth of 1% were sniffy, so that's just seven people.'
But best doesn't always mean high-end. 'I bought Strada (the family pizza and pasta chain) for £50m and sold it for £148m, 15 months later. Out of Strada came the guys who ran it. They've opened Cote (a chain of French brasseries) with my help, and the average price of a ticket there is £16. At the other end of the scale, you can go to Harry's Bar and spend £110 on lunch. The point about Cote is that it enables us to cover the spectrum, from £16 to £110 - and that gives us a good handle on what is going on.'
Not surprisingly, given his recent track record, he receives plenty of approaches with prospective buys, but most are rejected. 'Those looking to sell often have an inflated value of what a restaurant is worth.' So will he buy Carluccio's (where he has a 10% stake)? 'No,' he says.
One day, he hopes his sons may take over. 'The time will come for them to carry it on. If they show ability, they can carry on. If they don't, they won't. The early signs are that they should make it.' Does he have any regrets? He tosses back his mane of hair and displays those pristine molars. 'Only playing golf with you,' he chortles.
FOUR CHALLENGES FACING CARING
1. To supply the 30% of UK fashion retailers he doesn't already serve
2. To be careful not to spread himself too thinly across very different businesses
3. To ensure his sons prove worthy successors
4. To play more golf
CARING - IN A MINUTE
1948: Born London, 4 June. Educated Millfield School, Somerset. Plays competitive golf
1964: At 16, joins father's fashion firm, supplying retailers, including Marks & Spencer
1971: Goes to Hong Kong, exploits potential for suppling western fashion. Works with clothing retailer Philip Green
1979: Settles in HK. Builds up a business that comes to dominates the Far East rag trade, supplying 70% of UK clothing retailers
2005: Moves to London, buys Wentworth Golf Club for £130m. Deals for Caprice restaurants, Mark Birley's clubs and Soho House follow
2009: Expands clubs and restaurant empire overseas, opening Cecconi's restaurant in LA. Plans further openings and acquisitions.
This article was originally published in June 2009.