THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW - JAMES DYSON - The art school graduate who made a fortune from the bagless vacuum cleaner still reckons he's not in business to make money. A mass of irreconcilable contradictions, he broke all the rules to achieve success - and doesn't care what anyone thinks of him.
The key to success is failure, I would guess. Not other people's failure, but how you respond to failure yourself. Everyone gets knocked back, no one rises smoothly to the top without hindrance. The ones who succeed are those who say, right, let's give it another go. Who cares what others think? I believe in what I am doing. I will never give up.
James Dyson nods. 'You're right,' he says. 'Success is made of 99% failure. You galvanise yourself and you keep going, as a full optimist.' But it is not just perseverance that counts, he goes on - it is hope. 'I think hope is the most important element in success.'
And look where it has got him. The inventor who for more than a decade was told his idea for a bagless vacuum cleaner was as worthless as carpet dust now sits on a £500 million fortune, sees his picture on the cover of the Sunday Times Rich List and finds himself feted by the great, the good and the greedy. All because he never gave up, and broke all the rules by designing, engineering, manufacturing and marketing his own invention.
The great British public and others are now happy to pay nearly £300 a go for one of his finely sculpted machines and even bitter rivals like Hoover have adopted similar technology. And is he content? Mostly, but let's just say that at times he also seems a bit ambivalent about it all.
'I am not in business to make money and I am not in business to get big,' he sighs, leaning back behind the marble-topped table in his vast first-floor corner office at the ever-growing Dyson headquarters in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. The main building, a coolly modern, glass-fronted block, topped with a wavy roof designed by Chris Wilkinson, is currently being extended to incorporate Dyson's expanded research and development arm. 'But I am in a funny position, in that I am making money and I am getting big. I am very proud of that, but I wasn't interested in making money. The product is the most important thing.'
He smiles, his manner courteous and charming in a rather old-fashioned, aloof sort of way. That is something I wasn't expecting: the sheer upper-crustness of James Dyson. Somehow, after all those stories of him beavering away in his potting shed workshops, I was anticipating something grimier, and something more cerebral. In fact, he is the least likely boffin inventor you could meet. Tall, lithe, exquisitely dressed in dark turtleneck, blue cotton trousers and black suede loafers, he looks and talks like a big-boned Nigel Havers. Only that redoubtable jaw line gives a hint of the stubborness underneath. Stubborn, his wife Deirdre tells me, is one of the key Dyson adjectives. And, of course, optimistic. 'He has always had an absolute belief in what he is doing,' she says.
It is that belief which kept him going during the hard times. Anyone still unfamiliar with the story of how he built his business - progressing from the Royal College of Art in the late '60s to designing boats, inventing the ballbarrow and then setting up on his own to produce a revolutionary vacuum cleaner that rival manufacturers tried to kill at birth - should read his autobiography, Against All Odds (Orion Business, 1997). It is remarkable if only for the fact that he names his enemies so plainly, unusual in business biographies: people who stood in his way, executives who tried to rip him off, friends and even family who failed to have faith. This is not a man to cross, you realise, reading it. He never forgets.
'Oh God,' he laughs when I ask him out about it. 'The book did cause me a lot of trouble.'
Because of the hurt?
Not really, he says, more because of the names the lawyers made him leave out.
Frightened of another lawsuit?
He laughs again. In some ways the book, like his life, is just a running list of the endless litigation he has been forced to fight here and abroad to protect his invention. Lawsuit after lawsuit.
Doesn't he ever feel he is too litigious?
'Actually, I am not very litigious,' he says crisply. 'I avoid legal action like the plague, and the only action I have ever started was against someone else who infringed my patent. The rest I defended. But I will fight if necessary and fight hard, and I'm very competitive.'
At 52, the son of a Norfolk public school teacher, Dyson has become a celebrity not just because of the success of his business - after all, vacuum cleaners can only be interesting for so long, however much money they make you - but because of the manner in which he has chosen to front it. He is not the first design-trained celebrity boss to insist on total control over everything (Sir Terence Conran springs to mind). But he is the first in years to have built a manufacturing company the size of Dyson Appliances (1,300 employees and £190 million turnover), and to have kept it all to himself, thus stopping others from challenging his judgment.
Total control comes in all shapes and forms. Dyson preaches openness, honesty, quality, service. If your machine breaks down, you ring a hotline and it is picked up the next day, repaired and couriered back - extraordinary, if you think about it. When it comes to corporate strategy, he insists there will be no mergers or acquisitions, no messing with the City. 'I could buy companies, tart up their products and put my name on them, but I don't want to do that. That's what our competitors do. There will be no 'new brooms', 'cutting the fat' or any other business jargon. It's just not my style. I'm sure we make huge mistakes here, and at times we are too fat, but I think what we're trying to do is worthwhile.'
At the same time he runs his factory and offices like an extension of his old garden workshops. He surrounds himself with young staff, many just fresh out of college, and lays down the rules: employees should try to cycle to work, no fry-ups in the canteen, no smoking, no suits and ties ...
'I suppose it is,' he says, rather languorously, as if he doesn't really care very much what anyone thinks. That kind of placid acceptance of a criticism is very much in character, according to Professor Christopher Frayling, rector at the RCA, where Dyson now sits on the council.
'He is always very direct, no bullshit,' says Frayling. Some people find that rather intimidating.
He is certainly a mass of irreconcilable contradictions: a brilliant businessman who hates commerce, a champion of the new with some rather old-fashioned values, a skilled inventor who says he would rather be known as 'a maker of things'.
He says he gets his ambivalent attitude to business from his family - a long line of teachers and vicars. 'No one in my family had anything to do with business,' he drawls. 'My grandfather, who was a headmaster, wouldn't even speak to a man who moved in next door because he was in trade!'
But you can bet it also comes from having been denied success for so long. When he left the RCA, Dyson worked for his mentor, Jeremy Fry, another engineer-turned-entrepreneur who made a fortune designing and making motorised valve actuators for pipelines. After leaving Fry, it was a long, perilous slog to achieve success, dogged by debt. Even now, Dyson seems to enjoy the position of permanent outsider, not accepted into the manufacturing world because he has so obviously cocked a snook at other industrialists, and not accepted into the design establishment because he manufactures.
He just does his own thing, like the heroes he cites: the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the American designer Buckminster Fuller (inventor of the geodesic dome), Mini supremo Sir Alec Issigonis, appliance king Ken Wood. All men of vision who, as he puts it, saw things in a different way.
He says he has always felt different, ever since his father died when he was a child. 'Losing a father makes you feel incredibly disadvantaged emotionally. There isn't that person willing you on - there to help you.
No one there to rebel against or draw things from. You become horribly self-reliant, and you grow up quicker in one sense, and never grow up in another.'
Certainly he looks about 15 years younger than he is - he's a health fanatic, running three times a week and watching what he eats. His 27 year old son Jacob, also a designer, calls him 'Peter Pan' and there is, according to those who have worked with him, a certain childlike quality in his enthusiasms, a naivety which encourages him to break rules and challenge the status quo when others might think it batty to do so.
There is also an obsessiveness that often surprises. He is so dogmatic on some issues that at times he seems mildly eccentric. He assails smokers in restaurants, lecturing them: 'It's just like me farting in your face. How would you like that?' He jumps up and down when he sees people spreading butter on toast, saying: 'Disgusting, greasy stuff!'
And pity the new recruit who turns up in a suit and tie ... 'When you see groups of businessmen in suits and ties at hotels and conventions, they do so often look deeply unattractive, don't they?' he says, sounding like a character out of an Oscar Wilde play. 'They look like a group of policemen or soldiers - rather threatening. We are in a consumer-oriented business and I want everyone here to remember that people are just like us. We are human beings, not businessmen trying to shaft the consumer at home.'
Likewise, he thinks an interest in money is rather vulgar. He is not a fan of paying people bonuses to hit targets. 'I think the whole principle of bonuses is demeaning. If someone needs a bonus to motivate them, they are not the sort of person who should be in business, in my view. Somebody is here because they believe in what we're doing and want to go with that and make a difference, and get great satisfaction themselves, and achieve things.'
Really? Easier to say when you are worth £500 million, I guess. What does he draw as salary?
'I'm not sure I know, and I'm not sure I would like to reveal it anyway,' he says.
Well, and I suspect he will think me rather awful for writing this, the last documents filed in Companies House show he paid himself £794,000 in 1996 and £2.3 million in 1997. Over the same period, the worldwide turnover of Dyson Appliances (J Dyson: 100% owner) leapt from £72 million to £150 million, so no one is complaining - but I still think he should be careful on the subject of bonuses.
What does he spend it on? A £3 million estate bought from Lord Puttnam, houses in London and France, constant helicopter and private jet travel, beautiful furniture for office and new home.
If this suggests he has got rather grand, he hasn't really, as everyone from his friends to the local cab drivers assure me.
He bought Puttnam's house because it was only five minutes from his factory, he uses the helicopter so he can get home quickly when he is away. All he really wants to do is spend time in his beloved engineering department.
Time is everything at the moment. 'The worst thing for James is not having enough time to fit everything in,' says Deirdre. Which is why his obsession for total control will probably have to end soon. No company can grow as fast as Dyson Appliances and refer everything through one man forever.
Nor will Dyson himself be able to attract executives with sufficient experience to manage that growth without offering them a stake in the business.
He acknowledges all that, although at the moment he says he is very happy with his young graduates. The only people he ever loses, he says, are those already tarnished with experience of working elsewhere. With his graduates, he is nearly always right.
'I think there are psychological reasons why it is better for me to have 100%. Perhaps because I am rather lazy - no, that's the wrong way of putting it - I cannot be bothered with the process of going round convincing other people that what I am doing is right. And you have to do that if you don't control all of it.'
But he does agree that it is 'inequitable' that he should keep 100% in the long term, 'because others are making such a big contribution. It is right that they should have a stake.'
'There are no plans to do so yet,' he says, with a winning smile.
Friends point out that he learnt early on in his business life that control is the last thing you give up. He fell out badly with his sister and brother-in-law after they ousted him from the company he had set up to produce the ballbarrow in 1979. Like everyone else, before and since, they presumed that because he was a designer and engineer, he couldn't be trusted to run the business. Dyson was so aggrieved that he didn't speak to either of them for 10 years. And now?
'Relations are repaired, but they are not quite what they were before,' he says, with his usual disarming honesty. Many people would answer 'fine' but Dyson cannot bear pretence. Like his transparent vacuum cleaner, he really is a man with nothing to hide.
Except where his next big product launch is concerned. Dyson won't talk about it, and others dismiss as pure speculation reports that he is working on a super-fast washing machine. 'James told me that no one in Malmesbury had briefed the media. The stories could be way off,' says Frayling, who is more likely to know than most, as so many of his graduates are working on it.
The likelihood is that the company has teams working on a number of projects, including the washing machine. But so sensitive is Dyson to competitors getting wind of what he is up to that even close friends are met with screens of black drapes when they visit the Malmesbury engineering department.
Such is his enmity with mainstream rivals like Electrolux that he is obsessive to the point of paranoia about giving anything away.
The strategy has its problems. One upshot may be that, like a best-selling rock star producing that 'difficult' second album, Dyson will find the world distinctly underwhelmed by his next offering.
If there is something that wakes him screaming at four in the morning, that, say his friends, is likely to be it. Dyson himself says that the threat of rival technology worries him constantly.
Another danger is that people may tire of Dyson himself. He acknowledges that he has quite deliberately used personal publicity as a method of raising awareness about his products, pitching himself as the little guy taking on the big sharks, just as Richard Branson has pushed himself forward to promote Virgin.
Another way of looking at it, of course, is that he has become rather vain. That certainly is the impression given to many who haven't met him - who look at the designer casuals, and the name on the company, and the way he puts himself about, and conclude that maybe, just maybe, he fancies himself a bit.
It's unfair because, according to those who know him best, he is not a vain man and would never appear in Dyson advertising. But when everyone wants a piece of you, it's sometimes hard to say no.
Certainly Deirdre Dyson, who met and married him at art school and held the family together in the tough years by teaching (she is now an acclaimed painter), is quite open about the fact that she thinks her husband should rein in his external commitments. 'He is getting invitations to things like Question Time, and I have said to him, 'What's this got to do with who you are and what you are doing?' He has got to trim it back.'
Yet having a face to promote a company really helps. It is a catch-22 that Dyson has to struggle with. 'God, I hope people don't get sick of me,' he says, running his hand through his elegant grey hair. 'My interest is in the practice of making and engineering things, and doing it with a complete lack of marketing hype, and I hope that shines through. I am putting down very deep roots. We want to be here in 30 years' time. We want people to buy another Dyson. It is a hugely important part of our business ...'
And then he seems to peter out, as if confused by the fickleness of people.
Does he feel a kinship with other high-profile entrepreneurs, such as Branson?
'Not at all,' he says. 'I admire what Branson has done - the huge optimism, standing up to big people, providing an alternative - but he has done it in a different sphere to me, the entertainment sphere, and it is not what I am interested in. I want to do it in the engineering field with boring products like vacuum cleaners.' And then he laughs, still enjoying the joke that he has managed to turn such a mundane object into a designer item.
You can't help feeling that he is a one-off. Although he has been assiduously courted by Tony Blair's image-men and has accepted a CBE, he appears to have kept the politicians at arm's length. Likewise other industrialists.
He won't sit on any other company boards as a non-executive - he gets offers all the time and turns them down. Instead, he devotes his spare time to the RCA, to the Roundhouse in London (where he designed the original auditorium as a side-job for one of Jeremy Fry's friends in the late '60s) and to the Design Museum, where he is now chairman and has opened a Dyson Centre for Design Education and Training.
Getting people interested in creativity and in making things is, he says, what he wants to use his wealth and influence for - his 'mini-crusade'.
Otherwise, apart from running and tennis, he says he doesn't really have any interests.
'I've always realised that if you go to a sixth form and try to explain to them why what you do is fascinating, it sounds boring. Yet the media seems very glamorous to schoolkids. Even accountancy is glamorous to some kids. Why is that? It must be something about the lifestyle and what we do. My theory is that it goes back to the last century. Britain had the option of channelling its intelligentsia into industry or choosing to rape the world as a band of pirates, and it chose the latter course because it was easier. Our best brains went out to rule great areas, and that became our vocation. The hard work of industry is not attractive.'
And it is in making things, he says, that he has always found his greatest comfort. It is what kept him going when no one would back his idea: the thought that if everything finally went belly-up, he could support the family just by making furniture, like he used to at art school. 'In a curious way, the need for readies has never been as important to me as building something,' he says. In that deep well-spring of creativity, he has never lost hope.
'Speak to anyone when you're writing this,' he says, shaking my hand.
'No one feels they have to be nice about me, God forbid.'
DYSON IN A MINUTE
1947 Born in Norfolk; educated at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk; Byam Shaw art school; Royal College of Art
1970 Joins Jeremy Fry's Rotork to create marine division
1974 Gives up Rotork directorship to develop ballbarrow
1977 Ballbarrow wins Building Design Innovation Award
1979 Sells out of ballbarrow to develop vacuum cleaner
1986 Licences G-Force vacuum cleaner for sale in Japan
1987 Commences lawsuit in US against previous licensee for patent infringement
1992 US lawsuit settled
1993 Launches Dyson DC01 vacuum cleaner in UK 1995 Dyson DC01 becomes UK's best-selling vacuum cleaner. Subsidiaries in Australia and France follow 1998 Awarded CBE in New Year's honours list.