John Madejski reverses his Rolls-Royce Corniche ever so gently up the driveway, leaning horizontally out the door to thwart a potentially sticky blind spot. This is not the sort of car you want to prang: the handmade silver convertible, registration 1JM, is number 49 of 56—never let it be said that Madejski doesn't look after his investments.
We're in the middle of the building site that will eventually become the entrepreneur's brand new Lutyens-style home in the middle of the lush, Berkshire countryside. He's especially keen to show off the view. "Look at that," Madejski says. "Staggering. I'm going to settle down here. In fact, I might just get married. I don't fancy living in that big house on my own."
You could call that his next project. For now, one of Berkshire's wealthiest bachelors has other things on his mind—not least the juggling of a raft of commercial interests, spanning property, broadcast media, hotels, restaurants, publishing and, of course, football. Madejski plucked unfashionable Reading FC from the jaws of the receivers in 1990, and has been instrumental in turning the club—Roy of the Rovers style—into the Premiership's latest success story. He now owns 98 per cent of the club he rescued from the brink. "When [Robert] Maxwell was alive I offered him five pounds a share. When he fell off his boat I got them for 10p. Funny old life isn't it?"
His latest project is a £500m redevelopment of Reading town centre. Where does he find the energy? "I'm driven by the desire to succeed," he says, simply. Before he started his own business, Madejski's ambition was, at one point, so acute it threatened to overwhelm him. But that's only half the story. The entrepreneur has an unquenchable community spirit—the desire to leave a legacy of substance. Madejski is Berkshire's patron extraordinaire. Education and the arts are two of his favourite beneficiaries.
The John Madejski Academy, in Reading, is part of the government's academies programme to build sponsored schools in disadvantaged areas. Madejski was, at first, surprised to hear that the new school would be offering its pupils breakfast every morning. "I thought: 'What's this, some kind of hotel?' The reason turned out to be that we offered them breakfast because they wouldn't have got it at home."
Sponsoring the Madejski Academy, which opened last year, cost him £2m, while £3m went towards creating a new space at London's Royal Academy of Art in 2004. A further £2m went to the V&A museum for a garden a year later. He also presented young musician Siân Philipps with an extremely rare 1699 Stradivarius violin (a Stradivarius of the same date was sold by Christie's for £1m in 2005). Madejski would rather not reveal how much it cost, explaining matter-of-factly: "She needed a decent violin to play on."
He's not particularly concerned about how it might appear. "People can think what they like about me. I don't care. It's never been a popularity contest. I do it all for the community. In my view, you start life with nothing and you end it with nothing. I'd like to enjoy it all before I kick the bucket."
Madejski takes a little while to warm up. We meet mid-morning, high up in the stands of the Madejski Stadium at his penthouse apartment, where he spends the majority of his time. It's a bizarre living arrangement and one that takes the concept of working at home to a whole new level: imagine Roman Abramovich's living room overlooking the club car park. Sprawled across an expensive-looking sofa, Madejski is initially cagey. Is it that he would really rather be somewhere else—or, at least, that he wishes I was somewhere else?
Closer inspection reveals this attitude to be bemusement. Madejski's got absolutely no idea why anybody would be interested in anything he's got to say for himself. "I feel a bit of a fraud," he explains. "I mean, these are just my opinions—why would anybody other than me be interested in hearing them?"
A football chairman with a sense of modesty: it's a rare species. Madejski refuses to employ a PR team to present him in a particular light. The shrewd look seems to say: "What will be, will be".
Shall we talk about the cars, then? "I'm a bit embarrassed about the cars. Obviously I can't drive them all." The fleet includes a couple of Bentleys, a Jaguar XJ220, an AC Cobra, and a Ferrari and two Rolls Royces: a drive full of supermodels. "Maybe I'll sell them," he says, but Madejski feels the point is he shouldn't have to.
"Entrepreneurs work bloody hard for their rewards." They shouldn't feel embarrassed that their success is measured by wealth, he reasons. His ire is reserved for those who think they can get something for nothing and particularly those expecting him to finance their good ideas. "The biggest bane of my life is begging letters. I get between 15 and 20 a day. That really irritates me. I suffer greatly from charity fatigue."
Madejski's own great idea occurred while on a trip to the US in 1976. He'd worked in a variety of jobs, from selling cars to driving a tractor on a Californian ranch, but his epiphany came in Florida, when he came across a magazine that used pictures to advertise cars for sale. Madejski immediately saw the potential and returned to the UK with the germ of an idea brewing in his head. He roped in a work friend, Paul Gibbons, who helped him take the idea to WHSmith—they called the magazine Thames Valley Trader. Initially, the publication was to sell everything from cars to antiques. WHSmith's chief buyer was far from impressed. "He said to us: 'Have you both got jobs? Well, my advice is get back there because this hasn't got a snowball in hell's chance of working.' That was pretty soul destroying."
Madejski and Gibbons persevered, naming their new company Hurst Publishing. "The first year we went to hell and back," recalls Madejski. They switched the main focus to cars, renaming the magazine Auto Trader, and did everything themselves, from selling ads to delivering the finished magazines to the wholesalers. "We built it from the bottom," says Gibbons. "It was a seven-day week. On Sundays we'd be out taking pictures of Mrs Brown's car."
According to Gibbons, Madejski was, and still is, driven by the fear of failure. "John sees an opportunity and if he likes it he wants to get hold of it and develop it. He never wants to fail at anything—that's why he always wins, because he's so frightened of losing."
Madejski and Gibbons partnered with the Guardian Media Group in 1982 to give the title national exposure. By 1998, they were publishing 52 titles with a combined circulation of more than 700,000. Madejski took his exit, selling Hurst to private equity firm BC partners for £260m. From his original stake of £1,100, Madejski walked away with £174m.
His newfound wealth prompted Madejski to delve deeper into the essence of business and the psychology of financial reward. Driving around in his Rolls-Royce, Madejski was irritated by the looks he received from passers by—some seemed to suggest he wasn't a hard-working entrepreneur, but a crook. "I believe people who make money are generally very hard working," he says. "There are rogues, of course, but in the main we are very hard working. I wanted intellectual research that could prove that."
Madejski's views intrigued the late Professor Keith MacMillan of Henley Management College, who felt they raised fundamental questions about the definition and values of business. Research into these questions proved that it all came down to reputation and good governance. "What is the essence of business? Business is all about reputation," says Madejski. "Governance is crucial."
He bankrolled the foundation of the John Madejski Centre for Reputation Management at Henley Management College to further this research. A decade later, the study of reputation is integral to Henley course work. "It's the shape of things to come," says Madejski.
The essence of football, of course, is now business, and reputation is taking a more central role. As leveraged buy-outs grow in popularity, ever-increasing levels of reputation management are required to demonstrate good governance. Last month, former sports minister Richard Caborn called the Premiership "a billionaire's playground"—and not in a good way. Madejski is sanguine: "He should leave it alone. It's too late for that now. Half of the Premiership is foreign-owned. It's closing the door after the horse has bolted."
As for player power, Madejski appears to be caught in the middle: the entrepreneur in him can't deny a player his just reward from the free market, yet the so-called free market is in danger of crippling the game. "I've got no problem with [the likes of] Beckham," he says. "I'm not bothered about footballers earning whatever—I just don't want to be part of it. It's gone too far. It's become a contest between these very wealthy people who can afford the best players."
Sixteen million pounds for Thierry Henry, £26m for Fernando Torres—for Madejski, the football juggernaut is out of control; a collective madness fuelled by a mixture of vanity and naïvety. "There are too many sycophantic people around—they just leave their brains behind when it comes to football." He pauses for balance: "You could argue that there's only so many good players and therefore the price reflects that." A perfect market, then, or a flawed one? "It depends where you're sitting," he laughs.
"You know what the media are like, unless it's got six noughts on the end they don't even want to know. Three million pounds for a player? Four? It gets meaningless. We are getting enormous sums of money for being in the Premiership, but the majority goes into players' and agents' pockets. It's all wrong," he says. "Will it implode? I wish it would. Sooner or later we're going to have to spend some serious money if we want to remain in the Premiership. And I mean serious. I don't want to be around when that happens."
With the club up for sale, Reading's next owner will have to be super-yacht rich. "I'll listen to sensible offers," he says, "but from billionaires only. Millionaires need not apply." The advert pretty much writes itself. Maybe there's a Russian version of Auto Trader.