Lloyd Dorfman, the founder of currency exchange business Travelex, shares lessons learnt from 40 years of entrepreneurialism and looks ahead with The Office Group and Doddle – along with his role as chairman of the Prince’s Trust – and recalls his long association with the National Theatre
At school I was averagely middle of the road. I wasn’t a genius and I wasn’t an idiot. I think I failed economics A-level and I never went to university. St Paul’s school may not have directly nurtured my business instincts but it certainly provided me with a good solid background to get on.
Originally I thought I was going to become a barrister. In those days you could study the bar without having gone to university. I became a member of Lincoln’s Inn, but didn’t like studying. It’s where I met my wife-to-be. Her father invited me to join his [investment banking] firm in the City in September 1973 to gain commercial experience.
I had a baptism of fire. We had the quadrupling of the oil price overnight, miners’ strikes, three-day working weeks, the Middle East war, and the collapse of the stockmarket. As a 21-year-old apprentice it was an amazing learning experience.
I wanted to start my own business. As the Queen’s silver jubilee year approached and with lots of tourists coming to London, I opened my first bureau de change branch on 18 December 1976 on Southampton Row, near the British Museum, in London. For the first three months I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It turned out to be a fascinating journey. There isn’t a 40-year business plan to show how this little shop was going to become the world’s largest retailer in foreign exchange.
Sometimes you can think too hard about why you want to launch a business. Asked why I wanted to set up a bureau de change when travellers were only allowed to take £50 per head per trip [due to exchange controls], and in a world dominated by some of the oldest and largest banks and financial organisations… it’s often
a case of ‘ready, fire, aim’ than ‘ready, aim, fire’.
Your horizons adjust. When you start a business, the first thing you hope, particularly when you’re young, is that you’ll make a living. As it develops you hope you will make an even better living, then you start to think it would be quite nice to make some capital.
Persistence is a recurring theme through my career. I thought we’d never be a serious business unless we got an airport contract.
I had to fight to reverse two refusals just to be allowed to tender for the contract at the then un-privatised British Airports Authority’s soon-to-be-finished Heathrow Terminal 4. Sometimes long shots come in – and we won. Today, 43 per cent of the world’s airline passengers pass through terminals that Travelex operates in.
You can’t let a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity pass you by. In 2000, we acquired Thomas Cook’s financial services business for £440m. I had to fight to get into that auction after being barred by its shareholders. It turned out to be a very successful acquisition.
It’s really important to put something back. I first got involved with the Prince’s Trust 13 years ago to help young people get started in business, including many who didn’t have the educational background advantages I had. Last year I became the chairman.
Along the way I’ve done some quite interesting philanthropic things. The National Theatre Travelex Cheap Tickets is now a legendary sponsorship. In 13 years we have sold about 1.5 million cheap tickets for the National. Last year, 27 per cent of the people buying those tickets [subsidised by Travelex] were going to the National for the first time.
These days being chairman is not just about chairing the board. Inevitably you need
a very close relationship with the chief executive. In the case of the Prince’s Trust we have a responsibility to our founding president [Prince of Wales],
who is passionate and engaged.
Hopefully in some small way I have been part of [consumer] revolutions. The way people change money changed with Travelex. The way people are working is changing with The Office Group. We regard ourselves as the leading flexible office business in London. Traditionally, small companies wanted to be next to the big companies; now big companies want to be next to the small ones as it’s more creative.
The tectonic plates of retail are shifting. The challenge of online shopping is the last mile. Doddle is a start-up in the click-and-collect space. It is a really exciting thing to be involved with and comes with all the challenges of getting a start-up going. It’s a fascinating space.
Lloyd Dorfman CV
Born UK, 1952
1976 Launches the first Travelex bureau in London
1986 Travelex opens the only currency exchange at Heathrow’s Terminal 4
2001 Travelex acquires Thomas Cook’s global and financial services business for £440m
2002 Travelex sponsors cheaper tickets to the National Theatre
2005 Apax Partners buys controlling stake in Travelex – Dorfman is appointed chairman
2008 CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list
2010 Buys The Office Group and is named chairman
2014 Dorfman becomes Travelex president after the business is sold to Bavaguthu Shetty. Launches parcels storage network Doddle in link-up with Network Rail. Cottesloe Theatre at the National is renamed the Dorfman after he donates £10m for restoration of the Grade II-listed building.
2015 Appointed chairman of the Prince’s Trust and chairs Prince’s Trust International
For more information on 40 years of the Prince’s Trust, visit princes-trust.org.uk