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Julie Tucker
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Deborah Meaden: How to become a successful entrepreneur

Dragons’ Den investor Deborah Meaden knew from an early age that she wanted her own business. She launched her first company at the age of 19 – and today she is worth an estimated £40 million, as a result of numerous successful ventures.

She became an entrepreneur after leaving school at 16 and studying at business college. Her success led to her regular appearances as a “Dragon” on the BBC2 television programme, Dragons’ Den. In 2006, she first joined the panel of millionaires, who decide whether to invest in new innovations.

She has reportedly invested a total of more than £3.3 million in 63 businesses on the show, having made her fortune by following the ethos, “It’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re heading.”

Early years
Born in Somerset in 1959, Meaden attended Trowbridge High School for Girls, leaving after taking her O-levels and studying business at Brighton Technical College. She credits her parents for teaching her the value of money, as they didn’t give her pocket money – they felt she should earn her money because she would then value it more.

Her parents would pay her a couple of shillings to do jobs around the house, such as washing the dishes, cleaning and washing the car. Her first paid job was leading pony rides along the seafront at Minehead, at the age of eight.

She was always determined to launch her own business and at 19, she started her first company – importing glass and ceramics, and supplying upmarket retailers, such as Harvey Nichols. However, Meaden walked away after the goods appeared in other high street stores, despite her company having sole agency rights, as she couldn’t afford a legal battle. She reportedly said later, “I consider it a failure to slog on with a business that is going to die sooner, rather than later.”

She embarked on several other business ventures, as diverse as running a prize bingo concession at Butlins and launching a franchise for Italian clothing company Stefanel. She sold her stake in Stefanel to her business partner two years later for £10,000.

Holiday parks
She then worked her way up from the shop floor to operations director in the amusement arcade business. Later, she moved across to Weststar Holidays, the company’s holiday park side. Within a couple of years, she was promoted to managing director, expanding the UK family holiday company to cater for more than 150,000 guests per year. In 1999, Meaden secured a management buyout. After borrowing the required funds, she took over the business, describing her mood as, “Highly-geared, but happy to be in control.”

Her long term plan was to grow the business under her newly-formed group, TGGL, but Weststar was soon the target of multiple takeover approaches. Meaden sold the business for £33 million to Phoenix Equity Partners in 2005, retaining a 23% stake which she later sold to Parkdean Holidays when it bought Weststar for £83 million.

Dragons’ Den
Now a multimillionaire, she joined the panel of investors on series three of the TV show, Dragon’s Den. The businesses she has invested include the world’s strongest plasterboard range Grip It and Good Bubble, which manufactures natural health and beauty products to the British market.

Life wasn’t all plain sailing for the entrepreneur – in an interview in 2017, she admitted to being so poor as a child that her mother went without food, so the kids could eat. In her youth, Meaden ran up a credit card debt that was the equivalent of £20,000 today.

She has also revealed how she lost £500,000 during the financial crisis of 2008, due to a bad investment. She bought a “structured bond”, later admitting she wasn’t sure what it even was, just before the credit crunch, but she received a call later to say it had lost half a million pounds.

Remaining philosophical, she said, “It taught me a lesson – if you don’t understand it, don’t invest in it.”

Philanthropy
Meaden is an active supporter of many environmental charities and has been a judge of the annual Observer Ethical Awards since 2008. She is a fellow of wildlife charity the WWF and patron of the Tusk Trust, which protects wildlife, including saving African elephants from poachers.

Passionate about saving animals, she and husband Paul share their home with dogs, cats, horses, sheep, pigs, geese and other rescued animals. She says she strives to achieve a balanced life, where her family, friends, animals, business interests, projects and causes all have the proper amount of time.

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