“Every child is good at something.”
Knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and highly decorated with a series of other distinguished titles giving testimony of his charitable activities, Sir John Madejski OBE DL DLitt leaves a remarkable legacy with a number of institutions and buildings bearing his name: the Madejski Stadium in Reading, the John Madejski Academy, the John Madejski Centre for Reputation at Henley Business School, the Millennium Madejski Hotel in Reading, the John Madejski Garden at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the John Madejski Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy of Arts, the Madejski Lecture Theatre at the University of Reading and the Sir John Madejski Gallery at the Reading Museum.
We asked Sir John for an interview and met a man whose life and fortune have made him even more sensitive and receptive for the needs of others. He invests a lot of money in community related projects – and has a remarkable memory for the names of the companions in his life, may their contributions have been big or small.
His approach to education? “Every child is good at something. The educational system has to elicit what the individual student is good at. Once a child realises what they are good at, you’ve got them. If you have a child that knows their talent – boy! then you have something. They will be proud of themselves, they will know that they are unique and that they can contribute something.”
What is the proudest achievement of a man who seems to have accomplished it all?
Without a doubt the John Madejski Academy in South Reading (editor’s note: est. in 2005, a school giving first priority to looked-after children: children in foster care or the care of the local authority). I think, it is the best thing I have ever done. Simply because it is changing lives for the better. To see these kids is just amazing. When it all started, I asked the headteacher at that time, Kate Shaw: ‘Ok, so take me through your day.’ And she said: ‘First thing, the children arrive at 8 o’clock in the morning for breakfast club.’ I was surprised. What was breakfast club? ‘We take them to the restaurant, and they have breakfast.’ I said: ‘Kate, this is not a hotel – this is a school.’ And Kate said: ‘Well, if we don’t give them breakfast, they don’t have breakfast.’ This was the moment I realised what we were dealing with.
A long time ago I discovered that the only way to change some areas that are not up to the mark is through education. Once people have an education, they have different thought processes, they are able to think outside the box and can think of more interesting ways of determination.
My second favourite project is the ‘John Madejski Centre for Reputation’ at Henley Business School, a part of the University of Reading. You see, I realised that when I drove my Rolls Royce down the road, I sometimes would have people looking at me as if I had robbed a bank, though I had worked my socks off for years and years and years and I was just enjoying the fruit of my labour. If you want to make something of yourself, you have to put the effort in, you cannot just wait for success to come overnight. Yet people will always look at you in a certain way. So, when I met Professor Keith Mcmillan, Deputy Principal, at the then Henley Management College over 20 years ago, I told him that I would like him to prove the point that I was making intellectually. He got absolutely absorbed by the question and started interviewing small companies, large companies and international companies. Questions like: What is business? What is it all about? What is the science of it, the intellectual value? It comes down to reputation. Today, we are at the forefront of the science of reputation. We now advise governments and multinationals on reputation. It has become the buzzword in organisations both large and small, a key element in business. Companies spend millions of pounds on it. So, I am pretty proud of that.
What was at the beginning of your career, before you eventually became this incredibly successful businessman as which you are known today?
As you can imagine, there were years and years of hard work and determination. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t for me. I left school without any qualifications, and I did a lot of different jobs, at some point for the local evening newspaper. When I was young, I went around the world and attended what I’d call ‘University of life’, which was both fascinating and useful to me. I spent quite a long time in California, selling British cars, learning a lot of lessons there. For me, all that was a great education. I came back to the UK by circumnavigating the world by boat, which was equally fascinating and instructive. I guess, indicative of my train of thought in early years was that at the end of year 12, I would get the schoolbooks from the other kids and then go and flog them in the second hand book shop in London Street to make some pocket money.
What significance do all the titles that you received have for you?
Being honoured in that way is always very pleasant, fulfilling and enriching, with distinctions coming from rather noble derivation – the Knighthood being bestowed upon me as the most important one. The OBE was the first title I received, later I was admitted as Freeman of the Borough of Reading. Unfortunately, I still get parking tickets, it’s a shame …
How important is money for you? What meaning does it have?
My opinion about money is easy to explain: You are better off if you have it than if you haven’t. Honestly, I sometimes can’t believe how some people can exist in this aggressive world that we live in, where every time we turn around, there’s a bill of some kind. I genuinely feel for ordinary people, and I think the whole balance is probably not justifiable. I really think that nurses, teachers, the police for example – all those people looking after our services – should be highly respected, more recognised and better looked after.
How does it feel to have a stadium and a number of other institutions named after you? Does it give you a feeling of accomplishment, of being successful?
People ask that a lot. But it’s funny, it is almost like it’s not me. I don’t think of the stadium as named after me, it’s just a stadium. Success – as everything – is very contemporary, and I have seen good times – and some very dark ones. For instance, when the property crash came in 2007, it cost me hundreds of millions, major investments in my printing business at the wrong time as well, and you can imagine that a football club has its challenges, too. Good times and bad times, but that’s the life of an entrepreneur.
What message would you like to give to young people?
If you want something badly enough, you can get it. No matter what it is. However, in order to have it, you have to put the effort in; effort and maybe some sacrifice. This day and age are probably even more critical than any other time. You have to work hard to stand out from the crowd, whatever area you want to succeed in. If you are a student, be aware of the privilege that you have. Take advantage of it, don’t waste it – ask questions! As self-evident as this may seem: ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ go such a long way. Please, thank you – and a nice smile. They open doors, they connect. Social niceties are incredibly important.
How would you define leadership?
For me, leadership is a lot about respect. Respect is one of the most important factors, a crucial one. I have been involved with some large companies – e.g. with the Reading Football Club for 12 years or with Auto Trader for 20 years -, and I came to the understanding that a leader is only as good as the weakest link of the chain; there’s a lot of responsibility involved. At the Reading Football Club for instance, the most important people in my view are the ones at reception. They are the first point of contact for everyone coming in, and we have some fantastic people there. At some point, we had two Lynnes who I used to call the ‘Lynnettes’ 😉
Leadership is not a given, yet if you have a good understanding of and empathy for people, you can become a good leader. However, you have to lead from the front, be an example.
What would you see as your top priority in life?
My greatest joy as we speak is my granddaughter, who I absolutely adore. She is only one-point-two years old, and she is my first grandchild, bringing a lot of love and pleasure into my life. I have two lovely daughters, and they have been everything to me. Now it is very special being a grandfather. I feel so lucky and see it as my greatest privilege.
What would you see as the lowest low or your highest high in your life?
I try to have a positive outlook, and I don’t dwell too much on bad events. My beginnings in life were pretty tricky – and yet a lot of my success has been born out of that. Nobody gets it all. You get some of it – but not everything. Nobody is happy all the time. However, I think I get more highs than I get lows. On a more general note, I think the most important thing in life is humour, the ability to not take it too seriously and to enjoy life.
What is your favourite place on earth?
My riverside restaurant, Don Giovanni at The Leatherne Bottel in Goring on Thames. What my travels around the world have shown me first and foremost was how incredibly lucky I am to come from the Thames Valley. I remember places like the Grand Canyon, prairies and other beautiful wide-open spaces, but I also encountered poverty and deprivation. I became aware of how absolutely beautiful my native region is, with the river Thames meandering through – what an outstanding beauty, what an absolutely fabulous part of the world. The fact that we get different seasons is very desirable for me as well, having lived in the Far East for 15 months where you never get to appreciate the full range of seasons.
Another incredible place I am very fond of are the Galápagos Islands (editor’s note: Ecuador) where I own a hotel, The Royal Palm. It is a really unique place, one of the last places on earth left that is unspoilt, totally and utterly relaxing. The whole place with its lava tunnel and its nature trails is absolutely lush; the ultimate chill-out destination. You feel the difference, there is nothing like it in the world, it’s just marvellous.
Do you have a favourite quote that shows your view on life?
Indeed, I have. It’s quite a long one, written by Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
(published 16th October 2019)