By Taryana Odayar.
Dr Laurie Marsh is one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, but you’ve probably never heard of him until now. As one of Britain’s biggest philanthropic entrepreneurs, he developed and operated hotels and theatres in London and New York, a 150-screen cinema chain, produced over 75 films and founded an international distribution company. In his new book, The Philanthropist’s Tale, he reveals why he walked away from his multimillion pound property empire and “gave it all away” to charitable causes.
(Q) What sort of content can we expect in The Philanthropist’s Tale and what inspired you to write it?
I decided to write it because I wanted my children, grand children and great grand children to know why they weren’t poor.
(Q) What advice would you impart to young students and individuals who want to be successful entrepreneurs?
That’s a big one! There’s no simple answer – everybody, every individual, male or female, transvestite, whatever they may be – everybody has a different set of circumstances in their life. Everybody has a different answer to the problem of where they should go and what they should do. There isn’t a generalised, simple answer to that question. What happened to me is extremely unlikely to happen to them.
You have to persevere, you have to pick yourself up if you get knocked down, you have to be prepared to put in before you get out. These are the fundamental principles, but as I say everybody’s life is different. There are very few people who are carbon copies of each other. And on an individual basis its very difficult to tell people how to get on with their entrepreneurial lives. There aren’t that many people who are potentially entrepreneurial.
There is a new society of entrepreneurs who set up just under three years ago in London, and the participants – I was asked to join them a few weeks ago – probably control a large proportion of the GDP of the UK. But at the moment, the entrepreneurs’ organisation is not exercising its muscle by discussing with the executive how they should do that. The biggest mistake being made by our politicians and civil service is the under-employment of the assets that are owned by the taxpayers, but this is not something which the students at the London School of Economics will get involved with for very many years.
(Q) You mentioned that every person has their own journey and their own story. Were there any moments in your life where you nearly gave up, and how did you overcome setbacks along the way?
No, I never ever thought of giving up and at the age of 86, nearing 87, I still don’t think I’m going to give up! The essence of it is that whatever work you do, whether you call it work, whatever you call it, whoever you are, whatever you do, one of the most significant things is you need to enjoy it. You should try to avoid getting involved in an area where repetitious, boring, unnecessary work is committed. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t if you’re a student go out and work at a restaurant at night to earn a few pounds, that’s a separate issue. I’m talking about the long-term, commercial endeavour. If anything goes wrong, you pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again. That’s what I did.
(Q) I read that even at the age of 86, you work seven days a week on multiple projects and exercise every day as well. What keeps you going and what motivates you these days?
I enjoy doing what I do. Particularly, you need to have more than one project in order to have one successful project. Its unlikely that everything I am offered or everything I am asked to do will be totally successful. And therefore, I am approached about once a week by a party or other to advise and I do, and I take on quite a few enterprises, some of which are very long-winded. There is one I am working on right now which has taken 33 years. Another one is coming up to nine years, another one is three and a half years. You have to persevere.
(Q) Once you achieve success and get to the point where you’re being approached by parties for various projects, how do you decide which ones to take up and which to turn down?
I don’t turn down anything. I give my advice and the advice may be that I don’t think this will succeed for a, b, c reasons. Giving advice is something I do, and so there isn’t a turn down relationship to giving advice if somebody says to me, ‘this is my idea, this is what I want to do, this is where its at’. Almost everything I’m being asked to do is directly linked to charitable or community benefit. I suppose you could say overriding a lot of it is taxpayer benefit. But the fundamental factor of what I’m doing, almost entirely, 90 percent, is for the benefit of community, for the benefit of improving the lifestyle of people in England and possibly throughout the world.
Some of the organisations I support are international in a big way, and if you get a copy of the book you’ll see some of them have endorsed the book. Some of them are of international stature, enormous size, like Médecins Sans Frontières, or Population Matters, Equality for Women, the British Humanist Association, Secular Society for the World, all these are highly significant, very, very important organisations. And I have been funding them and advising them in a very big way as principle patron for many years.
I have some investments – they’re not very large, they’re not very many. I have four investments in property which I built up over the last 60 years, and this supplies me and my wife and my immediate family with comfort. Its like a large pension fund, but it isn’t one of these ridiculously large pension funds. It’s a small pension fund and it keeps us very comfortable. Having achieved that objective some years ago, in fact 37 years ago, I decided at that point that anything that I did after that should be for others. And so substantially, what I am doing is for the benefit of others, whether its national or international. And the fact that some of them are large; the one I embarked on and announced at the Cinema museum only two weeks ago, is between 40 and 50 million, that’s relatively large and the funding is virtually in place and we’re almost ready to go. But it’ll still take several years.
(Q) In your opinion, what holds back successful entrepreneurs from giving away more of their wealth to charitable causes?
There is a complicated answer to that question which is to do with the word ‘conscience.’ There is a difficult scientific definition of the word ‘conscience’. What is conscience? What is in our brain? There are billions of neurons there, they are operating all the time whilst we have a brain that’s working. The conscience of each party is different, and in my particular case I came to the conclusion that I was comfortable – as I said a couple of minutes ago – and I decided to divert my energies towards helping others. Why other people don’t do the same is because maybe they’re greedy, there are a lot of people who don’t understand why they don’t do it, there are people who have money and don’t know how to employ it better than they do, there are people who don’t realise that they can have a better life and create a better life for people who haven’t been so successful.
But its in the mind; if your head isn’t around it, you don’t get it. And the majority of people successful in business think that success in business is the overriding consideration. I just don’t. I built up a business in just over five years from five million to 250 million and I didn’t like what I created.
(Q) Why is that?
That was in 1970 – that’s the best part of two and a half billion today – and I did not want to be in that area. I didn’t want to be that kind of person. I’d made a lot of people working for me and around me into millionaires, and I didn’t like what I was seeing.
(Q) What is it that you were seeing?
I was seeing people working strictly for money and not helping others. I saw an attitude coming from their minds, from their conscience, from their lifestyle that I didn’t enjoy. They were more concerned about cigars, the size of the cigars, the number of girls that the men could attack and take advantage of, and I didn’t like it, I didn’t like it at all. Powerful men like Donald Trump I don’t like. A man who acts like that, who inherited a vast amount of money and doesn’t treat women like equals in any way, shape or form – I detest it! I just dislike intensely that kind of person, and that was the kind of person I was working alongside. How many pairs of shoes can you wear? I keep on saying this same mantra. I find it difficult to wear more than one pair of shoes at a time! The suits that I bought when I was in business 60 years ago were good suits. I still wear them. I’m fortunate that my shape hasn’t changed at all, but I still have 12 suits that I bought 60 years ago. Why do I want to buy more suits, what would I do with them? How many pairs of trousers can you wear at a time? I have to admit the truth, I do buy new underwear though!
(Q) Given your business ethic and personal values, what sort of advice would you impart to your children and grandchildren specifically?
They aren’t interested in being like me. They are in a different bracket of life than me. They didn’t come up from nowhere, they were fortunate that their grandpa or their father, had set them up so that they didn’t have to be poor. And now they’re all working but they’re relatively comfortable. I mean, they don’t have to worry whether they’re going to have food on the table for their next meal, whereas when I was a very small child there was concern at that level. But they have their own lives and I love them so much, I get very emotional about them.
I’m very, very, very fortunate that they’re all very sound of mind and body whereas close relations and close friends have children who aren’t. This is a wonderful, fortunate, pure chance that in my life my immediate family are all healthy and fully developed. They don’t have diseases, they’re not mentally or physically deficient in any way. And this is unusual because there are very, very large numbers of people who are deficient and a lot of what I do is to assist them. I’m working on a very, very large community centre project in North London. I’m trying to triple the size of it and fund them so that they have enough money forever, and that to me is more important than getting another pair of shoes that I can’t wear.
(Q) Having grown up in relative hardship, did this make you more determined to succeed and instil in you a desire to be your own boss in your adult life?
I certainly didn’t want to remain living in a room over a shop with a dog as my principle companion, and not be sure if we could ever have a holiday or if we could have a decent meal. I didn’t want to be in that position. It was only like that for eight years, but it was long enough. We lived the four of us in two rooms with no toilet, no kitchen, no water, no electricity.All we had was gas, that was it. And that was an interesting way to start life but as far as I was concerned that was normal, that was the environment, just like in Victorian times it hadn’t changed. So that was where it came from – I didn’t want to revert to that. As far as the other part of the question is concerned, why I set up the businesses, I don’t know why I did that, the only thing I do know is that I find it very difficult to be told what to do!
(Q) Well why do you think that is?
Oh I don’t know, its an ego problem I guess! I haven’t been analysed. I guess if Freud were alive I’d go and ask him some questions, but I think its obviously to do with my temperament. I have a good deal of ability to set up businesses, employ lots of people and look after them. Its all part of the same pattern.
(Q) Given the current political climate, what do you think the impact of Brexit will be on the theatre and the arts?
Negligible. I don’t think that the arts as such will be affected to any material extent, except it may be beneficial on balance because of the reduction in the value of sterling. As a consequence, if there is any impact at all it will be in the upward direction because more people will be able to afford to come here and enjoy the arts and the theatre.