Billionaire: John Caudwell with girlfriend Modesta Vzesniauskaite
John Caudwell is stranded at his Staffordshire mansion while high winds make it too hazardous for his helicopter to shuttle him to London – and signs of cabin fever seem to be setting in. ‘It’s a logistic fiasco,’ grumbles the go-getting billionaire who made his name as the founder of retailer Phones4U, as his one-year-old son, William, wails in the background.
Dubbed Britain’s biggest taxpayer at the peak of his success, Caudwell is never shy of telling the Tories how they could do their job better. So, as he waits for the weather to clear, he uses the gap in his schedule to let off steam.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘ridiculous’ furlough rules were ‘poorly thought through’, he says. He is also peeved that Boris Johnson hasn’t yet bankrolled his plan to build an environmental city to make the UK a global hub for green technologies.
‘I think it’s too brave, too futuristic,’ he sighs. ‘I wanted hundreds of billions of pounds invested in a tax-free enterprise zone for all environmentally friendly practices. Had we started that process two years ago, when I asked for it, we would be well on the pathway.’
He is also critical of the Government over its Homes for Ukraine scheme, which he calls ‘clunky’ and ‘fragmented’, saying there is too much red tape.
In recent weeks Caudwell and his Lithuanian girlfriend, Modesta Vzesniauskaite, have been holding emotional Zoom calls with Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in the UK, after last month announcing plans to house refugees in the two-bedroom Coach House on their £10million Broughton Hall estate. The process hasn’t gone as smoothly as expected.
‘It’s all a bit hit and miss really,’ he says. Clearly, the situation is not without its challenges, but I think if it were me running that process, we would be a lot more dynamic and effective than we have been up to here.’
He adds: ‘Of course, it will happen. The most important thing is that we find a family we can help to have the best future.’
Caudwell, 69, grew up in a gritty part of Stoke-on-Trent with a father he suspected suffered from postwar PTSD and dreamed of one day being rich enough to help people. After starting out selling secondhand cars, in 2006 that ambition was realised when he sold Phones4U for £1.5billion and set about raising millions for good causes. His other main passion is property. This is displayed to lavish effect through his £65million renovation project that combined two Mayfair townhouses into one of Britain’s most expensive homes, complete with an indoor river stocked with rare African fish and a blue and gold ballroom used to host high-octane charity galas.
Now he’s developing homes for other billionaires, building 29 luxury townhouses and apartments in an eight-storey Grade II-listed Mayfair development called Audley Square, billed as ‘the most desirable, sumptuous and valuable residence in London’.
Caudwell says the project, designed by New York star architect Robert A. M. Stern, is ‘really moving on quickly’ now contractors are digging out the huge basement extension. ‘We’re well on the way to going down to five storeys below ground,’ he says. ‘By the end of this year, we’ll be advanced on putting the shell up on one part of the building.’
In total, Caudwell reveals he has personally sunk ‘north of a billion pounds’ into his property portfolio, which also includes four residential developments in Cap d’Antibes, the glitzy yachting playground in the South of France.
The final sale prices for Audley Square are yet to be decided ahead of completion in 2025, but Caudwell looks set to make a healthy return once he offloads his portfolio of developments to ultra high net worth buyers. ‘I would certainly expect the total value of sales to be over £2billion,’ he says, before clamming up on the precise profit margin.
So can he say who the prospective buyers might be? ‘No, because that’s inappropriate. But you can be assured there’s no Russians.’ He adds: ‘Is there a perfectly innocent rich Russian? Probably. But I would have to think long and hard before selling to a Russian person.’ He expects the lack of Russian roubles flooding into property to have a ‘detrimental effect’ on the London market – and possibly the South of France too. But he says the size of the financial return on his developments is ‘irrelevant in the scheme of things, when you’ve got atrocities being committed’ and that, anyway, he has pledged to leave 70 per cent of his wealth to charity.
‘I think it [the war] might have a slightly depressing effect on the price but I’m not worried about it,’ he says. ‘I’d rather it didn’t because I want to leave as much money as I can to charitable causes. But I’m not going to lose sleep over that. Whereas I do lose sleep over what’s happening to the Ukrainian people.’
Support: John Caudwell hopes to house Ukrainian refugees at his Broughton Hall estate
Caudwell has been one of the business world’s most vocal critics of Vladimir Putin since war broke out in Ukraine. He calls Putin a ‘megalomaniac psychopath’ and says sanctioned oligarchs’ UK property should be sold and the proceeds used to help rebuild Ukraine once the war is over. He says: ‘I’m the first one to support the confiscation of the oligarchs’ wealth and assets, as long as it has been proved it came from criminal activity. We should seize all their yachts, and make life living hell for anyone who has supported Putin.’
He also backs the Government’s plans to wean the UK off Russian energy – even if it means fuel prices rise. ‘The average person in Britain is worried about their heating bills, and I understand that,’ he continues. ‘But my stand has to be representative of my feelings. And it’s difficult for me to worry about whether I can be warm in my house when Ukrainian people are being slaughtered.’
With a fortune estimated at £1.56billion, Caudwell is comfortably insulated from the cost of living crisis. But he insists: ‘I know what it is to struggle. When I had no money for my heating bill in my early adult years, I sat on an orange box and wore a quilted jacket to keep warm.’
He adds: ‘If I was responsible for the decisions on energy, I’d give the people who are really going to struggle more financial support. But summer is coming along, you know, we used to put two or three layers on. Wear whatever clothing is appropriate just to stay warm and support the Ukrainian people.’