Still flying by the seat of my pants at 75

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David Gold, one of the UK’s most colouful entrepreneurs, shares some of his secrets in business and private aviation with Martin Roebuck

David Gold with his panic alarm contoller at his home in Caterham, Surrey UK 13.05.11 (Panic room is first floor left)

The private aviation history of multi-millionaire David Gold is every bit as eventful as his personal and business life has been. And that is saying quite something, for in a true rags-to-riches tale, the 75-year-old owner of sex toy and lingerie retailer Ann Summers – and co-chairman of West Ham United Football Club – grew up in extreme poverty in the slums of east London before going on to become one of Britain’s wealthiest men.

Gold has his own Gazelle and EC120 helicopters, which he still regularly flies to soccer fixtures and business meetings, as well as two fixed-wing aircraft – a Learjet 45 and a Cessna 182. Yet he gave up flying for several years after witnessing the death of a close friend in an air accident, and later, having regained his pilot’s licence, was lucky to walk away from a crash in which he wrote off a plane of his own.

All will be explained in due course. But how did Gold build a successful business empire from such humble beginnings? In 2010, his fortune was estimated at £360 million, placing him 186th in the Sunday Times Rich List. At one stage Gold and his family were worth £550 million.

More modest than most entrepreneurs, Gold admits to having plenty of luck along the way, as well as an appetite for hard work and the ability to spot an opportunity when he saw one.

He began by selling science fiction books from a kiosk in London’s Charing Cross district. When the landlord, seeking to redevelop, gave him notice he instead took out a loan (bankers being more flexible in those days) and bought the freeholds of four empty shops in his own right. It was the late 1950s and Gold had discovered there was more demand for pornographic literature than sci-fi profits. He also learned that the real profits were to be made by staying open later in the evenings and through the weekend, and made regular court appearances as he battled the then highly restrictive Sunday trading regulations.

Gold sold two of those first four shops for £3 million when another developer came calling. “I was in the right place at the right time and found that capital is king,” he says. “Before I was fighting for pound notes, but that deal put me into a higher bracket.”

His remaining premises from those early times are still owned by Gold Group International (GGI) and trade today as branches of Ann Summers, a brand he had bought when it was struggling to shed its sex shop reputation and move into the retail mainstream.

In 1972, by which time Gold had expanded to 10 magazine outlets, one of his main rivals, David Sullivan, “made me an offer I couldn’t refuse” and the two like-minded businessmen merged their publishing, print and distribution operations. The magazine side of the business became Gold Star Publications while the partners later launched Sport Newspapers.

Gold had always had a passion for football. He played for West Ham’s junior team in the early 1950s and could have turned professional for the club, but the rewards were not as great as they are now and his father decided, perhaps rightly in hindsight, that it was not a wise career move.

At the start of the 90s, having amassed their first several millions, Gold and Sullivan had the opportunity to move into football in a business rather than playing capacity by buying a minority stake in West Ham. It did not work out as dreamed, however, and they did not see eye to eye with the two families that then controlled the club.

They sold out two years later, but now had the appetite for this. Gold used his personal connections with Birmingham City to rescue the club from bankruptcy in 1993, paying the administrators the princely sum of £1. Without his intervention, the long-established club would probably have folded since a supermarket group wanted to build a new store on its ground.

“It was a topsy-turvy time,” Gold recalls. The club sank into the old third division but was soon promoted again and went on to win trophies.

David Gold, his brother Ralph (then a partner in GGI) and David Sullivan jointly owned 80% of Birmingham City right through to 2009, when they were offered £50 million for their share. Instead of biting the prospective buyer’s arm off – “we were reluctant sellers,” Gold smiles – they forced the price up to £82.5 million. Right place, right time, and another fortune pocketed.

The news quickly went out on the football grapevine. “We were bombarded by clubs,” he recalls. “It never crossed my mind that West Ham would come up for sale, but as the Icelandic banks collapsed, it became clear their backers were in trouble.”

So the wheel turned full circle and by January 2010, Gold and business partner David Sullivan acquired the club they tried to buy into 20 years ago. They paid more than £60 million for a 62.5% share of The Hammers and were appointed joint chairmen.

The club is thriving and looks set for an imminent return to the top tier of English soccer. In a further twist, if West Ham relocate to the Olympic stadium after this summer’s Games (the tabloid press have speculated that the new home could be christened the Ann Summers Stadium), the club’s current Upton Park ground will be redeveloped and Gold will see his childhood home finally demolished.

Crosshead: Triumph and tragedy

Another key part of the wide-ranging GGI business empire for many years was a charter airline, Gold Air. Gold has been a fixed-wing pilot for 38 years and a helicopter pilot for eight, but for the full background we have to go back almost 60 years.

His first experience of flying, as a 16-year-old air cadet, was almost his last. He got a trip in an elderly Tiger Moth, but was not strapped in and almost fell out when the pilot chose to show off his aerobatic skills and made an unexpected roll.

Gold didn’t fly again until 1970, even as a passenger, since his then wife had a phobia about it. But he was living in Biggin Hill at the time and passed the private airport there every day on his way to the office. “I sneakily started taking flying lessons and I got my private pilot’s licence inside a year. It was just out of personal interest, a boyhood dream, and I didn’t tell anyone,” he says.

He had the benefit of learning in a Cherokee 140 four-seat tourer rather than the usual two-seat trainer, and quickly caught the flying bug. Gold’s first plane was a Piper Aztec and, just as an aside, he bought Biggin Hill Flying Club where he had trained.

Moving on to own a Cessna 337 and then a 340, Gold became a highly capable competitive pilot. Photos of these much-loved aircraft still hang on the wall at his 40-room manor house in Caterham, south of London. Gold won the Gozo Beacon in 1979, followed by the prestigious Malta Air Rally in 1980 and 1981, but grounded himself for a lengthy period following twin tragedies in rapid succession.

While demonstrating in their Harvard just after the Malta event in 1982, two close friends crashed the aircraft and were killed. Only months later, another close friend died when the Citation he was piloting crashed out at sea. He and his passengers apparently survived the initial impact, but then drowned.

“I was sickened by the deaths, so close together and so close to home,” Gold says. He gave up flying and concentrated on his increasing business commitments.

It was many years later, now well established with Birmingham City, that Gold needed to get to an away fixture at Newcastle and booked an air taxi out of Biggin Hill. He tracked down the pilot, who he claims “looked like a 14-year-old”, in a shed on the airport perimeter and was conducted to an Aztec even older than his own first aircraft.

The flight, in poor weather, and the seemingly casual atittude of the young pilot worried Gold, and next day he ordered a King Air 200 to meet his business needs in-house.

The aircraft came complete with two pilots, but Gold was inspired to fly in his own right again when he met a 75-year-old Russian pilot at Biggin Hill who was running around Europe in his Learjet and clearly still relishing the experience.

Gold duly regained his fixed-wing licence but soon, with requests from friends and business colleagues demonstrating the demand for a reliable charter service, Gold found himself ordering two further King Airs and a Hawker HS-125, buying a hangar at Biggin Hill and setting up as Gold Air.

Learjets were quickly added as business grew. “We could see that new aircraft were what people wanted,” he says. “The question was always, how old is the plane? How fast does it go?”

Gold’s next personal acquisition was a Cessna 182, but he crashed this after flying up to see the Birmingham City players at training. He came in faster than anticipated on a tail wind that air traffic had not alerted him to, and skated across freshly mown grass into a bank. Although the aircraft was damaged beyond repair, Gold says his quick reactions averted a much more serious incident.

The short landing strip at the training ground had already attracted comment from the chief executive at Gold Air, who now suggested that Gold should consider a helicopter. He immediately set about earning his PPL(H) and 14 years ago acquired a secondhand Gazelle 1, currently based at Stapleford. A second helicopter – the EC120, purchased new two years ago – lives on the lawn at Caterham.

Gold also keeps a replacement Cessna 182 and a Learjet 45 at Biggin Hill, but clearly derives his main thrill from piloting the helicopters even if the ride is less comfortable. He attends shop openings in them, as well as football matches at up to 90 minutes’ range.

“I’ll go as far as Cardiff or Coventry. I love the fact that helicopters are so hands-on. You’re flying every second, you can’t set them on autopilot,” he says. “I do the renewals in the Cessna, bit I use it much less.”


Crosshead: Simplifying for the future

GGI continues to thrive in the form of Ann Summers, the Knickerbox sub-brand and various property interests. Gold’s daughters, Jacqueline and Vanessa, are respectively chief executive and deputy MD of Ann Summers, which now has around 150 stores across the UK.

However, Gold Air was sold in 2006, and Sport Newspapers the following year. Then David bought out his brother in 2008, forced to do so because Ralph wanted to step back and his children were less involved than David’s.

“It was a case of simplifying everything. I had to address the succession,” he explains.

Describing the sale of Gold Air to Air Partner, for a price generally quoted as £4.4 million, Gold says he had to decide whether to keep the airline on, and take delivery of the two Globals he had on order, or let it go. Taking the aircraft into account, the upside was almost £30 million.

“It was really exciting and I enjoyed it – but it’s the old story. Again I got an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says. “It’s a great wrench to leave a business you love, though I was glad to get out ahead of the downturn.”

The Gold Air managed fleet comprised six Learjet 45s plus the Hawker at the time of Gold’s sale. He retained one Learjet and planned to charter it out to Air Partner, but the new owner chose not to maintain the Gold Air brand and ultimately sold the business on to PremiAir.

Gold does not dismiss the possibility of returning to the charter business. “It’s possible we could come back into the industry,” he says. But one senses that the limitations Biggin Hill is obliged to live with, plus his advancing years and the current state of the UK economy, will decide him against it.

Restrictions imposed on the airport by its local authority, Bromley Council, particularly anger him. “In a recession, we need to think about jobs and the economic benefits. It’s people that have moved into the area, not long-time residents, who say they don’t want the airport. But surely all those who bought property there did so knowing they were under a flight path.

“The majority say we need the jobs, all the stuff that comes off the back of a busier airport. We ought to have a bit more courage and determination. Biggin Hill has been stifled by tiny minorities and has suffered terrible decisions that restrict it to being a private Sunday afternoon airport,” Gold says.

“It didn’t get its own junction at Westerham when the M25 motorway was built, so it’s very difficult to get to. It would be a vibrant centre now, but can’t be when you can’t take off before 0800 and it closes at 2000.

“The airport’s gone backwards. When I was young it was open until 2300. But 50 or 60 homeowners can turn up to oppose a development proposal. It’s not democratic.”