John Cowell may not have his younger sibling’s Pop Idol fame and fortune, but his construction consultancy has found a way to cash in on the family name. We talk to him about Hendrix, Will Young and Mr Nasty’s notoriously high waistbands.
Lap dancers for girlfriends. Quentin Tarantino as your best mate. Rubbing shoulders with Kylie. Holidays on the yacht of billionaire businessman Philip Green. It’s a fair bet that Simon Cowell has got over the pain of his failed career in estate agency.
Yes, that’s right. Television’s Mr Nasty, the man behind such phenomena as Robson & Jerome and Pop Idol, followed his family into the property industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, dad Eric drank into the wee hours with Cyril Sweett and Edward Erdman at the 21 Club in Mayfair, during a career trajectory that took him from estates manager of shoe shop chain Barretts to development director of music giant EMI.
One of Simon’s elder brothers, Tony, is a journalist who is also about to launch his own reality television show, which will attempt to find the next great British author. Younger brother Nicholas is a property developer, but now seems set on a media career, having debuted as a judge last week on ITV’s The Block – yet another reality refurbishment show.
Only the eldest brother, 55-year-old John, seems to have fully focused on the family business, although a US agent is looking to get him work as a judge on a home improvement show. But that is ruled out for now – John would have to pack his bags for the States just as his marketing and business development firm is taking off.
John has been unashamedly cashing in on the Cowell name to broaden his client base. After Simon became famous, John changed the name of his business from LAB Consulting to Cowell Consulting: “I think of it as an asset if people are interested in meeting the relative of an A-list celebrity. If it gives me business, why be coy about it? I would certainly advise my clients to take every opportunity they have.” Among those clients are Orostream, the interiors company that fits out British embassies, as well as Kier subsidiaries Wallis Interiors and Wallis Joinery.
John is using a well-established brand and suggests that the industry do the same. He cannot understand why contractors do not seem to try to present an identifiable image that would enable them to stand out from the crowd when clients try to find a shortlist from 30 virtually indistinguishable companies. “There should be a construction version of something like Kellogg’s, which comes to mind when you think of cereal. Contractors don’t think about marketing properly. What other industry of this size has such a low profile that the public is hard-pressed to name a single property company or contractor?”
He also helps with training and presentational issues. For Wallis Joinery, he has gone round to many architects, including Foster and Partners, to advise them on how to spot illegal timber. He will also advise his clients’ operational staff on how to pick up business: “I hate the phrase ‘business development’ because it’s such an umbrella – but we are an umbrella, from training to graphic design to helping with prequalification for contracts.”
John has spent a quarter of a century in the industry. He started off as a director at a marble and granite company called Honey Alloway, before working in marketing roles at industry entrepreneur David Telling’s HAT group and later at Ballast Wiltshier.
It's an asset if people are interested in meeting the relative of an A-list celebrity. If it gives me business, why be coy?
It was not always like this. His dad initially got him a job at his mate Cyril Sweett’s quantity surveying firm, but he soon quit:
“I’m not a QS. I was rebellious.” In some ways this is quite like Simon, who left the estate agency world that he found so dull. “He was really miserable,” says John. Simon then took up his dad’s offer of work in EMI’s postroom.
From there he slowly rose up the ranks to produce the likes of the Teletubbies and the Heartbeat album.
It could, perhaps should, have been John who made his name in the music industry. John claims to have been at the heart of the music scene during his 20s – he worked with Elton John in a music shop in Soho, owned a music stall in Kensington market where Freddie Mercury sold shoes and hung out with Jimi Hendrix. “Simon’s not particularly musical. I had aspirations to be Hendrix or Eric Clapton. My fantasy was to be behind a mike on an electric guitar,” he says, pointing to his own axe.
But the mid-1970s, recession convinced him to take up his father’s legacy in property development: “I couldn’t see myself in the music industry at 40.” Financial fears hounded his generation, John argues, and the economic rollercoaster of the 1980s may even have tempered his inherent bullishness and made him less acid-tongued than his brother.
Yet John does have his own moments of biting criticism, which act as a reminder that he is most certainly a Cowell. Sitting down drinking a beer in his slick chinos and designer shirt, John distances himself from his brother’s penchant for ludicrously high waistbands: “He’s got no dress sense. He used to wear my dad’s shoes all the time when he was at home. He was never fashionable and never will be.”
Who is in your own family? I have a wife and two children, Jamie and Elizabeth. Fifteen-year-old Jamie has his own band, Random Delivery, and writes all his own songs.
Be honest, what do you think of the contestants on Pop Idol? Will Young is a star. He reminds me a lot of Van Morrison when he was young. The first series was seriously about finding someone to sign for the record label. It was only at the end of that series that they realised the television programme was bigger than any record label.
You said that you’re more interested in music than Simon is. Come on, is that really true? I’m 55 but I stood for 10 hours recently to listen to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I asked Simon if he was interested in going to see them and he replied “No, I’ve already seen them once or twice on the TV.”