Sarah Willingham: 'We get an unbelievable return from our property investments' -

Has there been a time in your life when you didnt know how you were going to pay the bills?

When I was about 28, just before I bought my first business, restaurant chain the Bombay Bicycle Club, I was quite short of funds. I was paying a mortgage on a flat in London and I had to move back home for six months and rent the flat out. I had enough to pay for February and Marchs mortgage but not for April and May. Luckily I bought the business in April and could take a small salary, so that was then sorted out.

Earlier in my career, before I had children, I had always gone very close to the wire when it came to risk but now I would never risk the security of my family.

Was your first step into business hard?

Given I was getting very well paid for the work I did at Pizza Express International, and I loved doing it, it was difficult. I had left the company to do an MBA in 2002, so it was after that that I started thinking about what businesses I could invest in. I figured that at 28, I couldnt work all the hours that my previous job had dictated and do what I wanted to do. My mum may contradict me here, as she has listened many times to my doubts about whether I could actually cope as a businesswoman.

What current business interests do you have?

Finance and drinks businesses plus some others. The London Cocktail Club, of which we have six outlets, and The Craft Cocktail Company, which is a B2B ready-made cocktail concern, are doing well. I run a website about saving money, which we set up to support my media work ( I began working a few years ago as a savings/financial expert. That is just starting to make money.

The finance and consumer champion side of it is very, very dear to my heart. I dont like it when consumers are being ripped off. Plus my husband, Michael, was keen for us to recently invest in a hologram company, GrooveMe. And there are my Dragons Den commitments from this series Ive just invested in Vitiliglow, a company producing camouflage sprays for people suffering from vitiligo.

Most lucrative work?

Our property investments we get an unbelievable return.

Neutrahealth was a very good deal, possibly not the most lucrative, but we did very well out of it. When it was sold, we bought a flat in Primrose Hill from the profits.

What was your best business decision or best buy?

Buying the Bombay Bicycle Club restaurant chain with management company The Clapham House Group in 2004. It had six restaurants when I bought it and 17 when it was sold in 2007. I did all right out of the deal.

And what has been your worst financial decision?

Possibly selling the Bombay Bicycle Club when I did. At the time I had just had my second baby, had 1,500 staff and was working crazy hours. I could have opened another 50 outlets but my home and personal life was too compromised, so I sold the company. In terms of a business decision, I dont think many people would have sold it at that point but it was the right one for me.

Are you more of a spender or a saver?

Probably a spender. I am a good investor so Im all about value, so I invest a lot and I spend a lot. Travel for the family is my biggest indulgence. I have a very nice collection of diamonds. They are a bit of an indulgence too, but I think they have been a very good investment.

Whats been the most difficult lesson youve learnt about money or business?

Its all about people. You can have the best product in the world but if you have the wrong people in the business then its an uphill struggle. I have tried throughout my career to work with passionate and motivated people, who are self-propelled and who have magic in their field that I dont have. I will only invest in a business pitch in Dragons Den if I am convinced about that persons commitment and think that the chemistry between myself and them potentially will work.

Do you prefer to pay by debit, credit or cash?

All of them. I love credit cards as I can collect Nectar points from them and air miles. I like cash, as I dont think you spend as much, as it is very real. I carry around 100 on me. Debit is very convenient.

Do you have a personal pension or long-term financial strategy?

I have a small pension. My property portfolio and business investments are the main focus.

What are your financial priorities for the next five to 10 years?

I am not so much driven by making more money; it is more about not losing what I have got and growing what I have got. I think over the next five to 10 years we will see quite a lot of our investments come to fruition. That will obviously mean another pot of cash that we will invest in something else.

Do you invest in stocks and shares?

We invest in businesses that we have become involved in. I have trust funds for the kids, but our proper investments are property and businesses. I prefer stocks and shares Isas.

If there was one thing you could change about the financial world, what would that be?

I would put money and finance on the national curriculum for primary schoolchildren.

Do you give regularly to charity?

Yes, we do. I worked with Save The Children recently to provide 5,000 people with Christmas dinners. We are helping some children in Africa going through a schooling system and we do other things in the UK too.

Does money make you happy?

No, of course not. It is impossible. If you are already happy it makes you happier as it gives you the freedom to control your life.

Sarah Willingham is a judge for Nectar Savvy Lifestyle, a national competition in which six contestants complete weekly challenges to prove they lead the UKs savviest lifestyle. Follow the progress of the Savvy Six at and get involved for your own chance of winning 250 worth of Nectar points each week.

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