Felix Dennis RIU (Rest in Uproar)
It’s with great sadness that we heard in our office of the death today of the great publisher Felix Dennis. Sadness? Not sure what Felix would have made of that. He didn’t seem to have any time in his day for self-pity or regret. Back in 2011 he was generous enough to give Lusso’s Chris West and Armand Attard a couple of hours of his time. Before we walked in, we were warned that he wasn’t in a great mood. However, we came armed with a little of something that he couldn’t resist: an early edition of WH Auden. He accepted our cheap gift with great enthusiasm and our interview kicked off. We’ve reprinted it below. And reading it again, we hope his plans for a graceful place to die and be buried were finished in time.
Felix Dennis has a lot of everything. His fifty-or-so magazines and websites have earned him more money than he can count over the last 30 years. Let’s say $700 million though, give or take the odd $50 million, with plenty of backstory to go with it (the crack cocaine addiction isn’t the interesting bit, it’s the fact he got himself off it, cold turkey, on his own, in six weeks, flat).
He’s also got a lot of everything else too. The houses and apartments in London and Manhattan and Connecticut, the Warwickshire estate, the Caribbean bolt hole (and they’re just the ones he’s talking about). And then there’s the PAs (four? five? I know I didn’t meet them all; even his PAs have PAs). He’s got enough stories and philosophies to fill a business book (How to Get Rich) and he’s got a fourth book of his self-penned poetry coming out soon. Today he’s got the kind of humungous cold that would leave lesser men at home in bed. He’s got buckets of sexual drive (four women a night stand as a testament to his energy, but also to his famously long days and his ruthlessly disciplined diary). Now he’s getting wood in another way: planting hundreds of acres of native broadleaf trees, to be called the Forest of Dennis. So he’s got a lot of ego, too.
But for all that, he’s got a surprising number of defences. You might expect the discrete personal security team he mentions in his book and the pyramid of PAs aren’t there to make access to him easier. But when I meet him early one morning in his personal office, one floor below his Soho-based London apartment, he’s fully suited and booted, making him probably the only man in a one-mile radius of here who is. “Well, it’s armour. Innit?” And when I quiz him, armour against what? “I haven’t got time to think about what I’m going to wear.” So he’s got the defence of diversion as well.
There’s also the laugh: friendly at the start, an encouraging rising tone over the first four beats, then falling off in the last two to let you know it’s time to change subject, mate. Move on.
Perhaps he’s been keeping the angels and demons of mortality at arms length for a long time? “Every poet knows the clock is ticking.” He’s not one for wasting seconds with niceties, either, when he could be earning money. “You’ve got an hour. Go.”
The first thing I want to talk about is how Dennis Publishing is different because of Felix Dennis the man. “Don’t know. Haven’t worked anywhere else”. Which isn’t true.
He’s still working 18-hour days, although fewer of them now. His clothes are chosen for him by his buyer and laid out for him in the morning, shirt pre-buttoned. From waking up to sitting down at his desk, including the shower, it takes him 14 minutes, dead. “And I don’t want it take any longer, either.”
He doesn’t like email, hasn’t got an email address. So what does he make of those businessmen who sit hunched over at dinner, busy Blackberrying? “I know that they’re busy not making money, they’re reminding people, rather desperately and sadly, that they’re still alive. I feel sorry for them.”
Felix assesses everything on its potential for making money for him. He breaks his day down for me into hours and there is colour and definition in a lot of it (up early, two hours writing poetry, meeting with the Group Finance Director at 7.30am, one hour with Lusso); but the business hours are simply described as making money.
Felix is a famous foe of business meetings. “When you start a company, you want to spend as much time as you can making money [so] tell everyone we’re conducting meetings standing up and there’s not going to be any row about it either.” Before he walks into a meeting, his one thought is how that meeting can make him money.
He meets all his senior directors one-on-one, but then likes to sit down with the number two or three in that department and go through the reports line by line with them. “If you’ve done your homework and spotted the anomalies, you’ll get a much better view because they’re hoping you will find things in there which haven’t been done as well as they should be.”
He says it’s “ruthless meritocracy” here but swallows the crucial a before the expression, making it sound more like Ruthless. Meritocracy. He employs his brother, but he’s never made the board. He might pull a junior designer to one side and compliment them on something they did that he liked, but it’s because the juniors have a greater vision on where things are being done wrong, and in Felix’s world, the good ones will want to push their managers out of the nest and move up. To make him more money.
What about the Forest of Dennis, then? “Every year we’ve been accelerating with the acreage we plant… we started with 20 or 30 acres a year about ten years ago which we thought was a lot, now we’re on our way to 300 acres a year.” He wants to do it to make it easier for wildlife, and he wants to make a lot of rides and walks and woodland pastures because this will be for permanent public access.
It all sounds benevolent or generous, an interesting passion. “It’s a business.” Even though he’s not intending to make money out of it, he wants to generate income streams for the Forest. Such as? “We would like to build, eventually (and here’s the longest pause of our interview, if not of his whole day), “the most beautiful crematorium in England, which is not ugly, which does not rush services through another pause. Which is a very beautiful building”. Maybe it’s his cold breaking through his medication, but his eyes are glassy here. “When people have been cremated, [the mourners] can get into people-carriers that we’ll provide and take them to the part of the wood they’ve chosen and you can put a titanium marker on a tree which won’t grow into the tree so Aunty Frieda’s in there, and then when her husband or sister dies – or granddad’s died so we’ll give him an oak – we’re hoping people will say they want the one next door. And that’s an income stream for the Forest”.
But for himself, he doesn’t care. “I’ve never understood why we don’t feed ourselves to the dog. Ha, ha, ha. Ha! Okay, let’s talk about what you came to talk about. Move on, keep moving”.
Publishing is the right place for him, at the interface between business and human psychology with fast decisions, where you can still go out and take big risks quickly, provided you’ve done your homework. He knows what motivates people who work for him, and it’s not always money. “Some want to be lieutenants and boss people around, some people want a clear career path. Not everybody is cut out to be the person at the top and take most of the money. Many people are motivated because they want the opportunity to show they can do a really great job and to have the recognition of the half-dozen people who really run any business; that will motivate those people far more than a pay rise, they crave recognition.”
So who gives him recognition? “Me.”
I’ll try him again. When he’s done well, who does he celebrate with? “Nobody.”
Was that choice or consequence? First the defence: “I’m a poet. Poets seek solitude But then, that’s the price you pay, chum. If you don’t like the price, then go and work for somebody else and they’ll tell you what a great job you’re doing”.
What else do you have to ask yourself if you want to know whether you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur? “If you’re not prepared to make the people around you miserable, you can’t get rich. There’s a lot of sacrificing to be made to get rich and it’s not always you doing the sacrificing. If you won’t address your fear of failure (and it is a nightmare in everybody’s dreams), you won’t get rich. If you don’t believe that you’re worthy to be rich, you won’t get rich [otherwise] stop trying to get rich by owning your own companies and go and work for somebody else and get yourself as many share options as you can and as big a pension as you can”.
His company is relatively small, because he’s kept selling parts of the business, which is important to him. He’s good at making businesses and he’s good at selling them. He says he’s constantly trying to remind young entrepreneurs that the purpose of being an entrepreneur is to make a lot of money and have a lot of fun. “These companies aren’t your babies.” If someone comes along and offers him a really great price for his magazines or his websites, he’ll sign. “It’s pretty simple, really”.
How much does he think a persons sexuality informs who they are in business? He’s known some very effective managers, who don’t own the business, for whom it’s been immaterial. “Some of the difference between them and an entrepreneur, a person who’s willing to risk it all, more than once, so that they end up with far too much money, I suspect that quite often that difference is buried in their sexual drive”.
He doesn’t have a clock in his office, but when the photographer worries he’s not been left enough time to take the shots, Felix knows with minute-accuracy how long we’ve got left. Snap, snap, snap, a few last quick questions.
Who owns the future: The publishers? The content creators? The editors? “God knows. The real answer is; whoever owns the shares, darling. Most people with great ideas don’t end up with very much money. 3M made the money, not the guy who invented Post-it Notes”.
If he was press-ganged into being Mayor of London, what would he do on the first day? “Have a mass bendy-bus bonfire.” One does wonder with Ken, what’s down there and why a man needs to create more bendy buses.
How does it feel to be only half a billionaire? “It depends, I’m a dollar billionaire. Ha, Ha, Ha. Ha. After your first $50 or $100 million, there’s no difference. If I hadn’t spent all the money I have in the last 35 years of doing business, I’d be a billionaire several times over, but I decided I was going to take quite a bit of that money every four or five or six years, and I was going to do things with it and I’ve done a lot of things with it. Mostly I’ve pissed it away. Ha, Ha. Ha.”
There’s not much showiness in the office, just the Bang and Olufsen CD player. “I prefer things that cost an awful lot of money but don’t necessarily look like they cost a lot of money. This desk costs a lot more than that Bang and Olufsen”.
Charity? He’s publishing another book of verse that will benefit the Grenadine and St Vincent Islands. He’s guarded, but also involved in literacy projects, the Tree Council, and a library for the blind.
More poetry? He’s just completed his 1,000th poem and is planning a world tour next year into 2009. You quote lots of male poets, but what about the female poets? “I build bronze sculptures to them”.
If you were to lose everything, every business, every house, every last pound, what would he walk out of the office with. “My address book, cos then I’d get it all back again”.
He enjoys talking? “Yeah, it’s fine, but then I think, I gotta stop talking, I gotta make some money.” And we’re up and moving; he’s been generous with his time, over generous. But before we leave, he’s got to pull a magazine off the shelf and, quite sweetly really, stand alongside me and show me a photo-article about his place in Mustique. It is beautiful and idyllic and built in wood. There’s a picture of an ornate wooden table with chessboard set into the top. Does he play? “I play a lot.” I tell him he’d be a scary player. “The Sicilian Defence my friend. Always. The Sicilian Defence.”
Taken from an interview with Felix Dennis by Chris West for LUSSO in May 2011.