Sir Ronald Cohen: former refugee turned private-equity genius

Since resigning from venture capital firm Apax Partners in 2005, Ronald Cohen has emerged as Gordon Brown's chief fund-raiser, business aide and link to the City. But his recent attacks on private equity have exposed him to charges of treachery.

When Sir Ronald Cohen resigned from Apax Partners in 2005, after more than 30 years in the private-equity industry, "it was a little like the locomotive being unhitched from the wagons", he told The Guardian. It gave him time to "think deeply" and kick-start some big ideas for social investment in Britain and the Middle East. And it meant a new political role. A generous Labour party donor, the "father of venture capital" threw his weight behind Gordon Brown, emerging as the incoming PM's chief fund-raiser, business aide and link to the City. He's likely to wield far more power in the new government than many Cabinet ministers.

It's tempting to draw comparisons with Lord Levy, Tony Blair's "private banker" and sometime Middle Eastern envoy, says Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail. But Cohen is in a different league. Unlike Levy, who made a "very modest" fortune advising Alvin Stardust and sundry other 1970s pop-stars (and was "generally an embarrassment on his numerous trips abroad"), Cohen is a man of intellectual distinction, amassing a £250m fortune while presenting himself as "the acceptable and responsible face of private equity". Sophisticated and urbane, he mixes high finance and social zeal with a dash of Hollywood glamour, courtesy of his film-making third wife, Sharon Harel-Cohen. It's certainly been a gilded career, says The Sunday Telegraph, yet Cohen may have made his first big blunder. In "merrily" recommending higher taxes for private equity, he has exposed himself to charges of treachery. Worse, the focus has now switched to his own personal tax affairs. Should it emerge that, as a non-domiciled British resident, he enjoys "an advantageous arrangement offshore", the damage to Brown's shiny new government could be significant.

Cohen is not known for his modesty, but his route to wealth and power has been undeniably impressive. Born in Cairo in 1945 to a family of Jewish merchants, he became a refugee at the age of 11 when the family fled to Britain after the 1956 Suez crisis, settling in North London. Ronald, who spoke no English, landed a place at the local grammar school.

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"We lost everything and had to start from scratch," Cohen recalls. "It was clear to me that I had to perform." He won a scholarship to read PPE at Oxford, took an MBA at Harvard and, after a brief stint with McKinsey, formed Apax Partners with friends in 1971. The venture capital scene then was so off-the-wall that "we had to create the industry in Europe in order to build the firm", he told Management Today. "In 1975, the Apax partners each wrote a paper. Two compiled calculations on how it could never work, and I wrote mine on the relationship between perseverance and so-called luck. The two left the company. I turned out to be right."

It wasn't until the 1990s that Apax hit the big time, winning a string of audacious bets: from Waterstones, Yell, the cloning of Dolly the sheep, through to Autonomy arguably Britain's best shot at a go-go software stock. In 2000, Cohen was knighted "for services to the venture capital industry" and he now insists he can create the same buzz in the not-for-profit sector. But the great egotist should watch his back, says The Sunday Telegraph. The particular whiff of "power and insiderdom" he brings to an administration "dedicated to the elimination of cronyism" is a sure way of making enemies, "as Sir Ronald is likely to discover when the City boys he has ratted on stop licking their wounds and start looking for revenge."

Can flamboyant Cohen fall into step with socially gauche Brown?

"Labour MPs often moan that Gordon Brown regards the City as a milch cow to be held in Hindu-style reverence," says Fraser Nelson in The Business. Yet the relationship has become steadily frostier at a critical time for Brown. His most pressing task as Labour leader is to repay the £40m the party owes and raise further cash to finance the next election campaign.

But where can he turn? Not to the membership, which now stands at less than half the 400,000 peak under Blair; nor to the unions; nor yet to business magnates "who look on appalled at those ensnared in the loans-for-honours scandal". The obvious answer is that he needs to make friends in the City hence the pivotal importance of Sir Ronald Cohen.

On paper, the two could not be more different: Brown is socially gauche; Cohen throws fabulous parties at his homes in Notting Hill, Manhattan and Cannes. Brown came into politics as a socialist; Cohen once stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate. Yet "both have faith in education, hard work and the power of enterprise to transform disadvantaged lives", and neither can resist evangelising on the subject, says The Observer. Cohen warns that the widening chasm between rich and poor could result in "violent reactions": and plan to set up a Government-backed "social investment bank". But he is equally likely to emerge as "a globetrotting uber-envoy" reporting directly to the prime minister, says The Sunday Telegraph. One thing we can be sure of is action. As Cohen once remarked, "you can't learn to swim by doing exercises on the beach".