Nick Leslau: 'Be tough in business, but be totally honest'

Millionaire businessman Nick Leslau is renowned for making bold plays on the property market – and he usually gets them right.


Nick Leslau: 'secret millionaire'

"Mention Nick Leslau's name in property circles and even rivals smile," saysThe Sunday Times. "He's one of the great characters. He's a great campaigner. He's done it all," gushes one. Among the many strings to Leslau's bow is a stint on Channel 4's The Secret Millionaire show, which culminated in a donation of £400,000 to a deprived community in Glasgow. He also gained the distinction 30 years ago of being the youngestchief executive of a UK-listed company. But it is Leslau's property nous thatreally commands his peers' respect.He's renowned for making big calls and usually getting them right (see below).

A big, well-padded man, at 56, Leslau "sports a mane that would make Peter Stringfellow proud". He recounts how, in his 1980s youth, he featured in pop videos with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Elton John and Level 42. But unlike some other young guns of that era, he retains a clear-eyed view of the boom that made his first fortune. "Never confuse a bull market with genius," he told the Financial Times. "We made so many mistakes in the 1980s, but the bull market carried us through. I learnt so much I was a lucky bugger, because if I had done half those things in a bear market, it would have been commercially fatal."

Leslau got into business young. Born in Cricklewood, London, his father had a jeweller's shop. His parents divorced when he was ten, and his grandfather put him through Mill Hill private school. "I was always conscious that a lot of kids had new football boots, whereas I had hand-me-downs. I'm sure that slightly awkward insecurity has been a driver."

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Before going to Warwick to read German (he dropped out) he had a formative experience working at the local Late Late store. His hunger for business so impressed the boss that he was put in charge. But he also made a vital contact, says the Evening Standard. One regular was Nigel Wray, another old Millhillian with "something of a City personality", who had bought, written and later floated the Fleet Street Letter investment newsletter. It proved a lasting and fruitful partnership.

Leslau and Wray made their first property fortune with Burford, building it into a £1.2bn business in the 1980s. One of their coups was netting a £50m profit transforming "a load of clapped-out businesses in Finchley Road into the O2 cinema and shopping complex". It was the first of many co-ventures, including the purchase of Saracens Rugby Club (one of their less successful commercial ventures). They still "speak daily", says The Sunday Times. Leslau and his family recently moved from a £30m Mayfair mansion to Primrose Hill and he citeshis yacht as his "favourite gadget".

He's worth an estimated £200m, but says that ultimately money isn't what counts. "When you die all you have is your honour and your good name. Be tough in business, but be totally honest and have integrity. That's more important to me as my legacy than dying a billionaire."

His magic touch in the property markets

The plan was to wind up Max Property in seven and a half years. But last year, Leslau jumped the gun, says Kathryn Hopkins in The Times: he sold Max, whose assets included St Katharine Docks and the Holborn estate, to Blackstone Real Estate for £448m, and this year he sold the freehold to Madame Tussauds for £332m. "We've sold £2bn worth of property in the past year or so," he told Claer Barrett in the FT.

He sees it as a precaution. "I don't think the UK property market is going to fall off a cliff, but the market may not be well positioned to deal with any surprises." Being ahead of the curve doesn't bother him. At the end of the 1980s, "we decided the market was too frothy and liquidated all our holdings. We were a year too early. But then the market crashed." He repeated the trick in 2006.

City faith in Leslau's magic touch has led to the occasional fiasco, says Money Observer, notably "the Knutsford debacle" of 1999, when Leslau, Wray and former MP/Asda boss Archie Norman floated a £5m cash shell with the aim of finding a retail business for Norman to run. Rumours of plans to buy Sainsbury's or M&S saw the market cap hit £2bn in a fortnight. It was "lunacy", Leslau says now. Another "painful" experience, says Oliver Shah in The Sunday Times, was Southern Cross. Leslau's investment firm, Prestbury, owned 21 houses let to the care provider; he was branded "despicable" by union leaders when it collapsed. For Leslau, that insult grated more than any financial loss.