Don’t try to teach someone to overcome their weaknesses — you don’t have time and it seldom works. Make sure you have those weaknesses covered and focus instead on their strengths. A valuable, gifted marketing person is unlikely to also be good at financial matters — and doesn’t need to be.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Vaughan.
From ‘king of the London party scene’ living life to the full in the swinging sixties to everyman philosopher pondering the meaning of life, Tom Vaughan, 73, has come full circle in his life with new book, Hope…And The Hedgehog, which he aims to unpick some of life’s biggest questions.
It is a long way from his beginnings in 1966, when at 18, he and his brother Oliver hatched a plan to create a traveling discotheque called Juliana’s from the back of a van. Juliana’s grew to be the world’s largest entertainment group of its time, and the first disco chain to ever go public.
Hope…And The Hedgehog is out on May 5th 2022.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born and mostly raised at Courtfield in Herefordshire, a big 19-century English mansion deep in the English countryside.
My family roots stretch far back before the Norman Conquest — my great, great uncle was Cardinal Vaughan and also Archbishop of Westminster. Of his many achievements perhaps his most significant was the building of Westminster Cathedral which was finished just in time for his funeral there in 1903.
In the next generation my grandparents were the toast of Edwardian society — that is, until my grandmother, a niece of the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle, ran off to Europe with a lover, a scandal that was the talk of London at the time.
I had a blissful, if somewhat unconventional, childhood. I have a twin called Richard and an older brother, Oliver. My eldest brother, Patrick, died in 2020. My father was a barrister and my mother a homemaker, before later becoming an antique dealer. They were loving, if slightly eccentric parents who enjoyed nothing more than to do long trips abroad leaving us in the hands of various Italian au pairs.
My father struggled with sobriety for a time and eventually gave up his career at the bar, while my mother kept everything together. I will always remember his impulsive side. One minute he was my father, the next a curious, unpredictable stranger who was capable of doing the wildest and most bizarre things, like tossing away the keys to his Daimler to pay off a gambling debt.
After a few years of moving around the Cotswolds and London, we finally returned to the Dower House at Courtfield when I was barely seven years old. Finding a school that would take us proved difficult — not their fault I should add, my twin brother and I ran away from one kindergarten and we only lasted a day at another school thanks to a rather unfortunate incident with some flour.
Eventually we were schooled at a Dominican run boarding school near Abergavenny, in Monmouthshire. My brothers and I loved it there. The monks were marvelously laid back and we had the run of the place. It was a gloriously happy time. Looking back, I have a lot to thank the Dominican monks for — while they didn’t teach us anything much academically (not believing in any kind of formally prescribed curriculum) they taught us resilience and self-belief; that I could do anything if I set my mind to it, which I genuinely believe helped shape me into who I am today.
And we proved that we could take on the world when we set up Juliana’s. My brother Oliver and I left the school with no qualifications and realizing we were virtually unemployable, decided we needed to fend for ourselves. So one Sunday afternoon we came up with a plan: a traveling discotheque!
At the time people hired a band or just made do with a few records and a gramophone, so the idea of a professional discotheque, complete with speakers and lights was pretty new, although we weren’t the first to think of it — we were actually the second after becoming inspired by the first.
We were nothing like the club DJs of nowadays. We knew nothing about pop music and neither were we particularly interested in it, we would just play what people wanted us to play. I think that’s why we became so popular.
Our parents were away on one of their trips at the time so we set about getting a tiny loan from our local bank. That was enough to buy a pair of turntables, a collection of vinyl records and a very old second hand van — all we needed to get the show on the road!
Fast forward one year, plus hundreds of late nights and road miles later, we were the UK’s number one discotheque, DJ-ing at hunt balls, debutante parties and fashion shows. We branched out to cabaret acts — one of the most memorable was a lady who, under the stage name of ‘Ana Conda’, performed with a boa constrictor. And we even got to play at the Investiture Ball for the Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle in 1969. This is when our parents finally started taking our venture a little more seriously!
By then we were very involved in the London social scene, right at the epicenter of what became the swinging sixties, with commissions to play at all the coolest parties. It was a crazy, crazy time and I loved every moment of it.
Realizing you can’t build a significant business out of a traveling discotheque service, we came up with the idea of setting up permanent contract discotheque nightclubs in international hotels and on board cruise ships. This proved to be very successful and after a while we had to expand our global reach, opening offices in London, New York, Singapore and Sydney.
Juliana’s soon became a global name. After going public on the main London Stock Exchange twenty years later Juliana’s Holdings Plc was eventually sold for £30 million. I was still in my late thirties.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
The book that comes to mind is the business classic,‘In Search of Excellence’ by management consultants Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr.
It underscores the importance of human connections in business. People have choices, the authors maintain — by and large and whenever possible, they will always choose to do business with people and companies they like. This is such a simple concept and yet so overlooked in business and it still is today.
I was already living in New York, managing and expanding Juliana’s across the States at the time this book was first published. The book’s message struck a real chord and I have continued to subscribe to it throughout my whole career.
I was intoxicated by America and especially so by New York, but anyone who has spent more than one summer in Manhattan knows you have to have somewhere to escape to in July and August.
I wanted real countryside, reminiscent of where I’d grown up in Herefordshire. It was then I chanced upon New Hampshire and it was love at first sight. I was captivated by the combination of magnificent forest, mountains, sea, pristine unspoiled lakes, low population and freedom of spirit amongst the people there. Taking the plunge I bought a ruin of a house on 300 acres set in the most spectacular, isolated, rural location. I’ve never looked back and it has been my home of the heart for 41 years now.
It was here that I was inspired to write my first novel, ‘The Other Side of Loss’. Set between London, New York, Boston and New Hampshire, it’s a tale of a young priest who one day finds the biggest lottery ticket in US history in his collection plate and becomes embroiled in a series of uncanny events on both sides of the Atlantic.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Juliana’s eventually became a financial success even though, operating on the principle of trial and error, it was more by accident than design in the early days. Despite the boundless enthusiasm that enabled us to grow the business, we didn’t have much of a clue about the importance of things like cash flow — and this soon became apparent when Juliana’s very nearly went bust after only three years.
We were only saved from this fate by being introduced to what turned out to be our savior, in the form of a young trainee accountant called Nick Irens, who eventually went on to become Juliana’s financial director.
Nick’s first task was to do a complete financial breakdown of Juliana’s, whereby he promptly came back and told us that we had debts of over thirty-two thousand pounds. Unbeknownst to us, we had been trading insolvently and would have to go into liquidation!
Crunch time. The bank manager came knocking and even Nick could not save us. So we did what we would always do in any similar situation — we went to personally speak to everyone we owed money to, and arranged to pay back their loans. Not one creditor foreclosed on us and all were repaid — with interest.
Nick Irens was the third leg of the stool that made up the triumvirate behind the company’s global success. Undaunted, he could see the company’s potential even when, at the outset, Oliver showed him drawers of unopened bank statements!
Nick helped us put together a cash-flow prediction for the next two years. Our bank manager, impressed that we had been proactive in clearing our creditors, let us off the hook — with conditions, of course. We agreed to turn our overdraft into a loan and repay it over a two year period, as long as we ran in credit in our operating account.
It was a close shave and it taught us some valuable lessons — namely that business is built on trust. You can get more things done if you meet people in the flesh and speak to them — something that nowadays, with the advent of email and faceless formulaic box ticking, we’ve all forgotten how to do!
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
Hope… And The Hedgehog is my third book which aims to simplify the big questions most of us spend our lives avoiding: how did life begin, how does it end? And what happens to us after we die?
Truth be told, I didn’t start out with the intention of making any kind of impact at all with this book, but wondering if there is a reason for our existence and how planet earth came to support life is a subject I find fascinating and have been curious about for years. And I guess you could say that I have now come full circle from my early years of being the life and soul of the London party scene — all that life experience means I take a much more contemplative and philosophical approach to things.
I’ve deliberately made my book small and digestible as I wanted it to be accessible to all and just long enough to encourage readers to think about this question that affects us all.
I’d love people who read it to pause for a minute and start asking bigger questions. Lift their heads up from the daily grind and allow their minds to wander and wonder. If I achieve that, I’ll be happy.
The message I’d like people to take from the book is that mankind faces a binary choice: either your life is a huge, meaningless cosmic accident or, alternatively, it has meaning. If you choose the latter — and decide that life does have a meaning and a purpose — then it leaves open the possibility, even the likelihood, of there being a higher power, some sort of creator, or a ‘God’ if you want to give it a name.
I didn’t want to get too bogged down with big unwieldy theories so I sidestepped the complex and potentially incendiary subject of religion. To me, as a starting point, you can choose to have faith, or just be spiritually-minded, without adopting the tenets of any religion. That can come later for those who wish.
By opening up our minds, we are able to see things more clearly, find a sense of purpose and direction in life. There are so many studies that point to the power of positive thinking, how it helps you lead healthier and longer lives. If more of us do this, truly the world will be a happier and more peaceful place.
The problem is knowing where to start. My advice to everyone is to look at the night sky, at the vast expanse of space. There is so much we don’t know about the universe, so much that may never be explained by science. Just contemplating that is enough to inspire the expansion of your horizons.
Although a fantasy, imagine if all the world leaders — including Putin and Biden — were to read my book and be inspired to go up to the space station. I’d wager (or at least hope!) they would look down on the planet and the small blue line separating us from the vast universe and realize that disagreements and conflicts over frontiers mean nothing. It’s a big ambition, but one lesson I have learnt from life is to always dream big and aim high!
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
My book lays out expert views from some of history’s greatest thinkers such as Professor Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, who have all explored the question of how mankind came about. It looks at stories of miracles that have no explanation and eminent scientists who admit that science can explain the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’, and it surmises that there is a greater likelihood of a force than there is of this being a meaningless cosmic accident.
One story that always sticks out at me is the story of the then eleven-year-old Jonathan Bryan from Wiltshire, England. Born with severe cerebral palsy, he is ‘locked in’, unable to speak or do anything for himself. Aided by a computer, Jonathan learned to communicate with eye movements, his devoted parents rewarded with the knowledge that Jonathan is in there, bright and alive. Thanks to this technology, he completed his autobiography Eye Can Write.
Jonathan has faced a number of serious health challenges over his life. At one point, after battling an aggressive respiratory infection which left him close to death, he described a vivid, dreamlike, vision of himself in Jesus’ garden where he could speak and play.
Able-bodied, free to run and do as he wished, although Jonathan wanted to stay there he returned to life. He told his parents, ‘it was the toughest decision of my life to come back.’
We hear so often of people’s life flashing before their eyes at the moment of death, but not about sensations that have never been experienced. The fact that an 11-year-old child who had never had the fortune of having the ability to talk and move for himself could describe them so succinctly I find astounding. It leaves me to wonder if there is perhaps a parallel universe where we go after death — a heaven, some may call it. Believing that there is more makes death feel like a less frightening prospect.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
Not so much an ‘aha moment’ as the gradual realization that to most people death is a taboo subject and what may or may not happen afterwards just isn’t thought about, let alone talked about. A sort of collective self-denial which I felt was worth addressing in a hopeful, user-friendly way.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One agnostic friend, who had already begun searching for something, told me that after reading my manuscript he wanted to learn more and had joined a bible study group. Another ardently atheist friend told me that, although my manuscript hadn’t changed his mind, it had made him think more deeply about things and he had had to reappraise a number of positions he had previously held.
Are there three things society can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Firstly, I think there could be more of an emphasis on the power of positive thinking and its strong links to physical health.
As a society we rely on medicine to cure all ills, which of course we should in so many situations, but studies also show that positivity can boost immunity, improve cardiovascular health and reduce risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke and cancer.
An optimistic outlook means you are better able to cope with stressful situations, and this reduces the harmful health effects of stress on your body. If children were taught this in schools, I like to think we would be able to create a more resilient and happy society.
Secondly, I would like society to wake up to the fact that its eternal pursuit of money, status and wealth is fruitless.
There are so many stories that show the harder we chase material possessions the less they satisfy us. I once asked the owner of a world-famous shipyard that specializes in building superyachts for the very rich how many yachts his clients were good for. ‘Two and a half’ came his intriguing answer.
The first was their dream yacht that they sailed delightedly away in. The second, after they’d sailed into some of the world’s most exclusive ports and seen bigger and better yachts, was a much larger version of the first. The third — the ‘half’ — was the one the client commissioned, but given the time it takes to design and build these behemoths, died before they ever got to take delivery.
Stories like this prove that money doesn’t buy you happiness. Choosing to be selfless rather than selfish will always make you more fulfilled.
Thirdly, and this is a small thing, I would like people to ask more questions — just like you did when you were a small child. If you question everything around you, you start to open your mind to possibilities. No question is too silly or too ‘out there’. Studies have shown that our brains release dopamine and other feel-good chemicals when we encounter new things. Curious people are happier, do better at school and work, and are healthier and more resilient.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I hate the word ‘entrepreneur’ — an entrepreneur sounds like you never get anything wrong! I prefer to call myself a ‘vigorous muddler’ in business because, as I’ve already mentioned, I’ve had some spectacular failures along with my success.
I have always tried to lead by example. At the height of Juliana’s success we employed over 500 people. Although Oliver and I weren’t trained in business or leadership, we rolled up our sleeves and worked hard.
At the time we narrowly avoided bankruptcy, Nick Irens, our stalwart accountant, issued us a stark warning — we had to drastically cut our overheads. So we gathered our staff in a room and gave them a choice: stay on working for nothing until things improved, or leave now.
We then lived off·£5 a week pocket money between us for next six months, living such a life of austerity our tax officer questioned how we could live off such a paltry sum. But we got through, saved the business from sinking, and won the respect of our team, quite a few of whom are still friends to this day.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- That you can just as easily go bust by overtrading as undertrading. The example of which we learned the hard way.
- Confidence, kindness and courtesy are as important as business tools as any amount of financial training. Late for a critical job interview because he stopped in pouring rain to help a blind person across the street, the least qualified candidate got the job despite being told he was too late and the interview was closed. The CEO had seen what he had done from his window and knew he was the right man for his company.
- The importance of branding and building brand recognition. As can be seen in any supermarket, well known brands are always sold at a premium.
- Don’t try to teach someone to overcome their weaknesses — you don’t have time and it seldom works. Make sure you have those weaknesses covered and focus instead on their strengths. A valuable, gifted marketing person is unlikely to also be good at financial matters — and doesn’t need to be.
- All you have to do to be successful in business is be a little less mediocre than the competition. As told to me by way of learned wisdom from a jaded senior executive of a major hotel chain on his retirement. Depressing but sadly true!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two:
‘Man, because he sacrifices his health in order to make money, then has to sacrifice his money to recover his health. Then he is so anxious about the future he does not enjoy the present. The result being he does not live in the present or the future; instead he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.’ — The Dalai Lama
‘Life is but a bridge, walk confidently across but build no house upon it.’ — Indian proverb.
Both these quotes carry so much wisdom and exemplify how important it is to live in the present, enjoying each day without making grandiose plans for an unknown future.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Clive Myrie, a BBC news journalist and television presenter — because of his intelligence, bravery, compassion, how far he has come in his life to date and how much further I have no doubt he will still go.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Tom Vaughan Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.