This is the autobiography by the Phones4U billionaire, John Caudwell. The book takes you from his birth in Stoke-on-Trent all the way through to becoming a self-made billionaire and covers his childhood, the many business ventures and his complex love life!!  My focus was on him as a businessman and it was clear he always wanted to make money and be successful in his life. He didn’t just want to make it, he wanted to make it big, really big! And to be fair he has. 

Early Business Career

He started work at Michelin as an apprentice but was happy to work the hardest, most horrible jobs, if it paid more money, and he always had more than one job on the go. 

He was a complete workaholic and work came before everything and he survived only just 2-3 hours of sleep most nights. He will also never walk away from a challenge. He will challenge or be challenge to pretty much anything and everything. He is highly competitive in everything he does, even challenging someone to a ‘chip off’ – yes, a competition as to who can cook the best chip! 

There were a few early businesses that were less successful including the setting up of a grocery shop and growing and selling mushrooms (not the magic variety). A more successful but ill-fated venture was the selling of Belstaff waterproof jackets through magazines. He saw an opportunity by going straight to Belstaff to secure a discount and then sell on via magazine ads. This was actually pretty successful until one day he was contacted by Belstaff to tell him that they had to stop supplying him, as he was upsetting all their existing suppliers by out discounting them. John had to fight with the Belstaff board to be able to fulfil the outstanding orders he already had, but after that, that venture came to an end. 

The Idea for Phones 4 U

At the age of 26 John set up a car sales lot in Stoke with his brother, Brian. It was not in the ideal spot, but they made the best of it. They understood what customers wanted and bought well at the auctions. They had good and bad times with this venture but had some tough times especially in the early days when they realised that it was a very seasonal business. 

John would be at the auctions on the payphone to Brian about certain cars and then Brian would contact the customer to see if they still wanted XYZ car. All this whilst there was a queue of other dealers behind John also wanting the phone for the same reason. It was a constant battle. 

One day John saw another dealer and he arrived with a large case about the size of a suitcase. He opened it up and took out an early version of a mobile phone, so there would be no more payphones for this person. That was a bit of a lightbulb moment for John and was the start of an idea. They were very expensive as well as being huge, but they had the potential to change the game. 

From Idea to Reality

John had a lot of trouble trying to source new phones and that peaked his interest that was a gap in the market. The book tells the story of how John got into the phone business and made such a success of it. In the 80’s it was a complicated business with complex pricing structures and few retail outlets and even fewer phones. There was the sale of a phone but also the connection to a network that was required. In 1986 there were just 2 airtime carriers and 56,000 mobile phone accounts between them. 

Lots of people thought mobiles would never catch on back then but John saw the potential. In 1987 the iconic film, Wall Street, came out (one of my favourites) and in it, Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas, used a Motorola phone on a beach. This put Motorola on the map for mobiles and they became the biggest player in the market, and John was about to push through the door and start working with them. 

John tells the story of how the Caudwell Group business grew from nothing to £13m turnover by 1991 and over £1bn by 2020.  

He was very perceptive as to when the right time was to enter a market and also when to exit. He saw the growth days coming to an end and in 2026 he decided to sell the business, including Phones 4U for £1.5bn at a time when the sales had hit £2.25bn 

I enjoyed the business tales and the near moments of highs and lows. I enjoyed less of the personal aspects. I couldn’t decide whether I actually liked him or not having read the book. You cannot take away anything from his business career and what he built, but his ultra-confidence and even a bit of bragging comes across quite a bit, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. I would have much preferred more of the detail on the business side and more of a Shoe Dog book about Nike in its style, but then again John has £1.5bn and I don’t so if he wants to write this type of book, who am I to argue….