Intrepid John has been there, done that

Halfway through the interview with John Caulcutt I put down my pen. He's got to be joking.

I can believe that he used to be a pilot for Air Mahe in the Seychelles where he once turned up an hour late for a flight, hungover, wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

The passengers said: "The bloody pilot's late."

So Caulcutt said: "Hey, I know how to fly these things, let's go," before revving up the engine and roaring down the runway with some very white-faced passengers.

I can also believe that he once built a boat out of concrete and then set about re-tracing Darwin's footsteps, flogging a film about the adventure to the BBC.

I reckon he's also telling the truth when he says he plays lead guitar in a rock 'n' roll band that features former members of Procul Harem and Dire Straits.

I think he probably has swum the English Channel, been a dancer on Top of The Pops, kickstarted the America's Cup two years ago and is now the proud owner of nine boats.

But I'm finding it hard to believe that he was a member of the British Olympic Bobsleigh team as well.

Apparently, he came seventh in the two-man and around 12th in the four-man at the 1976 Winter Olympics. When I ask him if he's making all this up, he darts off to the next room, proudly bringing back a 1976 Winter Olympics certificate and photos of a younger version of himself zooming down a bobsleigh track.

John Caulcutt, chief executive and founder of Watermark Group, is actually telling the truth. At 55, he has done more and seen more than everyone I know put together.

It's a surreal thought, but we're in a surreal situation. It's a gorgeous April day just before Easter and we're lunching in the gardens of his magnificent, wisteria-clad Georgian mansion overlooking the croquet lawn. A pheasant has just landed on the grass.

Caulcutt moved to his country pile in Upham, Hampshire in 1984 intending to retire at the ripe old age of 37, having earned sufficient cash through property trading and the sale of his balloon advertising company Sky Signs for 1m.

However, he's not one to sit around doing nothing and so he converted the barns and stables within the 100-acre site to set up Watermark, which now employs 45 people on the site and 124 in total.

You probably haven't heard of Watermark, but you can be certain that you've sampled the group's products.

Next time you take a flight from Leeds Bradford Airport, the chances are that your coffee cup, spoon, earphones, freebie toiletries, cushion, eyemask and toothbrush have all come from the company, which buys products from around 300 suppliers and sells them on to 130 airlines, including BA, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Air 2000 and Britannia.

Caulcutt is fond of one-liners and one of them is: "Never make anything except money," an adage that a number of British manufacturers would agree with.

Following September 11, the Bali nightclub bombing, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the SARS virus, the airline industry is in an all-time slump.

Carriers are going back to what they're good at, namely flying passengers safely from A to B, and they are keen to outsource everything "above the wing". This is where Watermark comes in.

"BA has said it will reduce its supplier base from about 13,000 to 2,000. Airlines have fewer people to maintain the supplier base and clients are giving us more and more work. Airlines need about 400 different products on board an aircraft, but they don't want 400 trucks turning up at the airport," says Caulcutt.

But won't Watermark be hit by the slump in airline travel? Caulcutt argues that despite the headlines, passenger numbers actually rose by 1 per cent last year.

"The American market may be massively down, but we can go where the growth is. Last year it was in the Far East and this year there is enormous potential in Russia, which is twice the size of the US and where income rose 20 per cent last year. Boris and Helga are out there travelling," he says.

Watermark was founded by Caulcutt and an associate in 1985 in order to supply new kid on the block, Virgin Atlantic.

Caulcutt himself points out his resemblance to Richard Branson "although he's got a lot more hair" and the bearded founder of Virgin is obviously something of a hero to him.

Caulcutt says that in the early days of Virgin Atlantic neither he nor Branson knew anything about the airline industry, but they knew what people wanted on a flight. This recalls another of his one-liners: "Don't sell people what you want to sell them, sell them what they want."

There then followed 10 energetic years supplying Virgin Atlantic, which is still one of Watermark's biggest clients. Caulcutt says he helped to hijack the model of BA's Concorde at Heathrow and rebrand it with Virgin's colours as part of the bitter battle between the two British carriers.

Hearing the stories and looking at the photos, it is clear that Caulcutt lived the Eighties dream to the hilt and you can't help suspect that he's still living it now.

On arrival, I'm left to wander around (Caulcutt thought he was in a simple meeting with a supplier, but it may become another acquisition opportunity for the group), admiring the view, the period furniture and the silver-framed photos of three beautiful blonde women – wife and daughters I presume.

However, beneath the smooth surface and the casual dress – most of the employees look like they're heading off for a day's fun on one of Caulcutt's many boats – Watermark is paddling fast and hard.

Caulcutt works all hours and he expects his employees to as well. The philosophy is summed up by managing director Paul Evans who joined Watermark recently from MyTravel.

"I believe that Watermark will be as huge as MyTravel within the next few years," he explains.

The company has a track record of 30 per cent compound average growth every year for the last 10 years and it is about to embark on a major expansion programme.

The group's vision for the future is "total cabin management".

It already provides toiletries and coffee cups and following the recent acquisition of M'n'H Recycling it can now recycle and repackage all the onboard products.

Its latest concept is onboard retail in the shape of FlightStore, which allows passengers to tap into a seatback TV and order duty free, holiday excursions, a hire car, anything they want.

Following a successful launch with Lauda Air in 2001, new clients include Continental, Austrian Airlines, Northwest Airlines and KLM while the group has received strong interest from another eight major airlines.

The next step is in-flight entertainment.

"We are looking at putting Hollywood blockbuster movies and news on each of the channels, and we'll cater it to the airline's needs, for example we'd edit it for the Arab market so we're not showing the naughty bits," says Caulcutt.

After that the group aims to go into distribution of newspapers and magazines, food – which is an airline's biggest expenditure – and cabin cleaning.

Watermark supplies every end of the market from the Molton Brown toiletries in First Class to the coffee cup on EasyJet.

Seeing Caulcutt now, his life looks enviable, but it wasn't always so. At 17, his father died in a car crash and Caulcutt was forced to leave Harrow and his dreams of university.

"I had to earn money very quickly," he says.

From the privileged environment of a public school he found himself working 14-hour days digging the Victoria line tube tunnel.

He suggested to Mowlem that if he could improve his team's productivity by 50 per cent they should be given a hefty bonus. Mowlem agreed and after a year Caulcutt had enough money to buy a house.

While running a t-shirt stall in Petticoat Lane he met a stockbroker, landed a job selling stocks and shares, and became the London Stock Exchange's youngest partner at the age of 20.

The next few years were spent retracing Darwin's footsteps, bobsleighing at the Olympics, property trading and learning how to fly. Then it was back to England for the hedonistic Eighties and after selling his balloon advertising company, Caulcutt was a millionaire. Then came Watermark.

Analysts are predicting good things for the company. Mark Watson-Mitchell of SQC Research says the shares are undervalued because the group has been lumped in with the general airline sector.

"Watermark is generally able to save its clients over 10 per cent of their costs. We remain extremely positive about the group and its prospects," he says.

If the group does hit the big time – and it has big ambitions – it will be relying on Caulcutt's charm, stream of one-liners and ready supply of amazing tales to woo investors.

Talking of which, I forgot to mention that if you're flicking through yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur's autobiography, 'Johnny Caulcutt' appears on page 174 as her first sponsor. There really is no end to this man's endeavours.

ros.snowdon@ypn.co.uk