Graham Leslie hasn’t rested on his laurels since selling his business for £68m. He’s now releasing a charity Christmas song to help poorly children. Ann Chadwick reports.
It’s apt that entrepreneur Graham Leslie’s favourite Christmas movie is It’s A Wonderful Life. In the film George Bailey realises the biggest wealth in his life is his family, his community - as he puts people before profit. There can be few Yorkshire businessmen as renowned as Graham for putting his heart into his community.
“It’s about the community, nothing else matters,” Graham says. “Real entrepreneurs as far as I’m concerned are driven by wanting to achieve, wanting to contribute – it’s not about money – it’s not about praise or being on a pedestal because you’ll fall off. I’ve always had a great passion to share.”
After selling his business for $88m (£68m) in 2008, Graham didn’t follow the cliché of retiring on a beach.
He’s a Resident Professor of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at Huddersfield University, and in 2017 received a CBE from the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William for his services to entrepreneurship.
Graham was the founding chairman of Kirklees Stadium Development Ltd and with Sir John Harman, created Europe’s first ever all-seater stadium in Huddersfield, inspired by the Hillsborough tragedy so that history will never repeat.
He grew up kicking a block of wood around the council estate in Middlesbrough, with Brian Clough his idol, a footballer who ‘gave back’ and worked in the community. Graham’s oldest son set up the Leslie Sports Foundation in Huddersfield to continue that spirit and put kids – some at risk - on a positive path. “Unless people give back” Graham says, “the whole thing will implode.”
He is still a serial entrepreneur with a wide investment portfolio, but one thing that may be a revelation about Graham is that he is a prolific songwriter.
“Music has always been a part of my life.” As a working-class lad, growing up against the music revolution of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he played drums in the boy’s brigade and sang in a rock band, covering Buddy Holly, Elvis and Cliff Richard tracks. “My parents went ballistic when they realised at 16 our performance was after the strippers at the working men’s club in Redcar!”
Graham’s mum was a PA to the chairman of ICI, his dad a principal probation officer for the North of England. “Always blame the parents,” he laughs when asked where he gets his entrepreneurial drive.
After leaving school at just 14, he had dreams of becoming a designer, but couldn’t draw (“so that was a big problem! The frustration continues!”) Being dyslexic, he learnt to channel his creativity through oratory, and went into sales.
“When I went home and told my mother I was going to be a salesman, she cried. I said, ‘Why are you crying mother I get a free car?’ She said, ‘All salesmen are liars and you’ll get eaten alive’. I said okay, I’ll prove you wrong. Don’t worry mum. Thankfully she lived to see the formation of our own company, Galpharm.”
While blazing a trail in the business world, his first marriage ended and he picked up a guitar again - “for my own sanity more than anything else.” Music was ‘total’ therapy. His brother Hugh – who he writes scores with – trained at the Guildhall School of Music before selling his London business and setting up a music studio in Huddersfield. It seemed inevitable that Graham’s path would cross with Sheffield’s Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer, Eliot Kennedy.
Eliot has written hits for the Spice Girls, Take That, Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin and many others, but works from his home city in his recording studio, Steelworks. The hit-maker is renowned as one of the biggest hearts in Sheffield, raising huge funds for charities with his annual concerts. The two men shared the same values.
Graham’s wife, Karen, introduced him to Eliot 15 years ago. She had bought Eliot’s old house and Graham got to know him as his stepdaughter was keen to record music. When Graham got married, he approached Eliot again with a song he’d written called ‘Wedding Vows’.
“We got married in Ripon Cathedral which was absolutely adorable, and my brother did all the arrangement for the choir and the organ. When you hear the beautiful arrangements and musicians playing your song, and you’re walking out with your wife, it was quite moving to say the least. I get emotional even now thinking about it. Karen was fine – I was in buckets in every wedding photo!”
Eliot loved ‘Wedding Vows’ so much, he asked Graham to write four or five more songs, announcing they’d do an album together. The album is due to launch next year; the first ever in the world all about wedding songs. The pair are working on an album of original songs too, an eclectic mix of pop, jazz, rock, blues and classical crossovers. But Graham’s debut will be this Christmas with a charity single in aid of the Sheffield Children’s Hospital.
On the video shoot for the single, Graham invited his nine grandchildren and four children.
“The song is all about making sure you’re back home for Christmas. It’s all about families coming together. I chose this charity because I once had the experience of not being able to be with my children one Christmas, so I went into the children’s hospital and basically entertained the kids with cards and tricks and my guitar. I know how very, very upsetting and frustrating it is when you’re separated from your children, but if your child is ill in a hospital it’s of course devastating. That visit really opened my eyes.”
Graham Leslie doesn’t live up to the stereotype of the ruthless, hard-nosed business tycoon. His secrets to success include an open-door policy to all staff, to listen to their problems, to lead by example, and to not be afraid.
He says he may not have set up Galpharm if it weren’t for being stabbed in the back by a colleague who saw him as a threat.
“It seriously changed the course of my life – positively. So don’t be afraid of the people who stab you in the back. You’re not the one who has the problem, they’re the ones with the big problem. It’s part of British culture to pull people down, we don’t put our champions on a pedestal.”
Naysayers fire him on. “The one that really spurred me on was when I sold the business and I was on a train coming back from a meeting in the House of Commons, with someone who turned round and said, ‘Well Graham you’ve done an excellent job in just in one area of business, but you did very well.’ Because he said one area of business, I then set off and invested in about 26 different companies and still do. That was the motivation. My portfolio of investments varies from engineering to photography to sport and art. That was just one guy though, saying you’ve succeeded in one thing, as if I couldn’t do it in something else.”
Challenges, like his dyslexia, he turns to assets. Creativity drives him. “I’ve designed houses, buildings, football stadiums with architects. Starting with a blank piece of paper and creating something is one of the greatest attributes humans can contribute,” he says.
In his career he’s met Prime Ministers, Royals and Presidents of America – “all from a kid from the backstreets.” His advice? “Get on with life, it’s fantastic out there. It’s about spurring people to set off. Most people don’t set off. For God’s sake, set off.”
Graham Leslie’s Christmas Song is launched on November 29.