Guy Hands on fortune, failure and the fear of the ‘Under Toad’
December 3, 2021. Series 5. Episode 33
In this first episode of our fifth series I talk to Guy Hands – a man who Tom Wolfe would have described as ‘A Master of the Universe’. A private equity titan who through his skill and sheer force of personality has been one of the most successful dealmakers of the last three decades.
Not every deal has gone well though – some in fact have gone spectacularly wrong. Most famously his acquisition of EMI was a multi-million-pound failure which still stings. Guy talks with candid honesty about those professional crises and peels back the lid on the secretive world of private equity.
But what’s truly remarkable about this episode is not the riches gained or lost. It’s the personal challenges that Guy faced before the success and indeed since, that really makes this a crisis story worth listening to.
Challenges like his severe dyslexia – Guy still has a reading age of 13 and the spelling level of a seven-year-old, dyspraxia, chronic OCD and a number of other crippling conditions.
Guy’s life under its successful veneer has often been one of significant struggle which at times has taken him to the darkest of places in terms of his mental health. A battle against what he describes (quoting from the World According To Garp) as The Under Toad – the constant fear of being dragged down to disaster.
A reminder that whoever you think someone is – however perfect and successful a life they appear to be leading – the reality will almost certainly be something very, very different.
Guy’s Crisis Cures:
1. Gardens – being able to smell the garden. If it’s raining a bit softly – even better.
2. Yoga – I find it very, very useful. Partly the stretching which I really enjoy. Partly a little bit of physical exercise, but not too much. And partly just to clear my mind to think.
3. Listening to music – The one that gets me up when I’m really down is Mama’s & Papas – Dedicated To The One I Love. It has that wonderful line about the darkest time being just before dawn. I can play that line over and over again.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? I’m Andy Coulson, former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. Over the last seven years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:00:53.13 Andy Coulson:
So, on this podcast you’ll hear from the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. But you’ll also hear from renowned crisis managers, mental health experts and other advisors who were in the room when major crises have hit. All of them offering useful, practical coping techniques and tips and all with the straightforward aim of guiding you towards a more resilient approach to life, whatever it might throw at you. Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing and improving human performance. Just search for Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify and you’ll find some great playlists. And if you enjoy what you hear on this podcast please subscribe and give us a rating and review. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook, our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodcast.
00:01:51.04 Andy Coulson:
The author Tom Wolfe would have described my guest today as a master of the universe. A private equity titan who through skill and sheer force of personality has been one of the most successful deal makers of the last three decades. During that time Guy Hands, first at Goldman Sachs and Nomura and later as founder as founder of his own company, Terra Firma, sealed deals involving everything from cinema chains and pubs to waste management, aircraft leasing and green energy.
00:02:19.23 Andy Coulson:
Not every deal has gone well though. Some in fact have gone very badly wrong. Most famously his acquisition of EMI was a multi-million pound failure that, as you will hear, still stings. Guy talks with candid honesty about those professional setbacks and peels back the lid on the secretive world of private equity. But what’s truly remarkable about this story is not the riches gained or lost, indeed you might describe the ups and downs of Guy’s very considerable fortune to be the ultimate example of a first word d problem. No, as we discover so frequently on this podcast, it’s the personal challenges that Guy faced before the success and indeed since, that really makes this a crisis story worth listening to.
00:03:07.01 Andy Coulson:
From his severe dyslexia, Guy still has a reading age of thirteen and a spelling level of a seven year old, dyspraxia, chronic OCD and a number of other conditions, Guy’s life, under its successful veneer, has often been one of significant struggle. Struggles that he tells me in this conversation took him to the darkest of places in terms of his mental health. It’s our discussion around these issues, some of which he managed to conceal from colleagues for many, many years that I found so utterly compelling.
00:03:41.12 Andy Coulson:
A reminder that whoever you think someone is, however perfect and successful a life they appear to be living, the reality will almost certainly be something very, very different. So an unusual crisis conversation for this episode but one I hope you’ll enjoy and get something from, I certainly did. My thanks to Guy for his time and his insights. Guy Hands, thank you so much for joining us on Crisis What Crisis, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you with us.
00:04:08.15 Guy Hands:
00:04:10.02 Andy Coulson:
Your book The Deal Maker is a great read. You’re pretty brutal with the analysis of the things that have gone wrong in your career. But you’re not so good at celebrating or even frankly fully recognising your incredible successes. Is that a fair observation?
00:04:31.19 Guy Hands:
It’s very fair and I think my wife would say that I’m never content and that I’m always second guessing myself and going over and over what I could have done better. And I think that’s definitely true. In a way it’s a good thing because it drives me. In a way it’s a very bad thing because it’s very difficult to ever feel content and happy. So you’re always driving for the next experience, the next achievement.
00:04:59.12 Andy Coulson:
In the book you talk about the ‘under toad’, which I think is from The World According to Garp, presumably one of your favourites. Just explain to us what you mean by it. As I understand it, it’s a bit of a theme isn’t it? Theme, probably the wrong word, it is a constant in your life, that fear of being out of your depth, I suppose.
00:05:29.06 Guy Hands:
Yeah, it’s worse than being out of your depth, it’s being dragged under. And it actually is the under toad but people always think it’s the under tow. And it’s really is effective an undertone, a current which drags you down. But in The World According to Garp it sort of became this mythical animal and I sort of just feel there’s something that’s going to pull me back and destroy me. And I’ve always been scared of it. And it is something which drives me forward, you know trying to escape it. But it’s always there, it’s never sort of fully gone away.
00:06:10.15 Andy Coulson:
You said recently that you’re scared of ending your life having not achieved. Which was an astonishing thing to read really because you’ve achieved so much, even as a young man. Getting into Oxford against the odds, getting into Goldman Sachs against the odds. And yet this mission, it seems to prove everyone wrong, has been a constant theme in your early life but through your life.
00:06:39.14 Guy Hands:
Yeah, I mean, it hasn’t gone away. I think I am scared of ending up my life as a failure. I think to have succeeded I will want to have made a difference and I want to always have been able to speak the truth. And those are quite difficult things. You know, every time I’m not completely open, transparent and honest I feel I’ve been a coward. You know, you feel you haven’t had the guts to stand up for what you believe. And not standing up for what I believe is something which I’ve always been scared about.
00:07:13.00 Guy Hands:
I think that probably goes back to my parents leaving South Africa and I always knew they’d left very largely because they disagreed with the political situation over there. And until I had children I always thought, well that was cowardly we should have stayed. And then when I had children I suddenly realised that actually you’d ‘do just about anything for your children and I can quite understand why they did it.
00:07:39.16 Guy Hands:
But it hasn’t stopped me feeling I just need sometimes to stand up. And at the moment I feel what would be on my gravestone, you know, okay, ‘He made a lot of money’ you know, I haven’t made a difference in a way that I want to make a difference. And the thing I’m proudest of is what we, my wife and I, did with Mansford College. And that was very much against detractors and very much against, we’ll never succeed and it’s going to be a disaster and why are you trying this? But it worked and it was a very simple thing.
00:08:13.15 Guy Hands:
It was just saying that an Oxford college should have the same mix of people that are in British society. It shouldn’t be different; it didn’t have to be 60% private school. And so Mansfield was in trouble and needed money and so we agreed to give them money on the basis that they were at least 75% state school and now 96% state school. And they have a very large percentage, same as the UK average, of students who come from household incomes under £13,000, just over 20% and just over 20% BAME. And they’ve achieved that social mix. It is the UK.
00:08:51.13 Andy Coulson:
So it stems, you started that sort of explanation with your parents and that clearly has provided, as you say, a drive but it also stems from your childhood and the problems that you had to face as a child: severely dyslexic; severely dyspraxia and with severe OCD. No silver spoon; you were a grammar school boy. As you say, the son of South African parents who moved to Berkshire when you were three. You were badly bullied, some of your teachers also treated you appallingly. We’re all a product of your childhood but for you it’s those early years and those early struggles that also fuelled this incredible drive.
00:09:45.12 Guy Hands:
Yes, I mean, I think that’s 100% correct. It was, I needed to find something to give me self-esteem and something that I felt I could do better than my classmates. And it was tough to find something. At sport I was disastrous at. There was no eye, hand coordination. And I used to, when I was very young, run the wrong way on the football pitch. So if I actually managed to kick the ball I kicked it in the wrong direction, so that wasn’t particularly good. It didn’t make me terribly popular.
00:10:19.22 Andy Coulson:
You’re smiling, you’re smiling as you remember that but that must have been awful moments for you there as a child?
00:10:28.18 Guy Hands:
Yeah, I mean, they were horrible moments. I sort of gave up on most male friends very early in my life. I found it very difficult to be friends with boys because I just didn’t have anything really in common with them because they tended to be rowdier, they tended to be more athletic. And so I ended up mainly being friends with the girls in class and a few boys. And it was a very lonely existence.
00:11:06.00 Guy Hands:
I had Midge, our dog, who I used to take for walks and I was absolutely devoted to. And I used to walk enormously, incredible distances really for a young child just to be able to go off and walk. And today you’d never allow a child to do it but back then it didn’t seem dangerous or boring. And that solitary walk with the dog in countryside sort of kept me as a young child, reasonably calm. But it didn’t protect me from the system.
00:11:36.02 Bill Browder:
By the time I was nine I was becoming more and more, I suppose, more and more withdrawn, more and more difficult. And eventually it culminated in a fight in class, which I’m not very proud of, and apparently you know, though I don’t remember it, I picked up a desk and threw it at another kid just as the teacher came in and they decided that probably it was best if I just got out of that school altogether.
00:12:04.20 Guy Hands:
My parents managed to get me into what was a special school, as in one of the schools you sort of had in those days, which dealt with children who had severe learning disabilities or severe personality disabilities. I went there for about two and a half years. Which, in some ways, was the making of me and in some ways was a pretty horrific experience.
00:12:29.07 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, when you say it was the making of you was it because eventually the burdens that you were carrying began to be understood? I mean, generationally there are, I suspect understanding was considerably lower than it is today around dyslexia and dyspraxia. But I mean, was it a particular teacher, was there a particular moment where actually someone started to connect with you and understand the issues?
00:12:58.18 Guy Hands:
Yeah, the headmaster did. The rest, I mean, Colonel Forber who was theoretically my form teacher just wanted to beat me. In the end he never actually did because he sent me to the headmaster first and the headmaster said, ‘I’ll take you into my class and you can leave Colonel Forber’s class.’ So I found myself jumping four years from the nine, ten year old class to the common entrance class, you know, thirteen, fourteen. Because I couldn’t do French and I couldn’t do Latin and I couldn’t do anything which needed rote learning. And so Gilly took me in his class and I spent the whole time in his class. And he just let me do what I liked effectively. And I sort of built up my confidence and realised there were things I could do.
00:13:44.07 Andy Coulson:
But you also, your power of persuasion, your resilience, your ability not to fall in on yourself when things went wrong, leads you to Oxford. We won’t dwell on your years in Oxford for very long because there’s so much to talk about but enough of a success for you then, by the age of twenty-six, so not that long after you’ve left university, to be running the eurobond department at Goldman Sachs. When you reach that point, Guy, you’re sitting in Goldman Sachs, a deeply, deeply competitive environment, you’re winning, really winning, you know, did you feel at that stage of your life that you were on your way?
00:14:35.01 Guy Hands:
Not really at twenty-six. I mean, I had a book I used to write my, on one side my assets and on the other side my liabilities and what I was aiming for. And I had a deficit at that stage. I mean, it wasn’t a deficit in terms of was I running out of money it was a deficit in terms of this is what I’m trying to achieve and this is what I’ve got and I felt until I’d got it and had it completely safe it could go wrong at any time.
00:15:12.14 Guy Hands:
You know, I could get fired, you know there could be… you know Goldman could go bankrupt, anything. And even in a long time later I still used to look at what jobs were available out there which I could do if I wasn’t working in the City. And I sort of came to the concluding that if I wasn’t working in the City, you know, with my third from Oxford, no ability to speak any languages, very bad writing, you know, probably I could go back to door to door selling. And I really didn’t see there was anything much else I could do.
00:15:44.14 Andy Coulson:
But you knew that there was something else about you by that stage? Yes, you got a third and as I say we haven’t dwelt on that, it was a rocky road, I suppose, through Oxford for you. But you’d also realised by this age, age twenty-six, that you had true skill. Not just for numbers but for strategy.
00:16:06.01 Guy Hands:
Yeah, but it’s a little bit like… it’s very interesting because a lot of people think that their success is down to them. And I’ve always seen my success is down to the opportunities I’ve had and taking advantage of them. And there are lots of people in this world who just don’t get the opportunities. And you can always say that, ‘Guy you’ve done a great job of finding the opportunities and taking advantage.’ And it’s interesting that because a woman called Margaret Branch, whose a psychiatrist who looked after me a lot during my early childhood, she told me that there was, in her view, and she called me a gifted child, she said, ‘You know, gifted people find a way through which other people don’t. And you know, Guy, you really have the power, you really can make your way.’
00:16:58.08 Guy Hands:
And I’m not sure I ever really believed her. So to me, it was, I believed if an opportunity came up I should take it and I could take it. And I could take the risk. So I had the confidence to take the risk. But I didn’t have a belief that it was me who was always going to be able to just get through it. And so I would say, I mean, even today, because I know what it was like when Covid started, I still believed I could lose everything. And I still believe I can make the wrong decision. And so I don’t, I have never reached a point where I have thought I can definitely succeed.
00:17:43.18 Guy Hands:
What I’ve, I know I’ve got certain abilities but does anybody want those abilities. And so to some extent it’s a question of will I get the opportunity and I was very, very lucky with Goldman, they gave me the opportunity and I was very lucky with Nomura, it gave me the opportunity. I was incredibly lucky with my investors; I got an opportunity. But all of that built to then going wrong in 2007 and so… and that was my fault, nobody else’s. So I don’t really have that feeling that no, I’ve really got something special. I think you know, I’ve got a skill but it’s no different from any other skill.
00:18:20.06 Andy Coulson:
It’s interesting that you see it in a sort of linear way. That you see all those experiences as leading to 2007 when the truth is that there are ups and there are downs and that’s life. It comes in those different kinds of speeds and can rush at you in one moment and can take very long time at others. You see it very much as a leading towards… It was interesting to me, reading the book, that EMI, which is a story which we’ll get onto, which is a story that a lot of people know about, but you see that as part of the definition of you, don’t you? You really do still see it as a sort of truly significant and defining moment in your life.
00:19:07.02 Guy Hands:
Yes, and I do see stuff pretty much as a line. And I think that’s not particularly healthy but I spent so much of my childhood just hoping to get through school. And my parents were brilliant because I think, you know, without them I would never have survived school. I just absolutely hated it. There was just, there wasn’t an inch of my body which didn’t hate school. And so every day was getting up, going to this place which I absolutely hated, coming home and then knowing I was going to have to go to it the next day and the next day and the next day. And therefore for me I spent probably from the age of six to eighteen just waiting for school to finish.
00:19:55.00 Andy Coulson:
Just going to you at twenty-six again, you know, succeeding. How were you coping with the dyslexia? A reading age of thirteen, spelling level of a seven year old, I understand. What was your coping mechanism? Did you hide it or were you very open about it? I’m interested from a practical point of view; how did you approach it?
00:20:16.15 Guy Hands:
I hid it completely. I remember somebody I get on incredibly well with, who was incredibly kind to me, once on the trading floor saying, well thank god we’ve got no one here who is dyslexic. You know we couldn’t cope with a dyslexic. And you know I was very, very careful. It’s a little bit like when I drive a car. I’m a terribly slow driver. I had lots and lots of accidents when I was learning to drive and for the first couple of years afterwards and then I eventually made my mind up that actually I’m not very good at this. So I drive very slowly and very carefully and I don’t have accidents. Hopefully I don’t cause accidents by going too slow. But I don’t have them.
00:20:59.02 Guy Hands:
And you know, I was just very, very careful to check what I was doing. And then reading prospectuses, I’d read them very, very slowly and just take my time. So I would say I just worked a lot harder but I never, ever admitted it. The good thing about being a trader was all you had to write was numbers on a piece of paper and you know that was it. You know, I didn’t really have to do very much writing at all, which was great. And I still have, I had myself re-checked when I was forty and nothing had changed. And I still had a reading age of thirteen and spelling age of seven and on certain tests I did worse than an IQ of fifty. So nothing had really changed. Certain tests I did off the charts. I mean, certain levels but nothing really changed. And I still feel incredibly worried and embarrassed when I have to sign a visors’ book. And I have to think of words to spell.
00:21:58.04 Andy Coulson:
You still feel it?
00:22:00.01 Guy Hands:
Oh yes, enormously. So I’m just trying not to put myself. I mean, I normally get my wife, Julia to write in the visitors’ book for both of us. But last week I was basically, we were asked to individually write in the visitors’ book and I thought, what can I say which doesn’t sound just completely banal. But acutely uses words which I know I can spell. And I really couldn’t come up with anything and I copied some words from previous people in the visitors’ book and just hoped that they got the spelling right because if they got it wrong I would have got it wrong.
00:22:33.17 Andy Coulson:
You’ve been incredibly open about it in the book. I mean, presumably at some point in your life, presumably when you become the boss, effectively, with people that you’re working with that you trust, you confronted it then. And presumably there’s a process you go through with people that you’re working very closely with to say look, these are the things I can do, these are the things I can’t do and I’ll expect you to fill in the gaps. I mean, how do you approach it with colleagues, if you like?
00:22:57.19 Guy Hands:
I do, it’s quite difficult because some of them get it very quickly and some of them don’t. And one of the issues I have is any form of rote. So you know, their assumption is I’m a very bright person so they can just fire information at me and I can store it in a logical line in my head. But the problem is unless there’s a context to it, it means nothing to me. So you know, if you say, ‘Guy, you’ve got a meeting tomorrow at 4.30’, okay so what? If you said, you’ve got a meeting tomorrow, if I was working at sea, if you said, ‘you’ve got a meeting tomorrow at the point where the tide has come in because we need to launch a boat’, that’s got context. But 4.30? He’s called Jim, not Tim, who cares? Jim, Tim? You know, it doesn’t mean anything to me. You know, so it’s got to have a context for it to mean anything to me. Once you put context around something I can remember it forever.
00:23:58.14 Andy Coulson:
Guy, let’s get back to the career. In 1994 you had the confidence to leave Goldman’s, big decision, and join Nomura. It paid off as within six years you and your team made over, I think I’m right in saying, six billion dollars for Namoura. I’m just going to say that again, six billion dollars for Nomura. There’s a lot of numbers in your book, some of them are very, v very big. Trying to keep a grip of the context but the scale of your success.
00:24:35.16 Guy Hands:
I think it was actually pounds but never mind.
00:24:38.01 Andy Coulson:
Ah, right well there we are. The most notable acquisitions included Annington Homes as well as the bookmaker William Hill, Angel Trains, the UK rolling stock company. You also became the UK’s biggest pub landlord through a series of acquisitions in 90s. You had this talent for numbers, as I say, but also this incredible eye for opportunity. So the opportunity piece I’m interested in. Was that a natural skill? Was that something that came easy to you? Did you train yourself to spot an opportunity or does that bit just come easy to you?
00:25:18.17 Guy Hands:
Spotting where I think there’s an opportunity comes easily. What I trained myself to do was to have other people do the due diligence rather than myself always. And there’s bits of due diligence which I can do really well. And I’m a lot better than other people at. But most of the standard due diligence isn’t my skill set. So going through the balance sheet and spotting things in the accounts which aren’t quite right, I’m not good at. Hearing the explanation for why they’re not right and deciding whether one should take it seriously or not seriously I’m very good at. So what I became good at was not just spotting the opportunity but being able to work out whether the opportunity was executable or not. And was there anything which we really had to run from completely and totally.
00:26:22.10 Guy Hands:
And it’s probably easiest to demonstrate with the first deal we ever deal which was the pub deal. First pub deal we did, we got about 2,000 pubs. And our view was about 800 of these pubs would be suitable long term as a really good pub chain which would make solid money and we could securitise and make a lot of money out of. But there were 1,200 which we just thought were terrible. Nomura loved the thesis about what you could do with the 800 but were terrified about this 1,200. In the end they actually ended up being profitable for us and we didn’t lose anything on it. Even though our business case had us using about fifty million on them, we actually made money on them. Because actually not losing money on the bad pubs was, from a business plan, a bigger achievement and very few people wanted the responsibly of dealing with the bad pubs.
00:27:17.08 Andy Coulson:
Well this is what’s fascinating, sorry Guy to jump in, this is what’s fascinating for me. Because you’ve explained the fear piece, the under toad, is running through your mind continually and yet your great skill is being the person whose prepared to jump into the deep water, to look at the business that most people would think, that’s never going to work, I’m not going anywhere near it. And you jump in with both feet and make a success of it.
00:27:47.05 Guy Hands:
Without this sounding too bizarre, actually taking that risk and knowing how much I’m scared of it is incredibly stimulating. I mean, I’ve never wanted to jump out of an aeroplane or ski off cliffs but I would love to have a brain scan done of me when I’m making this decision compared to the brain scan of the guy who jumps off a cliff and see. Because I’m convinced it’s hitting the same part of the brain. Because it is absolutely stimulating. It’s extraordinary I mean, it really is. I’ve said a long time ago that actually a deal working out is sort of better than sex.
00:28:38.22 Guy Hands:
And you know, in some bizarre way making that decision, you know how dangerous it’s going to be, how painful it’s going to be, how difficult it is, is the start of the experience and it’s that incredible feeling that I’ve now got something, you know, I’ve got a tiger by the tail, I’ve really got something here which is dangerous and could drag me under but I’m not going to let it drag me under. And in the end you’re sort of washed up on the beach and the sun’s out and you’re completely exhausted but you’ve succeeded. And those two, they’re two sides of a coin, you can’t have one without the other.
00:29:18.22 Andy Coulson:
You leave in 2002 and you create Terra Firma. I’m going to take just moment to consider how far Terra Firma travelled in such a short space of time. In just five years from nothing it became one of the top ten alternative investment funds in the world. As I said earlier, there are a lot of big numbers in your story, Guy, in your book. But you write this about the company, ‘Nobody doubted that we’d be able to raise a ten billion fund by 2010 which would make the businesses worth at least five billion and produce cash in excess of 250 million a year. As the sole owner of the business I was expected to become rich beyond, not just the wildest dreams I’d entertained in my Goldman Sachs days, but beyond anything I would have considered possible.’ Do you remember how you felt?
00:30:21.15 Guy Hands:
We had a meeting where we decided whether we should invest the money we had. We’d just raised just over five billion. We capped it; I think we’d raised closer to eight. And in the meeting I said we’ve got three alternatives in terms of what we do. We can go and try and do the best big deal we can find out there to start to invest our capital quickly. We can take it very, very easy and just regroup, take a bit of a rest, think about it and then invest slowly or we can sit on our hands because we’re not really sure where the market is and the market seems very high.
00:31:03.17 Guy Hands:
And myself and Bill Miles, who was the head of investor relations suggested we sat on our hands and everybody else thought we should invest. And I remember feeling we’ve raised the money, that’s what it’s there to do and at the same time thinking I’m not sure this is the right time. I think that’s the time when my fear of the under toad gave way to a desire to be accepted. And for the first time in my life I though hey, if I do this, everybody’s going to think I’m doing the right thing. So I went with the right thing. And the fear of the under toad just wasn’t enough to hold me back. And of course, the market, it was completely the wrong thing to do in the market at that time.
00:31:45.07 Andy Coulson:
Do you hold to the idea that you’re at your most vulnerable when you’re at your most successful?
00:31:51.19 Guy Hands:
Yes, 100% I think there’s two problems. One is the more successful you are the more likely people are to tell you that you’re good and you’re right. And actually, to some extent, nothing has really changed, you’re still the same person. In fact you are less of the person because you have less contact with the information you need to have, you’re more distant from it. So I think it’s an incredibly difficult place. In reality you need to change your skills depending on where you are.
00:32:24.09 Guy Hands:
And you know, if you take somebody like Theresa May, when she became prime minister she really needed a month or so’s coaching on being prime minister. Instead she continued to be a minister but she was actually the prime minister. And I thought it was very sad, she would have been an absolutely wonderful health minister during Covid. I think she would have been in a different league to anyone else we had. And you know I feel very sorry for her because the skills that got her to where she got weren’t the skills she needed when she got there and yet everyone was telling her how wonderful she was and how great she was and to tell her actually Mrs May, you need to go and relearn everything you’ve learnt and start again is very, very difficult. No one’s going to say that to a prime minister. When somebody tells you you’re doing something well the emotion is to focus on what you’re doing well and to forget everything else. And no one’s going to tell you what you’re doing badly.
00:33:30.18 Andy Coulson:
So let’s talk about EMI in 2007. On paper, at least in the beginning, a good deal. Or certainly an exciting deal from your perspective. But in truth it was an emotional deal for you, wasn’t it? Perhaps the first emotional deal for you, I don’t know. Why did the idea of owning and running EMI excite you so much?
00:33:58.06 Guy Hands:
Well basically because I saw music as a continuum and a core. A core value to society a core essentiality to society. Something which was incredibly important to all of us. And yet the people running music companies were very focused on producing new music the whole time. And EMI was the most extreme. So we had four people really focused on mining recorded music and thousands focused on trying to produce new music. And the reality was the new music was losing money every year and the recorded music was what was keeping the company going. The Beatles were making more money than the rest of the business put together. That’s one, that’s just one part of the catalogue.
So my view was very simple, if we could somehow focus on mining and monetarising the catalogue and the publishing business and really work at how do we sell that across the world into all sorts of areas which need music and at the same time shrink, but focus very specifically on customer needs, on new music, we could make an absolute fortune. And so from an operational process it proved. We got rid of 80% of the artists but we spent a lot more money and time on the ones that we kept. We increased the focus on the recorded music, we increased the focus on publishing. We increased the focus on how do we get the catalogue going. We brought in a huge audience of about 20,000 people on which we could test music with. And operationally we went from losing 100 million of cash a year to making 250 million of cash a year
00:35:55.11 Guy Hands:
But there was two major failures in it. Both of which came down, I think, partly to my personality and partly to people fighting for what they wanted. But somebody had to be the bigger person and make the first move. And so Citigroup had leant five billion dollars and they couldn’t syndicate it. The markets just stopped. I mean, Chuck Prince, who was the CEO came to England, made a speech in which he said, ‘you have to dance while the music’s still playing’. And I think by that he meant you had to make the loan. He didn’t specifically say EMI we have to make, but that’s effectively what was in his mind. And the music stopped. It absolutely stopped. And they were stuck with a five billion loan, single handed loan, in Europe to a music company. And when they got into trouble in terms of their liquidity and the US banking system stepped in I can well imagine what the bureaucrats in Washington were saying to him, ‘you leant some guy called Guy Hands five billion to buy a music company in England?’
00:37:10.18 Andy Coulson:
And meanwhile the walls of the empire are crumbling.
00:37:17.06 Guy Hands:
‘…What the hell were you doing?’ And so I didn’t think about what was going on in Citigroup, I just thought about what was going to me. And to me was I had a business plan which needed 2014 to be executed and I was going to execute that plan and if Citigroup were going to be, in my mind, silly enough to try and derail it then I was going to speak to my lawyers and see what we could do. And that’s what I did. And once I spoke to the lawyers I lost all control. I mean I just spoke to actually my one lawyer and he… and then it was just a nightmare. You know, you don’t solve a problem through lawyers.
00:37:48.10 Guy Hands:
So that was on one side. On the other side I was trying to talk to the musicians and the agents and the people in the company and if I’d gone to them and said, you know we’ve got a problem here, let’s work together to solve it, I would probably have had a better success than going to them and telling them what was wrong. Intellectually I was right but emotionally I wasn’t connecting with them.
00:38:21.09 Andy Coulson:
So an emotional purchase that unravelled partly, only partly because you misread the emotions attached to the business and the emotions of the people who were wrapped up in the business. And that manifested itself in some pretty unpleasant ways. I mean, there’s the danger element but there’s also the kind of quite public as it was, because EMI was attracting so much press attention, you were attracting so much press attention and there were a lot of famous people involved, many of whom came out against you quite publicly. How did you deal with that element? The sort of public scrutiny the public criticism? The press? My old crowd were loving it. It was a terrific story and you were at the centre of it. How did you emotionally how were you coping with that?
00:39:11.01 Guy Hands:
I wasn’t coping very well. I thought I was. My GP was telling me that he wanted me to take anti-depressants and I was refusing to. I said ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong’. He said, ‘You need to get some friends, you need to take some time out’. I was eating more, drinking more. You know, self-medicating as it’s called and just I was not in a good state but I thought I was. You know, it was the usual macho belief, you know, I’m going to get through this. I don’t need help. The harder they hit me the stronger I’ll be. And pretty stupid in hindsight.
00:39:46.10 Andy Coulson:
Who were you talking to at that stage Guy?
00:39:48.14 Guy Hands:
What? Int terms of personally? The only person really spoke to was my GP and one of the questions he put to me was exactly that question. Who are you talking to? You know ‘Are you talking to your wife?’ I said, ‘She’s got enough to worry about back in England’. ‘Your kids?’ I said, ‘…they’re too young’. ‘…your parents?’ I said, ‘Honestly, I don’t think it’s fair to put it on them, they’re too old’. You know, ‘Do you have any friends who you speak to at least once a week?’ I said, ‘No’. ‘Do you have any friends you speak to once a month?’ ‘No.’ ‘What about the people you work with?’ I said, ‘Well the problem is they’ve all got a vested interest in what they do.’ And said, ‘Look Guy, you need help.’ and he was right, I really did need help but I wasn’t really willing to admit it to myself.
00:40:30.05 Guy Hands:
And I felt I had all these mixed duties. I had a duty to the music industry I had a duty to my investors and I didn’t really consider a duty to myself. I just thought I had to do it. And I failed and that felt terrible and it still feels terrible. I mean, I can live with it now and that’s probably, that’s a huge improvement to where I was in 2011. I think Covid has had a much, much bigger effect on my emotions and where I am. And I said this earlier, I now actually have managed to get myself to a point where I am trying to do something which I think is achievable.
00:41:10.14 Guy Hands:
And I asked somebody a few days ago, a question, which I think is a very good question to think about and I think is one of those questions which if you asked yourself… I said ‘Do you want to come up with a strategy paper which will go to government and if it’s adapted might make a big difference. But it’s going to take years to be adapted and who knows whether government will listen to it. Or do you want to help 2,000 people in a year by doing something like one of the things that we’ve got in Engage which is the charity that we’re doing which is on male mental health and sheds and having that rolled out across the country. Which would you prefer?’ I said, ’At the end of the year, you’re going to look in the mirror, is it producing that policy paper or is it helping 2,000 people, what is going to make you feel better?’ And of course, the answer to most people, is pretty obvious; actually helping 2,000 people.
00:42:12.22 Guy Hands:
So I think what Covid did was made me think about actually how do I make difference to people? How do I start on a very human basis and maybe over time make it bigger once I’ve earned the right to do that? And that, I think, will give me the sort of satisfaction to move on. So rather than trying to keep banging my head against the wall, trying to do something to prove that the EMI story was just one of forty deals and actually it doesn’t actually matter. If I do another forty great deals no one’s going to forget the EMI story. So let’s just… it’s there. Now let’s try and do something which is different which makes a difference for people. And try and help people in a way which will matter to them on an individual basis. And through that, frankly the person who really benefits from that is me. And I think helping in communities it helps the people who help much more than it helps the people who receive it. Because then you’ve got a reason to actually exist and you can feel some pride in yourself.
00:43:15.01 Andy Coulson:
Let’s just finish up with the EMI story, because of course it didn’t end with Citigroup buying it for twenty pound as you described. It was a start of a seven year legal odyssey. Rather than just folding your cards and just writing it off you say ‘no, I think actually this was done badly and I think I’ve got a case against Citigroup’. And I am shortening the story considerably here, but after many twists and turns in courts both in America and then eventually in London you find yourself in the witness box giving evidence, an experience that we share. You give evidence over three days and then at the end of those three days you do decide actually to withdraw the case, to fold your cards. And you describe that experience in the witness box in very visceral terms in the book. If you don’t mind, just if you can, just summarise it for those that are listening here.
00:44:18.14 Guy Hands:
The judge was quite kindly and he kept asking me, ‘Are you okay?’ And it was quite clear I wasn’t okay. I’m diabetic, my sugars were off the scale so I couldn’t… my eyesight was going because I couldn’t focus. It was just way over eighteen and you know, eighteen’s not a good level to be at. And I was taking extra medicine to try and control it. But stress hormones do increase my diabetes quite considerably. My wife’s mother had just died so I was in a very emotional state about that. And the person cross questioning me had taken me right back to my childhood by asking me questions which he knew I wouldn’t be able to remember the answers to because they didn’t really mean anything, they were just facts which never meant anything to me. You know, they were nothing to do with the actual instance or really the case.
00:45:10.19 Guy Hands:
And the judge said to him, ‘Why are you asking this?’ And he then looked and he said, ‘I know why you’re asking it; you’re trying to…’ and it doesn’t matter. And the reason was he was just trying to affect my credibility as a witness by if you can’t remember that then you clearly can’t remember this. And if you can’t remember you had a marmite sandwich two weeks ago then why should believe you can remember who came into the room at that time. So there were lots of questions of what happened in 2007 on things which weren’t important and I was never going to be able to remember.
00:45:37.04 Guy Hands:
And then as my eyesight and my mind started to get really bad, I couldn’t, I was reading so slowly because I was trying not to make a mistake, eventually the judge said would it help if the other side’s barrister read it out to me. And at that point I felt like I was nine years old again back in school and I was completely gone at that point. And I should have just said to the judge, ‘look I’m sorry, I need to stop I can’t… can we have a break?’ He would have given it to me. Or my barrister frankly should have said, ‘look Mr Hands isn’t in a state to do it this week’. But you know, it’s the usual thing…
00:46:18.04 Andy Coulson:
There’s an argument then that at the start of the hearing that your lawyers should have set the context for the judge, surely?
00:46:27.20 Guy Hands:
Well I agree with that.
00:46:28.22 Andy Coulson:
Should have explained how… what you’re able to do and what you’re not able to do.
00:46:33.22 Guy Hands:
There was a big debate about that on my side. And with some people saying, the people who knew me saying ‘Guy can’t go into the witness box, he’s not going to be able to do anything today’, leave it. And Tim Price, who was our general counsel who would have been next said quite clearly, ‘why don’t I go first?’ Which would have been a sensible answer, I think. But I think the barrister had seen me in a good state and I think his belief was look, Guy’s a brilliant person, he’s going to be wonderful in the witness box. And of course, I wasn’t. And I said that right at the beginning. One of the first questions to me was Mr Hands you’re doing this just because you want to look good in front of your investors. And I answered very honestly, I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to look good.’
00:47:27.07 Guy Hands:
And the judge looked at me like he wanted to ask the question what do you mean by that? And if he had I would have actually answered him because I feel so shit I think I’m going to look absolutely terrible and I don’t think I can do it. But he didn’t ask the question and I pretty well soon proved how bad I was going to do. It was a… look, you know, Howard was the barrister and he did an unbelievably good job of totally tearing me apart. I should have been able to take it but I couldn’t and I completely failed without any question. But I don’t feel in any way sorry for myself about it.
00:48:07.03 Guy Hands:
What I do feel quite strongly emotionally was if you look at death row in the states, something like 70% of people in death row in the states are dyslexic. And I think one of the things people should think about is our legal system is an adversarial system. And it really comes down to who is cleverest with words. And the main thing of course is you’re often cross-questioned on bits of paper, you know, your witness statement. And they take you to a page and they take it out of context and say what is this thing? So I feel terribly sorry for people who are dyslexic who go through a criminal trial.
00:48:46.06 Andy Coulson:
The trial ends and a seven year, as I say, comes to a shuddering halt with an extremely large bill at the end of it, tens of millions of pounds. Again, a moment when most people, I think, would have thought, you know what it’s time to at least take a break, to pause., to kind of reflect. But you don’t do that despite the early warnings as well from your doctors you press on, perhaps even push even harder on the accelerator in the coming months. We’ll move forward now to May 2018 and the McDonald’s conference in Vienna where you’d just become a franchise holder, I think, franchise owner for the restaurant chain in the Nordics. A big deal for you. What happened on that day?
00:49:42.19 Guy Hands:
It was our second big conference; we took over effectively 2016/17 and so it was an important conference. And I was going to go out to dinner with everybody in the normal way that I would and I just didn’t feel good. So one of the people I was with said, ‘Look Guy I’ll walk you back to your room’ which I thought was a bit strange but clearly I must have looked a little bit odd. So he walked me back to the room and he said afterwards I was quite coherent on the way back. Got into the room, closed the door and lay on the bed. And realised I was having, as it happens, a minor stroke, TIA but I needed help.
00:50:32.15 Guy Hands:
So my phone was close enough to hit dial on the phone, put it on speaker and got my wife and she could just about work out what I was saying and she got her best friend who is a GP and was with her at the time, and they started doing the classic tests that you do on anyone to see if I was having stroke. And I was grunting yes and no, two grunts for yes and one grunt for no or whatever way round it was. and she then got the hotel to come up. They knocked on the door and there was no answer so they went back downstairs again. At which point she said, there’s not going to be an answer, you need to get up there with an ambulance as quickly as you can.
00:51:18.21 Guy Hands:
And long story short I was taken to hospital. It took about three or four days to get everything back and I got everything back so I was very lucky. But I then spoke to my doctor and said ‘People have that type of stroke, there’s a fifty-fifty chance you have something very serious within five years unless you change your lifestyle.’ And so I started to change my lifestyle. You know, it was a real wakeup call. They did all the physical checks that they could and they couldn’t find any reason why I would have a stroke. My heart was strong, everything was strong. So they said you must just be under an incredible amount of stress and you must have reached a point where it’s too much.
00:52:01.23 Guy Hands:
So I went and saw a psychiatrist and it was an interesting meeting because I went in there saying look ‘I’m happy to do some sort of therapy but I’m not willing to take any drugs, I’m just not doing it.’ And we chatted for an hour. And it was slightly strange because I was talking with an other me. I was trying to make it very intellectual and disconnect it from me. And at the end he said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘What do you think I should do?’ And he said, ‘I don’t think you should do therapy. doing therapy at this point in your life, where you are at this point would be silly. But I do think it would make sense for you to take a mild anti-depressant because it would just take the edge off your anxiety and take the edge off what you’re doing to yourself.’ So I’m on a very, very mild dose of anti-depressants. I’m on a mild dose of anti-anxiety and the tow together you know I can still feel very upset, I can still have enough emotion but there’s just that little bit of edge taken off and that little bit of edge taken off means I can take things without boiling them up inside.
00:53:10.14 Andy Coulson:
You say in the book that it allows you to feel safe again.
00:53:16.02 Guy Hands:
Yes. It does because I feel that I’m not going to explode and I’m not going to do anything stupid to myself or anything, you know. It just reduces that impulsiveness and that depression and that fear. And I feel I can cope rather than feeling I can’t cope.
00:53:40.18 Andy Coulson:
So the stress prior to that, the stress had definitely tipped towards depression in your view?
00:53:46.08 Guy Hands:
Yes, definitely there’s no question. I would say from probably around 2012 onwards I was pretty much going through depression whether I admitted it to myself or didn’t, maybe even earlier.
00:53:58.03 Andy Coulson:
How dark would that get when you look back at that period now?
00:54:02.09 Guy Hands:
Oh very black, very dark, very, very dark.
00:54:07.00 Andy Coulson:
To the point where you would consider whether you wanted to continue?
00:54:09.21 Guy Hands:
Definitely, yeah. There were points a lot of times when I just sort of felt the I wish I’d gone down in a plane in 2006. Yeah, yeah, really the only thing that sort of stopped me going any further was always the thought of the family but it was very, very dark.
00:54:32.06 Andy Coulson:
So the antidepressants clearly have played a huge part but also, and I found this fascinating, you got yourself a mentor. What had stopped you from doing it previously and what difference did it make?
00:54:48.17 Guy Hands:
It made an enormous difference. What had stopped me previously, well I think I just thought I was too clever, didn’t need one. And you know, what were they… I sort of though, what are they going to tell me which I can’t work…? And of course the reality is a mentor is not there to tell you anything, it’s there to help you deal with situations that you find very difficult and to make better decisions. And you know, I’ve had two and they’ve done exactly what I wanted them to do and it’s worked really, really well and it helps enormously.
00:55:20.07 Guy Hands:
Because if I’m feeling really worried about something in a work situation I’ll phone up and say ‘can I have half an hour of your time, I just really want to talk this though’. And quite often they won’t actually give me any advice except to say, ‘well okay you’ve talked it through and I think you know the answer’. And it’s that talking it through with somebody who can understand what you’re saying, has been through it themselves, isn’t judgmental and sometimes they will say, ‘well actually, Guy, you know, I went through this and this is what happened with me and you can… I’m not saying it’s what you should do because your situation is different, everyone’s situation is different but this is what I did’. And you don’t feel alone. And you can’t do that with the people that you work with, for obvious reasons and it’s not fair to do it with family because you’re putting pressure on them which they can’t necessarily relate to. And you know, it’s just you need somebody and I never admitted I needed someone.
00:56:15.14 Andy Coulson:
This incredible life of yours Guy, what’s your, where’s it left you in terms of your analysis of happiness. You’ve said previously beyond a certain wealth people get less happy. That you haven’t met too many happy billionaires.
00:56:33.05 Guy Hands:
I don’t think money makes people happy quite definitely. I think a sense of purpose, community, family those are things that make people happy. And part of the problem of being successful with money is that it takes you away from family, it takes you away from community and if you’re not careful it takes you away from having a sense of purpose as well. Because a sense of purpose to make money isn’t particularly, until you’ve reached… when you’ve reached that point when you can pay off all your debt and you’ve got a house you want, you’ve got everything you want, that, that does feel great. But beyond that it’s all just problems, it’s all extra stuff to deal with.
00:57:17.20 Guy Hands:
I do think friends, community, family, sense of purpose, I think those all matter enormously. And so I think my view would be, look be successful, we need people to be successful in the world. Aim for something, we need people who have aims. But don’t punish yourself by giving up on all the rest. You know, find a way of incorporating the rest into it. Whatever it is, just keep human, just keep some of that in. Stop trying to be masters of the universe just be human, that’s what people love you for not the fact that you’re a master of the universe. And if they love you for being a master of the universe then probably they’re not people you want to be loved by.
00:58:03.01 Andy Coulson:
Great. Guy thanks so much. Thanks for being so generous with your time and with your story today, I really appreciate it. We’re going to end, as we always do by asking you for your crisis cures. These are three things that you lean on in the difficult moments. The only rule is that it can’t be another person. So what would the first be please?
00:58:23.03 Guy Hands:
The first would be gardens. Just being out in the garden, being able to smell the garden, being able to look at the garden and if it’s raining a little bit softly that’s even better.
00:58:34.22 Andy Coulson:
Very good. And second?
00:58:39.04 Guy Hands:
I find yoga very, very useful. Partly just to stretch which I really enjoy. Partly a little bit of physical exercise but not too much and partly just to clear my mind and think.
00:58:55.13 Andy Coulson:
How long have you been practicing your yoga?
00:58:58.11 Guy Hands:
I would say about ten years.
00:59:01.02 Andy Coulson:
Right, and the third?
00:59:03.21 Guy Hands:
Listening to music and probably the song which I find normally, if I’m really feeling down and I want to really get up is actually Mamas and Papas Dedicated To The One I Love. And it’s got that wonderful line in it about the darkest time is just before dawn. And I always, I can play that blind over and over and over again to me. And it’s also lovely in the music because of the way it sort of goes to a different, a completely different tonal position. And that switch it’s just lovely listening to it as well.
00:59:39.03 Andy Coulson:
Wonderful, that’s great. Guy, thanks again so much for joining us today we’ve loved it, we really have.
00:59:43.05 Guy Hands:
Well, thank you.
00:59:44.15 Andy Coulson:
We really appreciate you, as I say, being so frank and I think from the point of view of people listening to this it’s really giving us such a useful analysis of your life. So thank you very much.
00:59:59.23 Guy Hands:
Thank you, cheers.
01:00:24.17 End of transcription