Jack Petchey—rags-to-riches East Ender who gave away �65m fortune

Jack Petchey is the man who has given away �65 million to charity over the past 12 years from his personal fortune.

But the multi-millionaire doesn’t like to talk about his philanthropy in those terms.

Enter his shaded mirror-lined office and this ‘rages to riches’ East Ender at 85 likes you to write about what his Jack Petchey Foundation is doing for the kids in schools and youth clubs across London and Essex.

The man who was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours earlier this month started life hating lessons and couldn’t wait to quit school at 13 and start making money growing up in Plaistow in the 1920s and 30s.

“I had no interest at all in learning history and geography and thought it was all waste of time,” he recalls.

“Education today is enjoyment. Perhaps if I had arts and sciences in my day I would have enjoyed it and would understand things better.

“All I did was sit outside pubs waiting for dad and eating arrowroot biscuits.”

Most Read

Yet things were to change. He encourages today’s youth to get on in school and to put back into society what they can.

That’s the philosophy behind his Jack Petchey awards, with cash to outstanding youngsters who have to make the choice where to donate the prize.

“It gives them a sense of contributing back to society,” he explains.

“They make the decision—that gives them a sense of power and influence in the right direction. That’s what I’ve done with the money I’ve made over the years, putting it back into the society that made my fortune.”

Jack was born in July, 1925, when money was scarce and so was good food. He admits to a lifelong love of fish’n’chips. The last time he had the traditional East End fare was two weeks ago with his grandchildren at Poppy’s restaurant in Spitalfields, his favourite haunt, just 10 minute in the car from his flat on the waterfront in Wapping.

It’s a far cry from the days back in Plaistow in the Thirties when he popped out for a penny bag of chips for lunch—and another for supper. It was all he could afford.

Jack started work at 13 as a delivery boy for the greengrocer’s at the end of his street.

But he had an earlier brush with the law about his part-time job at the age of 12, when he got a police summons in 1937 for working under age. The prosecution at East Ham Police Court charged him with “carrying vegetables” after a constable caught him hauling boxes of tomatoes.

The defence pointed out that “tomatoes are a fruit”—the case collapsed.

War broke out in the late summer of 1939 when Jack had turned 14 and he went to work as a messenger for the fire brigade at the height of the London Blitz, stationed at East Ham Town Hall and elsewhere.

Later he got a job in the City as a lowly office boy, eventually moving up to counter sales for a firm of law stationers in Chancery Lane.

But soon he was off to join the RAF, where he learned his first trade, electrical mechanics, servicing fighter aircraft, and went on to join the Fleet Air Arm.

The post-War years saw Jack back at his old firm in Chancery Lane. But there was too much of the war-torn world he had seen to be satisfied returning to the sales counter.

He applied for a management position—but was told he wasn’t suitable and would ‘never make a businessman’! That’s the man who years later made millions on the international business stage.

“They didn’t know what they missed out on,” Jack reflects. “It was bad management on their part.

“But that rejection taught me to think outside the box, when dealing with people.”

Jack quit the firm with �60 savings, bought a motor-car and started a car hire business in Forest Gate. He soon expanded into the now-famous Petchey car sales business which mushroomed between the 1960s and 80s with his now-famous ‘smiling Jack in bow tie’ logo on all the ads.

He invested the profits, spotting opportunities in the ‘time share’ holiday business in the 1970s and then joining the ‘big league’ in Mediterranean property development. He still runs his Mediterranean holiday empire.

Jack is up most days at 6am with a light cornflake breakfast reading the financial pages, always an eye on companies he thinks might be right for take-over.

Sometimes he would pose as a customer and drop in on a company that takes his fancy and studies their methods, particularly the motor trade where he started. He does it without them realising—or so he thinks.

“I went into one place on a Saturday afternoon and bought some petrol, to see how it was run,” Jack admits. “Then I asked to see the manager.

“The assistant looked at me and asked why I had been hanging around earlier taking photographs of the place—I had been rumbled.”

Word in the trade has it that Jack is currently eyeing the Lookers motor group with its 200 car dealerships up and down the country.

“I’ve made my fortune by improving things,” Jack reveals as he studies the business pages.

He prods and pushes, looking for slack, then invites companies for talks, engaging an octogenarian ‘charm offensive’ of a ‘favourite granddad’ in his pink shirt and tie, white collar, his thick, silver hair neatly combed, enthusiastically explaining his vision for buying in.

He is in a ‘buying’ mood, with the recession making deals favourable just now if you have the cash to spare. He has put in an officer for yet another company this week. Watch this space.

It’s not quite the same with his property empire in Tenerife, or his hotels and Beach Club properties on the Algarve—they remain as steady as the rock of Gibraltar just up the coast.

Among Jack’s breakfast table reads is his local East London Advertiser delivered to his home in Wapping each Thursday, to keep up with community activity which is his other passion in life. He makes notes in the margins across the front page when he spots something that might be worth following up through his Jack Petchey Foundation.

His ‘rags to riches’ story he promotes as the inspiration to today’s youth.

“We give them encouragement,” he points out. “We all have an obligation to give back to society whatever we can.

“Inspiration is more important than money. It’s about doing your best.

“We give awards and certificates to encourage them and back it up with �200 that they give to the community.

“They decide where to donate—it gives them a sense of influence and teaches them civic pride and responsibility and an understanding of what’s best for the society they live in.”

Jack hands out 14,000 achievement awards every year. You begin to understand his motives as the ‘Petchey family man’ comes through it all. He is devoted to his three daughters and son and grandchildren—“not enough fingers to count them all.”

The family is his ‘fire break’ from the hectic business world that sets the pace for the working day. He avoids early business meetings, rather letting the day and life run its course.

Jack usually arrives around 10am at his second-floor office in a luxury complex tucked behind Ilford Broadway. There’s no lift. The four flights keep him fit, sort of. He played squash until he was 82.

But the meetings flow rapidly once the day is up and running, much of it to do with his philanthropy, working 14 evenings in a row last month overseeing youth events for example.

His sponsorships include the ‘Speak Out’ contest giving 20,000 youngsters a year public speaking confidence and the ‘Step into Dance’ events putting 8,000 young talents on stage, not to mention the 14,000 who get achievement awards and the 2,000 who take part in the Panathlon for the disabled.

Not many schoolkids don’t know the name ‘Jack Petchey’ these days. Their dads and granddads might recall the name from that second-hand Cortina or Montego they once bought from his East London car sales business.

Does Jack have any time off? Not really, just the occasional day in a fortnight to see the grandchildren.

Does he have hobbies? “Yes—life is my hobby, getting today’s generation inspired.”

He is always in bed by midnight—ready for that 6.30am start the next day with a flick through the business pages to see what’s moving and if there’s another company right for plucking.