Entrepreneur & Philanthropist
Among the many self-made entrepreneurs, Paul Sykes is a textbook example of one man’s rise from rags to riches. The son of a Yorkshire miner, he left school at 15 with nothing but a huge drive to succeed that saw him build a sprawling business empire and become at one time the highest paid individual in Britain.
If that enabled him to enjoy life’s comforts, it also drove his desire to give something back. These days he is devoted to helping protect the forests of the world and our natural environment.
Over the last 30 years Paul has donated millions of his personal fortune to philanthropic endeavours, from supporting and building hospitals, schools and sport facilities in his native Yorkshire, to helping to stop the destruction of rainforests and wildlife. He and his great friend, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, have also raised more than £20 million for Marie Curie, over the past 15 years.
Many of his personal activities and contributions have been done privately, away from the public gaze, but those who have benefitted have appreciated his generosity. Moreover, he has put his philanthropic gestures at the heart of an environmental crusade, using his business success and wealth to improve the lives of others and safeguard the natural world for future generations.
All this has been made possible by an early drive to carve out his own path to business success. Starting from his humble beginnings in a council estate in Barnsley he had six different jobs before starting his own business at 19. Initially, this business was dismantling buses for scrap metal and evolved into exporting engines and parts, which were fitted in fishing junks in The Far East, Hong Kong, Penang and Singapore. He also exported complete buses to Australia, New Zealand, Africa and other commonwealth countries, which he did profitably for over 20 years. One of his companies also became the largest distributor of buses in the UK.
After years in the vehicle industry, in his early forties he moved into property development. These developments were mostly built in enterprise zones, which were set up to encourage people to invest in run down areas in Salford, Rotherham, Wakefield, Sheffield and London Docklands. This grew rapidly to include various leisure complexes, containing the first out-of-town cinema, along with the first out-of-town office parks and ultimately, he founded the first ever out-of-town shopping mall, Meadow Hall. Having sold this development in Sheffield in 1999 for £1.17 billion, encompassing 350 shops with over 30 million visitors per year, he confirmed his position as one of the biggest UK real estate players. In the late 1990s he moved into the internet industry, setting up Planet Online, which was at the time the largest internet service provider in the business market, which he later sold for £125m. Over the years it is estimated he created more than 140,000 jobs.
Paul Sykes has been involved in politics most of his adult life, serving as Chairman of Barnsley Conservatives and on the Yorkshire Regional Conservative Council. He has always been opposed to Britain being a member of the European Union, withdrawing his initial support for the Conservative Party in protest at the Major government’s ‘wait and see’ approach on the Euro currency. He backed campaigns for several Conservative Eurosceptic candidates until setting up his own campaign opposing Britain joining the Euro. He supported the UK Independence Party and is seen as one of the pivotal figures in transforming UKIP from a fringe group into a political force that helped change the debate on Britain’s relationship with the EU. It is estimated that he has donated millions and significant personal time trying to prevent the United Kingdom from joining the Euro and campaigning to leave the European Union. He is now involved in supporting the Brexit Party and firmly believes that Britain should be a self-governing nation making its own laws in its own parliament, and not have laws imposed on it from the unelected commission in Brussels.
Today, he positions himself as a strong environmentalist, and shunning consumerism he has vowed to raise awareness of ‘how we are treating our planet’ and believes that change is possible by educating and empowering people to make a difference. In 2018, he partnered with Greenpeace to create a hugely successful global campaign to ramp up pressure on multinational brands to end destruction of the rainforests, for which he also provided £1m in funding. It included a 90-second animated film highlighting how orangutans are being pushed to the brink of extinction by deforestation for palm oil. Voiced by Dame Emma Thompson, the campaign was backed by a host of high-profile celebrities. Paul was determined to produce a campaign that used shock tactics to get its message across. To date, the video has been viewed 65 million times and Rang-Tan, the character which Paul helped to create, is about to be featured in a series of national children’s books, due for publication in autumn 2019.
Now in his seventies, meditation and yoga have become an intrinsic part of his daily routine at his home in Jersey in the Channel Islands. It has become the hub for a small team working on his environmental agenda amongst other things. He has also joined forces with Jersey Zoo to support its bi-annual Durrell Conservation Symposium to save species from extinction. At the moment he is looking at rewilding projects and acquiring huge amounts of pristine natural rainforest in countries around the world to stop the destruction of rainforests and species extinction.
“We are at a tipping point where the decisions we make today will decide the fate of our children and grandchildren everywhere. If we want to solve the problem of climate change, then we need to start saving the world’s forests and oceans now. These are by far the most fulfilling and challenging projects I have ever undertaken,” he says.