Millionaire in a Cheap Suit; He's Part Philanthropic Dynasty, Part Political Power Couple and Runs the High Street Chain Next.Simon Wolfson Tells Katie Law about His Big Plans for the City
Byline: Katie Law
HE OWNS approximately PS100million of company shares and is paid more than PS4million a year, but not surprisingly Lord (Simon) Wolfson of Aspley Guise wears cheap, off-the-peg suits from Next, average price PS100. After all, he's the chief executive of the uber-successful high-street retailer and wouldn't want to be caught doing a Gerald Ratner. "Yes, I love our stuff," he says sincerely. The 46-year-old peer, whom David Cameron ennobled in 2010 for his donations to the Tory party, comes from one of the wealthiest, most philanthropic Jewish families in Britain.
He's agreed to meet me to discuss the launch of his latest project, The Wolfson Economics Prize 2014. In its second year, and worth PS250,000, the prize aims to help solve Britain's housing crisis by inviting applicants -- from architects to economists -- to design a plan for an economically viable garden city which could be replicated across the country.
Wolfson is extremely media-shy, in spite of being one half of a glamorous Tory power couple -- the other half being Eleanor Shawcross, George Osborne's economic adviser and daughter of chairman of the Charity Commission and royal biographer William Shawcross.
At just over 30 and 14 years younger than her husband (they married in London in 2012), she's already been tipped as a high-flyer and potential future Tory leader, and she recently gave birth to the couple's first son.
The first thing Wolfson tells me is that he doesn't talk about himself, and considering he's the boss of a company that has 700 stores and turned over more than PS3.5 billion in the year to January 2013, it's true that there's little about him out there. His greatgrandfather, Solomon Wolfson, was a Polish cabinet-maker who settled in Glasgow and had nine children, one of whom was Sir Isaac Wolfson, Simon's great uncle, who founded Great Universal Stores.
The eldest of three siblings, Wolfson read law at Cambridge. He became CEO of Next at just 33, having joined the company as a sales assistant in the Kensington branch in 1991 and worked his way up, joining his father, David (also a Tory peer), who was Next's chairman during the Nineties.
One former Goldman Sachs employee recalls meeting Wolfson at company lunches where, in spite of the lavish spreads laid on by the brokers, "Simon would always have the same thing: a plate of boiled potatoes with some greens".
Still, simple suits and dietary preferences aside, he's clearly a man of passionate and strong opinions. "The sole purpose [of the prize] is to provide the next government with a plan: if you want to build a new city, here's how to do it. Here are the economics, the social aspects and the infrastructure".
Within minutes he's up from the table, drawing graphs on a whiteboard, to help me understand his points about revenue streams and investor yields. "Am I talking gibberish?" he asks earnestly.
In fact his idea is simple. "Just look on Google Earth and you can see huge swathes of Britain that are undeveloped. Once you're out on the motorways you don't notice the miles and miles of countryside. There's lots of land that could be developed into housing."
He's right. According to a 2011 mapping study, the UK National Ecosystem's Assessment, more than 90 per cent of our green and pleasant land remains just that -- not built on.
"House prices have become so expensive, especially in London and the South-East, that we're beginning to create barriers to all forms of mobility. There's this myth that somehow house prices going up makes the country richer. It doesn't. It just makes the people who have houses richer at the expense of those who don't."
He'd also like to see a more ruthless approach taken to pulling down obsolete buildings, starting with the Olympic stadium. "Why not? We've got this huge area of land that's been landscaped with big buildings that aren't much use any more so why not turn them into modern housing? …