Laurie Marsh: ‘Accumulating money for its own sake is called greed. I’d rather give it all away’

Laurie Marsh. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Laurie Marsh. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton hears how entrepreneur Laurie Marsh made millions then gave it away

Laurie Marsh. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Laurie Marsh. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Archant

Laurie Marsh is a serial entrepreneur – each of his businesses would be enough to last anyone a lifetime.

But at the age of 50 with a garage full of Rolls Royces having built one of the UK’s largest property companies out of a few shops, he decided to give it all away.

Just how he did it is detailed in The Philanthropist’s Tale (Urbane Publications £16.99)

But if you want to ask him yourself you’ll have to be quick since the 86-year-old is always on the go.

When I rang the doorbell of his St John’s Wood home at the appointed time I was greeted by silence.

A quick search of the grounds and I found him chatting to his builder, picking up litter on his drive, immaculately dressed in a suit.

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Once settled in his office, adorned with artworks and mementoes from grateful good causes, the irrepressibly energetic millionaire muses on the term entrepreneur.

“It’s diversity, someone that jumps about and becomes successful,” he says.

“It has to be linked to success. Failures don’t tend to be called an entrepreneur.”

Laurie Marsh

Laurie Marsh - Credit: Archant

Of course Marsh has had his failures over the years but he’s also made a lot of money – borne of a seemingly manic work ethic and a restlessness that’s evident as he talks through his varied life with pin-sharp recall.

Any time I get too stuck on the detail he impatiently chivvies me on.

Of administering the family trust with his wife Gillian and youngest daughter, he says: “This is where I work every day, six hours on Sunday. I work pretty hard and frequently wake at night and come down to carry on.

“I enjoy work. That’s why I am still doing it. I don’t have to but I particularly enjoy knowing there are others benefiting. I don’t want lots of ‘thank yous’. I get much more out of the implementation of it.

“In business it was the occasional successes that really turned me on. That’s more important than putting another £1m in the bank.

“I find that distasteful and wrong. Anyway my wife wouldn’t let me, she would make me give it away.”

Laurie was born into “relative poverty” in a flat above the family haberdashery shop in Lambeth Walk.

Six weeks premature, he was put in a boot box and expected to die:

“Funnily enough I didn’t and here I am to prove it,” he grins triumphantly.

Laurie Marsh with Lord Brian Rix

Laurie Marsh with Lord Brian Rix - Credit: Archant

As well as running three shops his father had a sideline as magician ‘Dave Evad’ and Laurie’s first paid job was joining him on stage as assistant.

With a grandfather in property, plus a family business importing pipe tobacco, they were clearly an entrepreneurial lot, and though his mum was too busy in the shop to spend much time with him, he was soon helping her give change over the counter.

Her parents were Russian Jews who emigrated in 1896, and after a bout of measles left Laurie with poor eyesight he was cruelly targeted as the ‘goggle eyed Jew boy’.

Whether such bullying galvanised him to succeed, after an uncomfortable spell of National Service he decided to start making plastic macs.

“It was freezing up in Catterick. It rained most days. We were wet and soaked. It was September 1948, clothing was still rationed but plastic wasn’t – you could buy a raincoat without coupons.”

Not only were they a hit but his idea of making spacesuits for kids out of silver plastic, then Noddy, Big Ears and finally Mickey Mouse themed clothes was inspired.

He recalls: “Disney didn’t have a merchandising department. They were broke and their office in Pall Mall only distributed the films so I had to go to LA.”

In a one-hour meeting he secured the deal to make Mickey Macs - the only condition that Disney supplied their own drawings for his display - which they did for free.

Like his father it seems the young Laurie had an eye for the ladies and in addition to his two marriages he mentions lots of girlfriends including Avengers actress Linda Thorson.

Laurie Marsh philanthropist. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Laurie Marsh philanthropist. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Archant

He also rubs shoulders with the rich and famous in 1951 he befriended a young Larry Hagman then renting a flat in Clifton Hill, St John’s Wood while appearing in South Pacific.

Later when he owned the Classic Cinema chain, West End Theatres and got into film production he mixed with David Frost, Helen Mirren and Roger Moore.

Some of the business was rather seedy and cutthroat. In 1964 he bought the Windmill Theatre famous for never closing during the war and for getting around nudity laws with its tableaux vivants.

He turned it into a cinema showing sex films and later sold it to strip club king Paul Raymond, He was also involved with Tony Tenser who made and showed sex films and who tried to rip him off in a venture at the Compton Cinema Club.

“At the end of the year there wasn’t a profit they’d stolen all the money and I made them give me half of it back”

It didn’t stop him working with Tenser again financing horror and sexploitation films like Witchfinder General, The Curse of the Crimson Altar starring Boris Karloff, but also Roman Polanski’s early film Repulsion and bizarrely children’s favourite Black Beauty.

Owning hotels, theatres – and even building the New London in Drury Lane - brought Laurie close to Lord Brian Rix writer of the Whitehall farces and farce writer Ray Cooney.

“Brian was my closest friend. Technically he worked for me but we just adored each other I saved him from financial destruction when he hit a bad patch. I worked with Ray Cooney saving theatres and putting on shows. I was responsible for funding, they for producing and writing them.”

He sold his stake in cinemas to Lew Grade’s ABC company and says of his decision to give away £500m: “I am not sure what process went through my brain all I can say having come from being really very poor and seeing the other side of the coin I couldn’t get my head around it.

“I had built a company from £5m to £250m in five years but I decided I didn’t want to be a billionaire.

“I had a good income, I was really comfortable, had everything I needed for myself and my kids. I had the ability to make serious amounts of money but I decided to do it for others.”

Aware that many who become rich never feel they have enough he finds it “unacceptable” that a private individual like Philip Green should buy a £100m yacht.

“Accumulating for its own sake is called greed I find that objectionable.”

Beneficiaries of his generosity include the British Humanist Association, Medecin Sans Frontiers, sustainability charity Population Matters, museums and arts organisations including Charles Darwin’s House the Bath Theatre Royal, Hackney based mental health charity Core Arts. Water Aid, The Gorilla Organization in Primrose Hill.

Now he’s written the book he says: “I still don’t believe it! It’s so diverse. There are ten sections and any one could have been a life’s work. I’ve been chair or chief executive of five publicly quoted companies.

“The only person I ever worked for was King George VI. Everyone else worked for me.”