Felix Dennis, from hippy outsider to zillionaire
Felix Dennis is feeling his age. “How old are you?” he barks as he lets me into his flat. When I tell him, he says: “I’ve been living here longer than you’ve been alive.” I’m not as young as all that – at 31, I’m already seven years older than Dennis was when he was sent to prison, in 1971, for corrupting public morals. But at 52 he is old enough to be my father, and he won’t let me forget it. Over two hours the publishing millionaire and former hippie proves not to be the affable, droll figure of legend – more like an ancient curmudgeon.
After installing me in the kitchen table at his Soho flat – my writing elbow dangerously close to a sprawling cactus – Dennis lights a cigarette and explains his mood. He’s about to undergo a medical operation: “I’m not allowed to drink caffeine for 17 hours, so I’m a bit jittery.” I ask what procedure he must submit to, and he tells me – but when I start inscribing this in my notebook glares through his bifocals: “You’re not writing that in there, son.”
Even on a tour of his flat he’s irritable. The bedroom (“the bed isn’t made, I haven’t tidied up for you”) features sinister masks above the headboard. I’ve read that, among many artworks, Dennis owns Tibetan masks worth tens of thousands of pounds. But I’ll never know if these are the ones, because instead of telling me about them Dennis opens a cupboard to offer a glimpse of his suits. At a glance, these seem rather ordinary. “I’ve only got six,” he says, uncharacteristically modest for a man who recently acknowledged ownership of five Rolls-Royces and a Bentley. But what about his other homes – doesn’t he have more suits there? “Of course,” snaps the 87th richest man in Britain, whose wealth, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, stands at £250m. “What do you think I do, take them from one place to another, with somebody carrying them behind me like Sherpa Tensing?”
Back in the kitchen, Dennis provides drinks (mine’s a coffee), lights another cigarette, and deliberately places the box out of arm’s reach – a ruse designed to curb excessive smoking. Then he shuffles over to sit beside Sarah, his youngish PR. On the wall are countless framed photos commemorating the high-jinks of his early years, in particular his involvement with the underground magazine, Oz; the trial of Dennis and his fellow publishers, Richard Neville and Jim Anderson, and their conviction (overturned on appeal) for conspiring to corrupt public morals.
Neville’s book about this period, Hippie Hippie Shake, presents a lurid picture of Dennis, who arrived at the magazine flat-broke after selling his precious drum kit to pay for a girlfriend’s abortion. Born in the outer reaches of southwest London in 1947, Dennis and his brother had been abandoned by their father, a jazz pianist who navigated bombers during the war, and brought up by their mother. After leaving school at 15, Felix worked as a gravedigger and door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman – and at Oz he demonstrated equally wide-ranging talents. He wrote record reviews, volunteered to take part in public displays of sexual intercourse, and started a column called Poverty Cooking (one suggestion, “Roast Trafalgar Square Pigeon”, included tips on stalking and killing this exotic game).
Neville was delighted with Dennis’s energy, commitment and “roll-up-yer-sleeves enthusiasm”. And – unusual among hippies – the latter demonstrated commercial instincts. Already – like Richard Branson, another man finding a commercial niche amid the apparent chaos of youth culture – Dennis was thinking like a publisher. When colleagues chucked out a pile of back issues he prophesied: “You’ll regret this… one day we might be able to flog them for a fortune.” Referring disdainfully to the magazine’s highbrow ethos he stated: “With a bit of common sense we could triple our circulation.” Most impressive of all was his talent for shifting the mag. Neville initially gave Dennis 500 copies to sell, and within days he was back for more. According to Neville, Dennis explained his sales technique like this: “I set myself up in King’s Road with three chicks in short skirts and ram it in the punters’ faces.”
In that respect, little has changed. In the years since Oz closed, Dennis has put his skills to good use as publisher of several highly successful magazines. His most significant triumph of recent years, the general interest men’s monthly, Maxim, appeared in its most recent UK issue, not untypically, with a pull-out showing “The Top 20 Sexiest Ad Babes”. The fact that these charming women appeared in rather less than a short skirt cannot, presumably, have been harmful to sales.
Dennis founded his publishing empire in 1974. His partner at that time, Dick Pountain, was the former production manager at Oz. One early money-spinner involved selling merchandise connected with big American movies. From Stephen Spielberg’s London agents Dennis bought worldwide rights to a one-shot magazine to tie in with Jaws. “Cost me the price of a cup of coffee and a hot cross bun. Just a picture of a shark on the front and information about sharks on the back.” There followed a series of 64-page specials, The Making of Star Wars, and so on; and several comics and magazines. The most successful was Kung Fu Monthly: inspired by the sight of long queues outside a Bruce Lee film, this ran for 17 years and appeared in as many languages.
In 1980, Dennis showed a keen eye for the Next Big Thing. Pountain had impressed him by working out printing costs on one of the world’s first programmable calculators. “That led me to realise there might be something more to computers than playing ping-pong. So when another colleague burst into his office saying Personal Computer World was up for sale, Dennis decided to call the owner. Angelo Zegorolec, who turned out to be an Oz fan, was persuaded after “a few beers and some arm-wrestling” to sell to Dennis. Still today Dennis Publishing boasts four of the seven top-selling computer magazines; the biggest, Computer Shopper, sells 171,000 a month and features more advertising pages than any other magazine in Britain.
Dennis retains a valuable stake in the wider computer market through an American software, hardware and peripherals distributor which he set up and then floated for $2bn, Micro Warehouse. Looking at his photo in the company’s 1998 Financial Review – he stands beside other directors, po-faced in the sort of sober double-breasted suit I glimpsed in his bedroom cupboard – you realise just how far he has come.
And he’s been quick to embrace the internet. Dennis Interactive is described to clients, he states carefully, as a full service interactive agency specialising in broad bandwidth media. “Do you understand that? Nor do I, but I know that Mercedez Benz, Disney and the Gap do, and I’m damn sure that the marketing manager at Levi’s understands.” (These are just some of the company’s clients.)
In publishing too he has continued to innovate. It was Dennis who spotted the opportunity to export one of the thriving British “lads’ mags” to the US, hitherto considered too sophisticated for such fare. Other Brits – Tina Brown, Anthea Disney, Anna Wintour – have crossed the Atlantic to edit established magazines. Dennis’s challenge was considerably greater. “You could view the US as having huge potential for success,” agrees Paul Woolmington, New York-based president of Young & Rubicam’s media company, The Media Edge. “But the opportunity for failure is ten times higher. Advertisers are relatively conservative – as the pioneer in a new genre you can often take a lot of flack.” Dennis took that risk, and now the US edition of Maxim massively outsells both GQ and Esquire (with 1.15m sales against 707,776 and 680,573, respectively). The editor of American Esquire, David Granger, recently offered the following rather puzzled acknowledgement of Dennis’s achievement: “Clearly, they have appealed to some demographic.”
Another publishing success is The Week, the 40-page distillation of writing from the British and overseas press. Once again, this was not his own idea, but he got in early, writing to the founding editor after looking at the first issue. “I got a letter saying he’d discovered the magazine,” says Jolyon Connell. “I had no idea who he was.” But in due course, when money got tight, they met. Dennis invested heavily, and the effect was magical: sales rose from 5,000 to more than ten times as much. “He knows what people want,” says Connell, “even before they know themselves. And he has the strength of his convictions.”
Gill Hudson, the editor who launched Maxim in the UK in 1995, says Dennis’s success is simple: “He just doesn’t give a fuck,” she tells the business. “He likes to go for it, to be the maverick who pulls it off – and he’s not frightened.” It’s this which sets him apart. Interviewed recently, he explained in characteristic style: “Have you ever been homeless?” he asked. “Have you ever had everything you have in your hands, a carrier bag and the pockets of your anorak? Well I have… I don’t care. Right down in the chill heart of me, I don’t give a flying fuck. I just don’t care. It’s all meaningless, squire. You can’t take it with you. It doesn’t mean shit.”
Dennis shuffles over to his fags, and while he’s there prepares the first in a series of sandwiches. (Lifting the lid from his cheeseboard, he asks: “Is there caffeine in cheese?” When he comes back, I show him a dummy issue of the business. One picture shows his near-contemporary Branson – a counter-cultural hero turned millionaire whose style is considerably smoother than Dennis’s. “Have you noticed that everyone is bashing Richard about recently?” asks Dennis with more than a hint of a smile. “Can you imagine having 200,000 [rail passengers] cursing you every day? That can’t be good for your karma…” Another spread shows Bill Gates beneath a headline about his plans to give away money. “Well, why doesn’t he get on with it?” asks Dennis. “I’m always very suspicious of people who say they’re going to do something.”
Dennis has every right to say this, as he’s always been free with his own money. He recently funded a trip to the UK by a cricket team comprising reformed gangsters from Los Angeles. Last year he donated free advertising space in his magazines to a hurricane relief campaign. And last month he was revealed to be one of several well-known figures who had given money to the Labour Party. Who persuaded him to hand over £167,000? Tony Blair? Dennis snorts: “I’ve met him once, fleetingly. I’ve met the queen more often and I have not given her money.” There follows a stimulating jeremiad about journalists making things up, which – given that he is a publisher of journalism – takes me by surprise. “I’ve always given money to Labour. When I started to give money to Labour the Tories had money given to them by every organisation – here and abroad. They don’t have to worry, they’re like the rich. People who are well off can look after ourselves and those who are not probably can’t.”
The instinct behind his generosity has been explained thus: “My only rule: just be fucking kind, man. For no reason at all, or because you admire somebody, or just because you think someone is a total tosser and they’ve got no chance.” Clearly, it would be a mistake to take him for some warm-hearted softie. Dennis is more complicated than that. He can also be a bully. He once successfully demanded the sacking of a Rolls Royce salesman who snootily presumed his cars were out of Dennis’s price range (only a few days later did he call the showroom to insist the man be reinstated). Last February, when the editor of Maxim, Mark Golin, was poached by a rival magazine, Dennis showed a steely streak by declining to release him from his contract, so the rival magazine drifted for two months. Also telling is the fact that colleagues and acquaintances tend to ask before speaking to me whether a conversation has been “okayed by Felix”. (Hudson, who no longer works for him, agrees that Dennis can be a bully. “He shouts at you a lot, but you should shout back and he will listen. He’s also great fun.”)
But most proprietors do exert control. Why should Dennis be different? Because he used to be a hippy? Like any successful businessman – conventional or not – Dennis takes a close interest in his product. “I’ve got the cover lines, here,” he says, waving at me a list of catchy slogans put forward by editors. “I sit and rewrite them.” Recent cover lines of which he is most proud include: “Woman-approved fashion: clothes she will want to tear off your back with her teeth”, and “Xena! Like you’ve never seen her”. Or this, when Pamela Anderson reduced the size of her breasts: “Wham! Bam! Brand new Pam!” (At each of these, Sarah politely shakes with laughter.) Finding that issue of American Maxim, Dennis flicks gravely to the Brand New Pam spread, then passes me the magazine: “She looks better than she ever looked.” And Dennis, whose fondness for women is legendary, who routinely takes “numerous lady friends” with him on holiday together, must surely be accounted a connoisseur.
As well as cover lines, he occasionally comes up with feature ideas. The last was about fashion. Another was for Maxim’s website: “Build your own babe – you go through several thousand pictures of women – Raquel Welch’s tits and Marilyn Monroe’s lips, Jennifer Lopez’s bum… I understand it’s proving an immense success, very popular with the programmers.
On the advertising side, he travels far to meet potential customers. “Face-to-face selling is far more important in America than in Britain. In the US, it’s crucial. If you can’t be bothered to visit an office in Pittsburgh they certainly can’t be bothered to advertise.” In May this year, two years and a month after launch, American Maxim broke through an important barrier – it featured more than 100 pages of advertising.
To achieve this, some argue, Maxim has become more downmarket (with cover lines such as “30 new sex tricks”, “The 20 Beer Workout: Get drunk! Look great!”, and “Animals that pick up women”) than originally planned. Dennis doesn’t like that, wants to know who said it. “Is this person rich or influential? I would have to have respect for somebody before I listened to that. The fact is that Maxim is not down-market, but it has a sense of humour, and a lot of good stories and service articles. I’m not pretending it’s the Atlantic Monthly. (I don’t expect you’ve heard of that. Oh, but have you read it? Well I have.)”
Switching tack, he launches a comparison of Maxim’s readers with those of rival publications: “It has a great AB readership, the highest ABs of any men’s magazine. And in the US – let me tell you – the average age of readers is 29.8 years old, many of the readers either are or have been married, and their scholastic achievements are also higher than [those of] GQ [readers]. The average household income is $62,000 – do you earn that much?” he demands.
Then, astonishingly, he reverses his approach again: “GQ’s basic message is to make you feel inadequate if you have not spent $2,000 on a suit recently – it’s entirely driven by ads.” As for Esquire, it’s just the “husk of a dead magazine walking… it’s very sad to look at it”. Moving on to Details, the magazine which poached Maxim’s editor earlier this year: “That was set up for clever young men who sit up all night in Manhattan snorting cocaine, an ultra-hip guide for urban living. Which is all very well, but there are 250 million people in the US and they don’t all do that.” Men’s Health? “I don’t call that general interest.”
Rivals, of course, can be equally sniffy about Dennis’s publication. “Maxim’s aim,” says Esquire’s Granger, “is to appeal to half the man – and in their case it’s sort of the lower half.” In response to this type of comment, Dennis produces a chart, a comical one in which Maxim zooms far, far beyond the reach of other magazines: “Look at this ludicrous chart. I promise you that no amount of money can buy you this effect. It comes from a starved population – people who will wear out shoe leather to get hold of this magazine. It was a desert out there, and we were the first guys to arrive with the beer wagon. (This induces further giggling from Sarah – who suddenly stops to point out that Maxim’s latest ABC in the US recorded the single largest increase in sales, year on year, in magazine history. And while we’re on the subject, could I mention Stuff, Dennis’s new American men’s mag, which recorded a quarter of a million newsstand sales after just two issues.)
“I’m going to have a bit of cheese,” says Dennis again, rising from his chair. And when he comes back we talk about The Week. What did Dennis do to turn that round? “We brought subscriber-acquisition skills,” he says, between mouthfuls. “We believe in subscriptions, and that gives us an enormous advantage over other Brits who think it’s an expensive add-on.” They decided to take The Week off newsstands, except in a few big travel points (major railway stations and airports). “It’s expensive to be on news stands if people don’t buy it, and The Week is not for morons.” Who is it for? “Most of us tend to go out on Friday and Saturday nights, and that is why The Week comes out on Friday mornings – so you know what to talk about. You’re sitting in a bar and you hear the same thing everywhere. People say, ‘I think I read that in The Week’, and everyone nods off, and you say, ‘You did’.”
“Excellence of editorial product creates an addiction among readers. And, as with all addiction, the only way to redeem themselves is to get their mates addicted as well.” Waving another colourful line graph in front of me, Dennis demonstrates that ad revenue has risen steeply too. This success has inspired envy in all the right places – a cheeky Dennis Group brochure features a quote from a major rival, David Arculus, the chairman of IPC Magazines: “The Week is brilliant. I wish I owned it.”
Arriving in New York, says Dennis, the first thing he does is stop the limo and spend money at the newsagents on 49th Street and 2nd Avenue. “I’m driven by a passion for magazines, the last place on earth where a jack of all trades can survive and prosper. I like sucking up a lot of stuff from a whole melange of interests. But I’m not interested in becoming an expert in the history of ball point pens. I’m a skater on the surface of life. Editors of specialist magazines must be obsessed. I personally would not choose to spend a holiday with the editor of Scuba Diving Monthly, but you have to understand conversations and make sensible contributions with stamp collecting or Kung Fu bores, because without these people you would never produce magazines. But perhaps one of the reasons I like The Week and Maxim is that they’re general interest.”
There’s one subject he does know a lot about, however. I ask about his great interest in trees, but he seems to think I’m winding him up. “At the risk of sounding like a smartarse, I know a fuck sight more about trees than you do,” he asserts grimly. This is terrible: to eliminate any misunderstanding, I go out of my way to indicate that the initial curiosity was genuine. This leads to a prolonged and somewhat bad-tempered exposition of Dennis’s interest in the countryside, including the following highlights. He’s written the preface to a new book, Silva (“That’s S – I – L – V – A, it’s Latin, it’s actually pronounced sil-wah”), subtitled The Tree In Britain. He’s planted more than 100,000 trees at his place in Warwickshire (not all by himself, naturally); and miles of hedges. He’s established several miles of footpath (“for myself and villagers only”). And overseen the dredging of ponds and ditches and streams. Questions he’s been obliged to address include: “When do bullrushes become a pain in the neck?” and “Should you put in seating – does that parkify a country walk?” A lot of work, but the results are gratifying: “You don’t have to do anything about the increase in wildlife, it just happens. It’s like magic.”
There’s also a Garden of Heroes, an diverse aggregation of statuary which includes Chuck Berry, Oscar Wilde, Charles Darwin (“on a tortoise, wearing a top hat”), Mark Twain, and Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair with an exact replica of his speaking machine (“the sculptor asked what message he wanted inscribed on his machine and the professor said: ‘The universe has no boundary.’”) Another shows the Giant Amazon Beetle. “They’re all life size or one-and-a-quarter size, but the beetle is 20-times bigger,” Dennis explains. Coming soon are statues of John Donne, Yuri Gagarin and Dorothy Parker. On the subject of the last-named, Dennis shows me a poem he wrote in homage to one of hers. “Took a whole board meeting,” he confides, passing it over so I can copy it out.
The estate in Warwickshire, reminiscent in its way of Marlborough’s Blenheim – or even Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens – gives some idea just how rich Dennis really is. And that’s not his only property. In addition to the flat off Carnaby Street where we meet, Dennis has another in London, an apartment in New York, a lake house in Connecticut (close to Micro Warehouse); and a house in Mustique, purchased from David Bowie, to which seven employees a year are invited on an expenses-paid trip (staff throughout the group elect the most deserving candidates).
What can possibly remain for him to strive for? “There aren’t many things I can’t have,” he agrees, “I can’t go to the moon – I’m too old, not fit enough and haven’t got enough money. But there are some things even Bill Gates can’t do… There are people who want to live forever and get their heads cut off and stuck in that stuff – what’s it called?” Is he talking about cryogenics? “That’s right. I do wish there was more time in the world – but everyone wants that. It’s appalling when you wake up and find you aren’t 18. None of us like that. And you don’t have to wait till you get to the mirror, mate,” adds Dennis, the world’s first 52-year-old octogenarian. “You only have to get one leg out of bed.”