For more than half a century, Laurie Marsh has been restoring beautiful buildings, and encouraging education and the arts, having built up companies that laid the foundation for making London a style capital. Philip Whiteley talks to the quiet genius of modern philanthropy
Tucked away in a quiet corner of St John’s Wood, near Regent’s Park in London, a few hundred yards from Lord’s cricket ground, lives an elderly gentleman whose contributions to the arts, the built environment and civic society in the UK bear comparison with anyone’s. Laurie Marsh is occasionally dubbed the most successful entrepreneur-philanthropist you’ve never heard of, but with the murmurs of appreciation growing, and with his memoirs being published this summer, such anonymity is diminishing; and justly so. In his neat, rather beautiful home study, with his crisp clear diction, wavy hair and spectacles, he has the manner of a retired headmaster, rather than captain of industry. It is a serene and ordered place. ‘Listen,’ he says, and we both fall silent. You can hear nothing, despite this central London location, at which he and his wife Gillian have modernized and extended a former artists’ studio, and planted 30 trees in an enclosed garden. The unusual home, on different levels and filled with sculptures and paintings, would be worth an article in itself.
But we are meeting to discuss his remarkable career, the highlights of which are chronicled in The Philanthropist’s Tale: The Life of Laurie Marsh. ‘I don’t believe it myself,’ he observes in a self-deprecatory manner, seeking to recall exactly how the boy who grew up above a shop in Lambeth south London had the confidence in his 20s to strike licensing deals with Disney, build a clothing business and then move to property development and cinema and theatre restoration. His retail innovations in the 1960s helped create the cluster of fashion and design entrepreneurs that made London the style capital of the west, in the Beatles era and since. He didn’t plan to become an entrepreneur as such, he recalls; his motivation was not to be poor, and he discovered he had an eye for opportunities in post-war Britain. ‘I was very hungry, and we were very poor. I didn’t want to go back to that – I knew what it was like. For the first eight years of my life we lived in two rooms; my parents in one and we shared the other. There was no running water, no heating, no electricity, no bathroom. I became a workaholic and I still am; and the reason is that I enjoy it.’
At the age of 85 he still works full time, often seven days in the week. At the time of interview there were 16 active projects he was overseeing, including a redevelopment of the The Mill Theatre in Sonning Oxfordshire, next door to the home of George and Amal Clooney. Marsh was born in south London but spent much of his childhood elsewhere. He was evacuated to Gloucestershire during the Second World War, and won a scholarship to the Perse School in Cambridge, an independent boarding school with a strong academic pedigree, where he thrived. A school master Keith Barry became a mentor, and as he left the school he made a pledge to him: ‘If I ever become a millionaire I will donate to this school.’ He was able to make good on this promise at the age of just 30. After National Service – Britain had compulsory military service for young men in the 1950s – he began a plastic raincoat business in space lent to him by his father. He hit upon the idea of gaining permission to reproduce children’s favourite characters, and the business took off. By 1960 he was a paper millionaire, and financed the construction of a new Sixth Form Centre at the school.
In the 1960s he created an innovation of mini-markets in prime London locations, such as King’s Road Chelsea and High Street Kensington. ‘We were giving people who would otherwise never be able to get into those locations the opportunity. There was a strong emphasis on design and clothing. The demand was enormous. We had 600-700 small units, but if we had had 2,000 spaces we’d have had no problem filling them. There was a waiting list.’ A similarly successful enterprise called Booty in Bond Street gave opportunities to talented young jewellery designers. He was also heavily involved in the construction and renovation of cinemas and theatres. Yet perhaps the most impressive detail about Marsh’s CV was that he pretty much gave up seeking more profits for himself before he had turned 50 in 1979, when he sold his business to media tycoon Lew Grade. ‘Since then I have devoted the bulk of my time to community and to others rather than myself, and I have taken care of my immediate family, friends and distant relations.’
He has pioneered an ingenious scheme, called the Charitable Finance Initiative (CFI) to finance investment in the non-profit sector. By setting up a charitable foundation with a trading arm, income from sales of property or land can finance the venture, reducing or eliminating the need for subsidy. Marsh has tried to persuade the UK government to adopt this ingenious scheme for state-run hospitals, as a replacement for the ruinously expensive Private Finance Initiative. He has encountered stubborn resistance by ministers and civil servants, despite its potential to cut taxes and public debt. An official report came to the dubious conclusion that the CFI would not be ‘legal’. Yet there are about 130,000 registered charities in the UK, he points out, and almost all have trading subsidiaries. ‘It is therefore ridiculous to infer that trading for a profit for the benefit of a charity is not legal.’ A suspicion of conflict of interest naturally arises, but Marsh indicates that a likely reason is the fear of loss of reputation on the part of ministers and civil servants who have run the PFI for so long. Such candour in making his case publicly and clearly is rooted in a confidence and keen intelligence that has helped shape the built environment that British citizens enjoy, and encourage the arts to flourish, for more than half a century. If British health department officials can overcome their pride, his legacy will be complete.