I spent a fun day chasing across London trying to get in touch with Xiuli Hawken, after realising that one of Britain’s richest businesspeople was still registered as living in a humble semi-detached home near Croydon.
I got hold of her husband in the end, who was charming and very happy to talk about their stratospheric rise in wealth.
Full text available on the Sunday Times website here, and after the fold.
I did go to Specsavers — and made £1bn
How two self-made women billionaires made it among the entries of this year’s Sunday Times Rich List
What should you have done if you wanted to become Britain’s first woman to make more than £1 billion?
You should have gone to Specsavers. Or possibly China.
Among the entries in this year’s Sunday Times Rich List are, for the first time, two self-made female billionaires: Dame Mary Perkins, the driving force behind the Specsavers chain of opticians, and Xiuli Hawken, a Chinese woman with a British husband, who has made a fortune from property development in her native country.
Although from very different backgrounds, they share a surprising quality among the über-wealthy: a distinct lack of ostentation and glitz. Perkins likes walking holidays and choral singing, and once played down her wealth by saying: “There is only a certain amount you can spend, isn’t there?”
Hawken, a new entry in the Rich List, owns several properties in London, including a semi-detached, three-bedroom house in Norwood, south London, where her husband Anthony lived until three weeks ago.
Last week, after moving into a much larger home, Anthony said his wife’s wealth (calculated at £1.06 billion) “probably has affected us”, and added: “We spend much more, at least my wife and son do. We’ve just got a new 55in TV. We don’t need that. I thought we had a good one already.”
For Perkins the road to super-riches began when she met her husband, Doug, when they trained in Cardiff to be opticians. They made £2m from setting up and selling a small chain of opticians, then retired to Guernsey and grew bored.
In 1984 they spotted an opportunity for a new way of selling spectacles after the government relaxed regulations and allowed opticians to advertise. Working at a table-tennis table in the spare bedroom of their home, they planned Specsavers’ strategy of marketing fashionable glasses at affordable prices.
After opening shops in the southwest, they expanded rapidly by allowing new stores to operate as joint ventures between them and local opticians. The firm now has more than 1,555 stores across 10 countries and is worth £1.1 billion.
Last week Perkins, who dislikes the limelight, “respectfully declined” to be interviewed. However, she has previously told The Sunday Times that she likes to spend her time travelling the country checking up on her stores as a “mystery shopper” disguised in a wig.
“I play an undecided browser,” she said. “I just wait to see who comes up to me. I have to wear a wig, of course, because most of the opticians would recognise me. I’ve got a rather good set of wigs.”
She and her husband show no sign of wanting to cash in their fortune by selling the company. Instead, their children have prominent executive roles in the family firm. The idea of them leading a life of idle luxury appears unappealing to Perkins, who once said: “That wouldn’t do them much good, would it?”
Hawken is an equally curious billionaire. Born in Harbin, northern China, she spent five years after university as a journalist before coming to Britain in 1991 to learn English.
She married Anthony, then a teacher, and began working in finance before returning to China, where she and relatives became involved in a property company called Renhe, which built air-raid shelters, and then progressed to underground shopping malls. Last week Hawken could not be contacted. However, her husband, who recently moved into a £1.45m house in Purley, Surrey, told their story, explaining how he had moved to China with his new wife.
“I was there for a year as a teacher — it was the easiest way to get a year-long visa to travel out there with my wife after we married,” he said.
He returned to Britain, where he brought up their son, while Xiuli concentrated on building the business in China, travelling back to Britain when she could. While Anthony became a local fixture in Norwood, according to one neighbour near their former home, Xiuli was “always back and forth” to China.
Anthony continued: “I should say that my wife doesn’t like England much. Over there she has her business. I suppose that on paper, yes, she’s a billionaire. That’s not to say that is all available in cash, but she has a lot of shares assigned in her name.”
Renhe listed shares in Hong Kong in 2008, Hawken’s stake being £1.06 billion. Any of the proceeds that have come Anthony’s way have not gone to his head. “I’m more of a house-husband. Until recently we were living in a three-bedroom semi with a loft conversion,” he said. “It’s my fault we had to move really; I’ve got piles of books in every room.”
Although he used to work as a teacher at Croydon College, he left over a parking-space issue. “They said I couldn’t park there any more. It wasn’t worth my while. So I left.”
He now does some private tutoring. “I do a bit,” he said. “But mainly I can’t be bothered. I don’t need the money. We own a few houses. Not a lot. I don’t know what we have internationally — I suppose it would be in the company’s name.
“I’m still driving the same car after seven years — a Nissan 4×4. I don’t think my friends realise how wealthy we have become, though maybe they have now they have seen the new house. But they probably don’t know the full extent of it. That’s why I keep my old car.