Dyson: The EU sucks
Says who? The brilliant British engineer who’s built an £8bn empire on vacuum cleaners – and, after 25 years wrangling with Eurocrats, just can’t wait for Brexit
SIR James Dyson is lithe, rangy, tanned, beadily alert and, despite never using his own award-winning supersonic dryer, boasts gloriously fluffy hair. ‘It blows my hair to smithereens and gives too much root uplift,’ he says.
This week he was particularly busy, even by his exactingly high standards as Britain’s best-known inventor. on Wednesday, fed up with trying to get politicians to do something about the dire lack of engineers in this country, he opened a university to train them; the Dyson Institute of engineering and Technology.
and, oh yes, he took on Jean-Claude Juncker. When the european Commission president threatened that Britain would ‘regret Brexit’, Dyson hit back with the power of one of his famous cord-free vacuums.
With the benefit of decades of experience wrestling with Brussels committees, Dyson confidently predicted that the UK would leave the EU without a deal. Indeed, he said such a ‘clean break’ would ‘hurt the europeans more than the British’.
This is because remaining EU countries have far more to lose than us. He also dismissed the single market as something that British businesses could do happily without.
‘I’ve been dealing with the EU on committees for 25 years. In all that time we have never been able to influence one iota and have never been able to stop anything,’ he says.
He chose to speak out at a time when the Confederation of British Industry, responsible for the Project Fear scaremongering during the referendum campaign, wants its members to sign up to a letter warning of the potentially terrible consequences of Brexit.
But sir James Dyson is a man who believes fervently in Britain.
such faith has been rewarded over the years. His firm is a £7.8billion success story.
Halfway through our chat in his shiny glass office, surrounded by purple and orange vacuum cleaners, I ask if he’s ever been tempted just to coast a bit; put his designer trainerclad feet up and watch some telly in one of the many sitting rooms of the 60-room stately home he shares with his wife Deirdre.
or spend more time on his yacht (Britain’s biggest), in his private jet, at his French chateau or pottering about in the largest portfolio of land in the UK which, at 25,000 acres, is bigger than the Queen’s.
‘Coast? Coast?’ replies a bemused Dyson. ‘It sounds a wonderful thing to do, but I don’t know the meaning of it. and I never watch television!’
Instead, he works relentlessly, obsessively and tirelessly.
He has spent his 70th year investing £2.5billion into artificial intelligence research on a new 517-acre campus in Wiltshire, spending £58million on a specialist battery company (there are rumours he’s working on an electric Dyson car) and opening two flagship shops — one in London and the other, manhattan.
He did pause briefly to celebrate his birthday and, as a cheerleader for Brexit, to revel in the decision to leave europe.
‘I was delighted. I still am! It’s a fantastic opportunity to get our sovereignty back and re-engage with the rest of the world,’ he says.
But then he was back at the coalface — inventing, innovating and inspiring.
HIs pride and joy is the Dyson Institute of engineering and Technology. even ignoring the Harrier Jump Jet — a marvel of engineering — on display in the car park, the jet plane hanging in the cafe and michelin-starred chef in the kitchen, it is not like any other university.
For starters, there are just 33 undergraduates — whittled down from 950 applicants (even oxford University has only three applicants per place). They are the brightest of the bright 17 and 18-year-olds, with a* a-levels and design awards.
many have turned down offers from oxford, Cambridge and London’s Imperial College.
The course is predominantly practical. ‘I want them to take risks. I want them to make mistakes. I believe in taking people on very young and inexperienced and giving them great responsibility,’ says Dyson. ‘It’s a grown-up course — a tough option.’
Indeed. While many of their peers will spend their summers interrailing and lounging around Greek tavernas, his students get just 27 days holiday a year.
But there are no tuition fees. Instead, he pays them £16,000 a year, with no obligation to stay on when they graduate.
It all started when Dyson — an education evangelist who has already spent tens of millions encouraging the study of engineering — met universities and science minister Jo Johnson and grumbled to him about the lack of British engineers.
‘I was very disappointed to find his lavatory didn’t have a Dyson dryer, so I complained about that, too.’
WHILe the minister made no promises about the dryer, Johnson told him: ‘Fine, go and start your own university.’ Dyson says he thought for ‘half a second’ before saying yes.
That was 18 months ago. He didn’t pause to wonder if it was possible. He and his team are used to solving problems, making things work with bloody-minded brilliance.
‘I don’t like things that don’t work. never have. They bother me — I want to fix them,’ he says.
making things work properly has been Dyson’s obsessive motivation ever since he was a young boy in charge of the household vacuuming and was horrified by the shoddy suction and smell of stale dust and dog the machine produced.
The solution — his world-famous, cyclonic, bagless vacuum cleaner — took 15 years, 5,126 prototypes and his life savings to get on to the market, but it shook up the entire vacuum industry.
He suspects his drive came from losing his parents so young.
His father — a master at Gresham’s Independent school in norfolk, where Dyson was a pupil — died of cancer when he was nine. His mother also died of cancer in her early 50s.
‘It has a huge impact. eighty per cent of prime ministers — from Walpole to major — had lost a parent by the age of ten,’ he says.
‘Life’s short. anything could happen. you feel disadvantaged in some way and want to fight back.’ so he did. as well as vacuum cleaners and the £299 supersonic hair dryer, he’s made wheelbarrows, fans and robotics, and in the process helped put Britain firmly back on the engineering and manufacturing world map.
He employs more than 8,000 staff (many at manufacturing plants in asia since 2002) with plans to expand four-fold over the next five years. There are 3,000 on the malmesbury campus, plus the 33 undergraduates.
on a tour with one of his perky staff, we pop into a classroom. The lesson might be in Russian for all I understand because it is so complicated, but they are so engrossed they barely look up. ‘They have fun, though!’ insists my guide.
all are very proud to be part of the Dyson team — working with the best engineers in the world and taking part in annual staff challenges, which include the Christmas party outfit competition (last year’s entries included an 8ft supersonic), an annual Dyson Bake off and a pumpkin-carving competition.
next year’s intake will live in sleep
pods that will be assembled in Scotland and lifted in by crane.
Dyson has always been fussy about furniture. Back in the bad old days — when he, his wife and their three children were living on next to nothing, the house had been mortgaged ‘over and over’ and he was rarely out of his workshop — their home was almost empty.
‘I don’t like nasty furniture and I’d rather have nothing than something I don’t like,’ he says.
He’s fussy about lots of things. And an obsessive genius.
The Supersonic cost £71million to make, took 60 prototypes, a team of 103 engineers and four years of tests on 1,010 miles of seven different types of hair.
The firm bought so much hair that there was a global shortage, for goodness’ sake.
Today, of course, he is charming and twinkly and insists he ‘never, ever’ loses his temper. He still does the vacuuming at home and keeps 40 of his machines to choose from.
‘I enjoy it — though we have someone who cleans as well.’
But he sounded a nightmare in the early days. He agrees: ‘I was not a delight to live with.’
He and his wife met as fellow students at London’s Royal College of Art. ‘I knew very quickly,’ he says. ‘I’m a very decisive sort of person. But she was a real Sixties chick — she’s an artist and did graphic design so we had a lot in common.
‘It’ll be 50 years next year — we’ve had a wonderful life and three wonderful children. She’s funny and lively and very, very patient.’
She must be. She stood by him through poverty, obsession and potentially ruinous law-suits over his ‘mad, totally mad’ decision to try to revolutionise the vacuum industry with a machine that didn’t lose suction.
‘We did have the odd “discussion”,’ he says, but insists that when he had the wobbles and was ready to chuck it all in, she gee-d him up, saying: ‘You’ve got to win, you’ve got to beat them.’
He’s certainly not afraid to take anyone on — particularly not Jean-Claude Juncker — and has spent a huge amount of time in and out of court to keep control of his designs. He must feel victorious now, master of all he surveys. He certainly looks far younger than his years.
But he works at it — playing tennis, sleeping seven hours a night, running up and down hills for 40 minutes every day on holiday. ‘I feel like a boy still — a young student’, he says.
He also seems the least stressed billionaire businessman imaginable. Yet he’s incapable of lying in.
‘I wake every morning at six,’ he says. With his giant brain whirring? ‘Yes. But it’s not a big brain,’ he says firmly. ‘It’s a little brain, so it has to whirr extra fast.’
Presumably his famously adminfree work style — he once said he receives only six emails a day — helps him keep calm. Today, he says he received just three emails; one from his wife, to which he did reply; another from a friend who was thanking him for a birthday present, to which he didn’t reply; and a third, which he doesn’t wish to discuss but was presumably not from Mr Juncker. In any case, that didn’t get a reply, either.
He detests social media (‘eurgh’) and loathes the phone. ‘I hate speaking on the phone. I find it a funny way to communicate. It takes a lot of time and it gets very hot. They fry you, don’t they?’
So his very dated-looking office landline usually sits on the floor gathering dust (‘I never use that thing’), he struggles to remember the last time he used his mobile and can’t remember ever calling his wife. Though he enjoys exchanging silly texts and emojis with his six grandchildren.
It sounds like he is a better grandfather than father.
‘I probably wasn’t great,’ he says. ‘But I didn’t force them to come out and work in the workshop, though they all did.’
Maybe they just wanted to see him. Whatever, they were clearly influenced. All have gone into creative fields and all are extremely grounded and hard-working.
‘I didn’t make any money until they left home, so they’ve all seen poverty,’ he says.
BuT it isn’t true of his six grandchildren. However, he insists they know what work is, which is a good thing because meanwhile, the company is growing by 25 to 30 per cent. Last year, profits jumped 41 per cent to £631 million.
When you’re as rich as that already, I wonder — and have an enormous Gloucestershire pile complete with Corinthian pillars, Grade-I listed Orangery, gardens by Capability Brown and your own-designed fans whirring by the poolside — does an extra £100 million or so actually feel any different?
‘It enables you to do things you couldn’t before,’ he says.
And he’s talking about work, not buying Caribbean party islands.
He’s recently hired experts from Aston Martin and electric car firm Tesla, fuelling rumours that he’s working on a car. How exciting! Is it true? ‘We don’t talk about what we’re working on, but good try!’ he says. ‘We sometimes talk about technologies — such as batteries or electric motors or robotics — but not products.’
For now, though, with his university training Britain’s future engineers, he is focusing on Brexit — and keen to tell anyone who will listen what a great opportunity it is for his beloved Britain.
‘I am not anti-Europe. I am just anti Britain having no sovereignty,’ he says. ‘Our trade imbalance [in Britain’s favour] with Europe is £9 billion a month and rising. That could be £100 billion a year!
‘They’re treating us as if we need them, when the reverse is true. They need us. Surely we want free trade — or we should walk away!’
And surely, whatever your political stance, this is a voice worth listening to.
Because, after all, while he might be obsessive, eccentric and weirdly fussy about furniture, Sir James Dyson does seem to have been right about pretty much everything else over the years.
Faith in Britain: Sir James Dyson with one of his famous vacuum cleaners and (left) his huge Georgian manor in Gloucestershire