STRUCTURE & DISCIPLINE – and then a good party
Risking the condemnation of established science – and without being able to document it more precisely – Jesper Buch is fascinated by a thought that he cannot slip, a thought that perhaps holds a grain of truth, that goes against all of the experiences of children to alcoholic parents.
“I know that it isn’t healthy for children to grow up with a mother or father who is an alcoholic. That they have to guess what a normal life is or normal behaviour could be. That they mercilessly blame themselves for mistakes of all kinds. Real or unreal. But I believe that I read somewhere that many American CEOs are the offspring of alcoholic parents.”
Jesper Buch, 43, seriously doubts the value of the truthfulness of it. But it has helped him to work some things out in his life. And a great many of the challenges that children with strong memories of alcohol abuse face later in life, he has also personally experienced. Also the strategies they use to make the pain go away, he recognises in his own life.
“It wasn’t a lack of love that was crucial. My father was actually a loving and caring person and he shares some of the honour for awakening my entrepreneurial drive. But the bottle proved stronger. As a child it was so destroying to see my father fall off his bicycle in the middle of a busy crossing in Vamdrup. Especially because everyone saw it. Friends, neighbours, etc. Totally uncool!
“Another occasion was after I had moved to Kolding with my mother. We lived near the train station. When my mates and I were on our way into town, the quickest way was to cut through the train station and take a shortcut along the pedestrian way going through the station hall. There was my father on a bench, asleep. I went past without saying anything to him or my friends.”
The grey-brown eyes squint a little in the strong sunlight pouring through the old iron windows in aformer industry building in Copenhagen that has been converted into photographic studios, and which is the venue for Jesper Buch’s interview and photo session in February.
His memory of a childhood filled with painful experiences of alcoholism is the reason why today stringency, determination and consequence means so much to him. Personal characteristics that define both his private life and his career. One of the stories that he often tells, as a way of explaining the incontestable successes he has enjoyed, concerns the first
Time Manager he received when he was 16 years old. He was able to formulate his goals in it and one objective in particular has guided his life: “I will be a millionaire before I’m 30!” he wrote in the calendar, which at the beginning of the 1990s was a must-have for any business wannabe.
Time Manager gave him stringency and control of time. It helped him to find structure. To get to the top at school and in life was alfa and omega. Perhaps it was also why national service continued at the military college in Sønderborg and then at Royal Danish Military Academy at Frederiksberg Palace. “It gave me the ultimate control. And everything I learnt in the army and in the job as a first lieutenant, has stayed with me ever since.” This applies to both his work life and private life.
“When I invest in a company today, I require that several things are met every month: They must submit reports that describe the financial results and Key Points of Interest. But they must also tell me about three results and three challenges. I do this myself every month. Are there things I should not have done and which I will change? Is there something I’m proud of? And so, I make a plan for repeating the successes and correcting the mistakes.”
A small discreet Nicorette mouth spray reveals one of the ‘mistakes’ that Jesper Buch is trying to correct is a life as a smoker.
Lion King Buch
Most people in Denmark know Jesper Buch from the DR TV programme Løvens Hule (Denmark’s version of Dragons’ Den). Compared to colleagues Mia Wagner, Christian Stadil, Jan Lehrmann and Peter Warnøe, he is sometimes described as the Lion King.
“The Lion King thing is a cliché, which I’ve heard many times,” says Jesper Buch, with a touch of annoyance. “It's the image I’ve been given when you compare me with colleagues in Løvens Hule. We have to function together with the screen. And so I must sit out on the left and be the one who kills a project. Be the one who asks the difficult questions. Maybe I come over a bit too hard and cold. It’s about our money after all and we’re not taking part just for the sake of it.
“But with that being said, even though it isn’t something you normally say about yourself, I’m actually very empathetic. It is the consequence of my upbringing. Obviously. As a divorced father, I have my three children every other week. And in uneven weeks I end my work at 15:00. Basta! I pick up my kids, make dinner and I am there for them. They get a cuddle, a kiss and a ‘I love you’ every evening when we say goodnight. It’s something I didn’t get very much as a boy. My kids aren’t going to miss out on that!”
Empathy is not just something that his kids can feel, it is a characteristic that he also expects to see in others. “There have been many times where I’ve sat in the studio to record Løvens Hule and thought – That was a great project! It has profit written all over it. But I say stop anyway. It’s not going to work. Because the people who present it don’t have what it takes for me to hand over my money.” But he believes that the four seasons of Løvens Hule have achieved pedagogical success.
“The entrepreneurs that we meet every day are sharper and are stronger people. In fact, we no longer see as many who come and pitch a project with a dreamlike relationship to the valuation of their business. Quite honestly, some of that really pisses us off. That people turn up and ask for DKK 500,000 for 1.5% of the business and without as much as one kroner in turnover!”
But he has been there himself. When he wrote his entrepreneur book ‘All In’ he found a letter he had written on his machine to his grandmother in 2000 when he worked on the idea for the Just Eat concept. He wrote graphically about the huge opportunities that he dreamed of “If the budgets hold, then the net result for the first year is DKK 300,000, + 1 million, the next and 3 million in the third year – after which the concept will be implemented in Germany and England!”
“It shows most of all how pleased I was with the idea. I still am. Because I had a goal and went straight after it,” he says.
ChanceTo have a clear goal – and go after it – that is how Jesper Buch wants to define himself and his career. However, chance plays a big part. In fact, it plays a really big part. For the idea to Just Eat came out of real need, when as newly qualified officer he moved to Oslo to start as a voluntary worker at the Danish embassy. On the evening that he arrived in the Norwegian capital and moved into his rented room, he realised the fridge was empty. In 2000, the Internet has not yet reached Norway, let alone Copenhagen. So the hissing 14.4 kbps modem wasn’t much good for finding anything, not even as much as a frozen pizza in the Northern peninsula. “It was hopeless. But it was actually in that moment that the idea to Just Eat was born.”
And it was the moment that the source of Jesper Buch’s fortune was born. The idea was very simple: To facilitate contact between pizza-loving hungry customers and local pizza joints – and naturally ensure that the pizzas were paid for and delivered. Ten years later, the Just Eat concept had moved from its basement office location in Kolding to London via Aarhus – Jesper Buch sold his share and earned hundreds of millions of kroner.
But it took a lot of hard work. “As a young lad in Kolding, I worked at the disco Crazy Daisy. The owner, Carsten Mikkelsen had built up a chain of discos during the 90s. Fun work. But I found out that – and we’re back to my empathy side – that Carsten more or less operated his business like it was all about friendship. There were no limits to trust. Friends don’t steal or rob from each other, do they? And I absorbed that. He believed in me and when I came back with the idea about Just Eat, he became my first investor.”
At the beginning the project was balanced on a knife edge. But the working weeks of +80 hours in the first ten years produced results. And blind faith, had work, determination and good friendships made good in the end. Moreover, the Just Eat journey also gave a sense of humility, which at first glance you may think is rather too easy to say when you’re driving round in an Audi car that cost over DKK 1 million and live in a white three-storey palace on Frederiksberg that costs DKK 20 million.
“I don’t need anything. And of course that’s become a condition of my life, which means that I have many options that other people don’t have. But I live alone with my children in a huge house on Frederiksberg, where I’ve been slightly clever and rented out a whole storey as shared office space, so a little income comes from that. But yes, I have managed to achieve financial security for myself and my children for the rest of our lives. And a little bit more too I’m sure. This is why I have also decided to give something back.”
Which means among other things, investing in new entrepreneurs. “When the chemistry is right, it’s the coolest thing. I am not just a money machine that pours money into new companies. When I get involved in a company, it’s body and soul. In addition to the money, I also bring my passion and access to parts of my network which are relevant for them. “So I still work hard. Not just for the enjoyment of it. It still has to generate returns. But it also has to be fun.” But here humility comes into play. Because with a childhood in Vandrup, as the child of mother who worked in a care home and father who owned a small clog factory, it certainly wasn’t a given that the young Jesper Buch Would become a multimillionaire.
“I’ve also lived in a flat in Gjellerupparken. I’ve also tried to make ends meet and been on the brink of bankruptcy. Basically, I have the belief that having so much money is potentially unhealthy. But basically, I’m not afraid to crash. It requires a new plan – and the will to work your socks off.” Perhaps this is why he defines all investments as being lost the moment he pushes the button and transfers money to a new company. This is why hard work has to be performed to ensure returns are generated.
But life as a CEO, multimillionaire and serial investor has of course provided opportunities that are extra special. “I moved to Marbella in 2008, where I met the mother of my children. It was a time of lots of parties – and work. We had some wild parties. The entire basement of the house was more or less a nightclub with decorations and flashing spotlights. It was a great place. But there also comes a time in your life when you realise Marbella is a place you go to on holiday. And when our children had to start school I thought: They’re not going the Spanish school. They’ll go to school here in Denmark.”
So in 2017, he returned to Denmark. For Jesper Buch, the change from the party-on life in Spain, did not quite go as expected. He and his partner split up and they shared custody of the children. “Obviously, that wasn’t very nice. But it has allowed me go all-in with my kids: 120 percent work in even weeks and 120 percent Dad in uneven weeks. It is a great decision. It helps to provide structure.”
Structure and discipline are important words when it comes to Jesper Buch. And it is the long-term that matters. Because the goals must be achieved. Large and small. Also when you need to test your own endurance by putting on your hiking boots and walking the 850 km pilgrim route known as Camino de Santiago. He is quietly preparing to slow down his work tempo, so is more space for himself. To write a new book. To allow others to take over ...