High life: Alex Cheatle came up with the idea for Ten Group while recovering from malaria
Whether you’d like to test drive a Maserati, find tickets to a World Cup match, or get the latest Gucci handbag ready and waiting for you when you arrive in Milan for a weekend’s shopping break, Alex Cheatle is the man to know.
The founder of concierge service Ten Lifestyle is a Mr Fixit for the affluent who promises to take all the effort out of enjoying your money – assuming you have quite a lot of it.
‘We’re the biggest source of business for the top restaurants in London,’ says Cheatle, who vows to serve up last-minute places at London’s swankiest eateries, however hard ordinary mortals find it to secure a table.
Mayfair’s art-filled Sexy Fish – where a Krug Grande champagne costs £290 and pepper crusted wagyu tataki sets you back £38.60 a head – and Sushi Samba on the 38th floor of the Heron Tower in the City of London are currently top of the favourites list.
‘They will hold back tables for us. When the public calls, those same restaurants say they are full,’ he adds. There’s a simple phrase he says he lives by: ‘If we can’t do it, nobody can.’
Calls are already coming in for tickets to England World Cup games. It might seem to be a bit of a brag but Cheatle says he’s prepared to give more or less anything a go – and it seems nothing is impossible if you have the cash to pay for it. One member arrived on a ski-ing holiday only to realise he’d left his wallet at home: an errand-runner was sent to his London home and flew out to France to drop it off in person.
Cheatle has found an elephant for a wedding, delivered a games console to a remote and uneventful hunting trip in Scandinavia and organised for the daughter of one member to fulfil a dream to play the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral.
‘All those weird and wonderful things,’ he concedes, before he corrects himself: ‘Well, not necessarily weird.’
‘We only really turn down requests when it’s something we think we shouldn’t do. Happily people don’t usually ask us for anything distasteful,’ says 48-year-old Cheatle, who lives in Queen’s Park in West London, and whose stake in the firm is worth around £11million.
Mayfair’s art-filled Sexy Fish, pictured, and Sushi Samba on the 38th floor of the Heron Tower in the City of London are currently top of Cheatle’s favourites list
‘We had a very wealthy member want to buy access to the Oscars and there are very valid security reasons why that’s not possible. But we were able to get them into some of the very best after-parties – and they were happy, even though we couldn’t get them exactly what they wanted.’
The firm’s two million global members range from what Cheatle calls the ‘mass affluent’ – any household with a combined income of more than £100,000 – to ‘high-net worth’, which means liquid assets of £1 million or more.
It has individual memberships from £130 a month but you are more likely to find yourself a Ten customer through your bank – as Coutts, HSBC and Visa have agreements with the firm for their wealthy customers.
Alex Cheatle’s rise from Dungeons & Dragons to the grandest hotels
Age: 48 but ‘I’m probably about 34 in my head’.
Lives: Queen’s Park, North West London.
Favourite film? The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Favourite book? The Lord Of The Rings. He says: ‘I’m a geek at heart. My first business was related to the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons: designing a new character class, Snake Dancer, and selling the character sheets for £2 each.’
Best advice you have received? ‘People that find it easy to trust are often themselves highly trustworthy.’
Tip for the top? ‘Learn to love investing in technology rather than resenting the cost.’
Family: Dr Natalie Cheatle, a child and family psychologist. Two children, a daughter aged 13, and an 11-year-old son.
How it all started: ‘We set up the business in the spare room of a shared flat. Now we’ve got 20 offices around the world.’
So do high-end brands such as luxury watch company Patek Philippe, jeweller Cartier and car marque Maserati – although if you do want a test drive, you may have to prove you have the money to buy one.
Ten has grown by 30 per cent over its two most recent financial years and last November it floated on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM market valuing the company at more than £100 million. The shares have since taken a knock, falling 26 per cent in April – but Cheatle remains confident that the future is bright and has spent £20 million on technology in recent years to back that up.
He argues Ten’s primary advantage is that members can trust the service because the firm receives its income from membership fees alone, rather than relying on commission for touting specific restaurants or events. He says hard-bitten executives can’t quite believe the business model is so simple because they are expecting ‘hidden revenue streams’ – making money in ways that are not immediately obvious to consumers such as selling information about users on to third parties – so common in tech firms and most notoriously at Facebook.
‘Our business makes total sense to a 15-year-old, but explaining it to a 50-year-old captain of industry is incredibly hard. They assume there are hidden catches – that we might be selling personal data or getting commission and playing games with customers, but we’re not.’
Cheatle grew up in Chingford and his first job was on Walthamstow market selling curtain cloth. At home his mother, a PA, demanded he spoke the ‘Queen’s English’, but he says he developed another dialect for the market stall.
After graduating in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, he found himself a ‘classic brand marketing manager’ at Procter & Gamble, where his brands included Oil of Olay. But he had already begun to formulate the principles for his own business. ‘At P&G, it’s fair to say that the brands I worked on spent a lot more on marketing than they did on research and development. It was more effective to tell people your products were brilliant rather than to make them brilliant.
‘But I wanted to make a business I could be really proud of, it wasn’t necessarily about making money as an absolute guiding principle. If I wanted that I’d have gone to work at a hedge fund – even in 1992 that was the easiest way to make pots of money.’
His idea for Ten began to accelerate when he took six months off work to travel and germinate ideas – and ended up with malaria after a stint in Cambodia. It got worse after he arrived in the US and he ended up convalescing in San Francisco – ‘thank God I’d taken out medical insurance for the first time in my life’.
It was the height of dotcom fever when online firms were attracting crazy valuations. Despite professing money was not his guiding principle, when Yahoo was valued at $1 billion, it spurred him on to start his business.
High-end brands such as luxury watch company Patek Philippe, jeweller Cartier and car marque Maserati (pictured), have agreements with The Ten Group for their wealthy customers
Tall and in good shape – he puts his lack of paunchiness down to nervous energy – Cheatle says the biggest change since he started in 1998 is restaurant bragging rights.
‘Back then it was more about getting tickets to events. Most people weren’t as obsessed with food as they are now and getting into restaurants wasn’t as socially competitive.
‘People used to ask, ‘Where did you stay?’ when you went abroad 20 years ago. Now they say, ‘Where did you eat?’ Dining then was 5 per cent of the business, now it’s almost a quarter. People call us and want to know not only about the restaurant, but about the chef, the best thing on the menu.’
Tickets still run second followed by travel and, fast-growing, a zest for must-have retail products.
Clearly irrepressible, Cheatle even turns his brush with financial disaster – when the business almost went under in the wake of the dotcom implosion – into a positive. The firm went into a so-called voluntary arrangement that he says ‘didn’t feel very voluntary at the time because we were running out of cash’. It was, he says, ‘an awful experience’.
His family hadn’t backed him with start-up cash but some had come from friends, which was uncomfortable. ‘It’s in the bad times when your values really get tested. In the good times it’s easy.’
But he says: ‘They stuck with us and we gave them shares in the new business. The majority of them are still in and have still got shares.’
Now he wants to grow the firm currently worth £78 million and strike deals with more firms to offer his services to their most valued employees as well as customers. ‘We want to get deeper into restaurants, hotels, live entertainment. As we grow in scale we might be able to charge for jets to fly people out to big events last minute – a Champions League final for example.’
The company has 20 offices around the world and Cheatle says increasing scale makes his life simpler rather than more complicated. ‘The world’s well-off and affluent have got a lot more in common than people think,’ he says.