Slumped back in a chair in his Wardour Street office, Soho Estates boss John James has the stereotypical property tycoon look: pale, male and grey-suited. But his entrance into the industry couldn’t have been more different from his posh peers. For starters, he’s an ex-catwalk model whose father-in-law and mentor was a porn baron.
James, now 66, is the son of a butcher. He had no property experience before 1987. Rather than being Home Counties like most property types, he hails from Cumbria, as his accent testifies. Skinny, tall and handsome, he moved to London in the seventies to seek his fame and fortune. As he puts it: “The hills and lakes are delightful, but when I left I was only after nightclubs and women.”
After a stint modelling for the likes of Levi’s, he slipped into working in the West End’s nightclub scene, working at the Embassy among other clubs. There, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of David Bowie and Boy George.
Struck by his easy way with the punters, Peter Holt, a gossip columnist at the Evening Standard, recommended him to the most powerful man in Soho — the strip club impresario, porn and property baron Paul Raymond.
Raymond was relaunching the notoriously naughty Windmill Theatre, famed for its nude cabaret acts, and hired James as a general manager.
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There, he met Raymond’s hard-partying daughter Debbie, whose tragic life is the subject of the hit movie about Raymond, The Look of Love.
The pair fell in love and married.
Raymond moved James to his property business, helping collect rents, agree leases and learn the ropes. The schooling sounds tough but was as good as it gets. “Paul Raymond was a very autocratic man,” James recalls. “He told me what he wanted and I kept my mouth shut and did it. I basically learned on the job and eventually he made me a director.”
Tragically, Debbie died of a drugs overdose in 1992, by which time she and James had separated. Her father never got over her death, and in 2008 passed away heartbroken.
Following the death of Paul Raymond, his family decided to separate the property portfolio between the Raymond and James families. For legal reasons, the arrangements agreed between the families and the trustees required court approval. That approval was subsequently given.
James and his second wife Jilly brought up the two girls and he has been in charge of their property holdings through Soho Estates since 2011. Pointing to a picture of one of his young granddaughters on his office wall — a future CEO, perhaps? — he smiles: “This is a family business.”
Fawn nowadays works in the business as a director. Last week she proudly opened her latest project, the Boulevard Theatre, built on the site of the famous old Raymond Revuebar cabaret venue. India Rose works in the art world but, says James, “can join the business whenever she wants”.
Still privately owned, Soho Estates now has a £1 billion portfolio of offices, shops, restaurants and bars. James has helped transform (or, critics argue, destroy) the red-light district, turning it into trendy office and restaurant locations. “My job is to repair properties and put them all back into good order. To keep them for the next 150 years.”
Next up for revamps will be sites in Leicester Square, he says. The company is also building a 350,000sq ft retail and office block by Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Road and is revamping famous burlesque venue Madame Jojo’s.
James regularly gets flak for gentrifying the area famous for its sleazy sex shops and small film businesses. Stephen Fry (who starred in the movie about the family), has criticised the threat to “the most creative square mile in the world”.
James counters: “If your idea of saving Soho is ‘do not develop Soho’ then it will decline in its attractiveness to tenants. Soho cannot sit still. There are plenty of alternatives for tenants, and if we are not allowed to make buildings fit for purpose and keep the vibrancy of the best entertainment district in London, it will suffer.”
As for sex shops, he says: “They have become retro. Basically the internet came and people didn’t need to go to these shops. The ones that remain are more a tourist attraction.”
Brian Bickell, boss of neighbouring Carnaby Street and Chinatown landlord Shaftesbury, says it’s a clean-up that needs to happen. James is, he says, “futureproofing the estate for both the family and Soho”.
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John Walker, the former longstanding chief planner at Westminster city council, says: “John James knows the DNA of the area and is delivering development that takes it into the 21st Century without sanitising it.” Walker, who is now a director at real estate consultancy firm CTF, adds that James is the “the walking encyclopedia of Soho”.
When discussing the current tough market conditions, James is relaxed. Sure, he’s aware of a resistance to invest in London, where retail property values have been hurt by shop chains retrenching. And yes, he is “as concerned as the next man about Brexit”. But in the round, he remains bullish.
Perhaps that confidence was learned from his father-in-law in the 1990s recession. Raymond would never borrow money, which left him free, James says, to declare: “‘Recession, what recession? If nobody pays rent we will still own the building. We’ll be fine.’” James adds: “We gave tenants time to pay.”
He won’t talk about the hedonistic times detailed in the movie, beyond denying its claim that Raymond gave Debbie cocaine while she was in labour. He say, though, that he moved from clubs to real estate because Debbie felt his running the Windmill was “not conducive to marriage”.
These days he spends less time in Soho, commuting in around three days a week from his arable farm in Cranleigh, Surrey.
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He has no plans for retirement. Nor is he tempted to float on the Stock Exchange, although City types have asked him to several times. “The only people that ask you questions like that are going to earn a fat fee. We are never going to sell our properties.”
So take note, bankers. This is definitely not your typical bricks and mortar man.
Update (12/12/2019): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Howard Raymond had been involved in a family dispute over the estate of his father (the late Paul Raymond) and had received 20% of that estate. Howard Raymond was not involved in any dispute, legal or otherwise, over his father’s estate and did not receive 20% of it. The Evening Standard apologises for any embarrassment or upset caused by this incorrect statement.