One of three new investors on the BBC's Dragons' Den, Touker Suleyman is not a name with which many people were familiar before he hit our screens over the summer. But with a series of clothing businesses and brands to his name, he certainly has a tale to tell, and the scars to show for it. Nick Martindale reports

Like many new entrants to Dragons' Den, Touker Suleyman was a successful and established entrepreneur quietly getting on with running his businesses when the call came that would transform his world, and plunge him into the full glare of the media spotlight. "I didn't really know what I was letting myself in for," he says. "I went for a screen test and then another, and they said they wanted to have me because I added something different to the show." 

He first appeared on our screens over the summer, joining the new-look line-up along with fellow debutants Sarah Willingham and Nick Jenkins, but soon found himself at home. "I took to it like a duck to water because I work with start-ups all day long anyway," he says. "I'm not just looking to make an investment but at whether I add value to a business. Everybody needs a mentor, and everybody needs contacts, and that's what it's about."

Like the other new dragons, though, he found those entrepreneurs who were in demand tended to veer towards the more established and familiar judges of Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden, including the founders of the board game Accentuate. "Peter and Deborah have been there a long time, so they know how to play it," he says. "When they're interested, they'll step back and wait and shield their cards. I was bidding more than they wanted and offering more than they needed but they were still going with the old judges. But if I do it a second year then that might change, because people will know me."

The success of Timberkits - a wooden model business run by Sarah Reast and Phil Wilson in which Suleyman took a 30% stake in return for a £40,000 investment - might also help convince any remaining doubters. "They've had a tremendous response from being on Dragons' Den, and we've opened doors for them," he says. "We've been to meetings with Marks & Spencer and we're about to appoint an agent in the US; so a sleeping little business in Wales is now bidding to national buyers." Suleyman has also managed to halve the sourcing costs, he says.

One of the aspects that attracted him to Timberkits was working in a totally new sector. "I wanted to get a feel of investing outside of my comfort zone and I liked the fact that they were unique and there wasn't a lot of competition," he says. "But most of all I like Sarah, and that's what you back first; the people that run it, before the business."

Under the radar

Part of the difficulty for Suleyman is his own relatively low profile - his trading company even goes by that name - before coming on to the show. Today, his business interests include Low Profile, a clothing manufacturer supplying retail stores in the UK with factories in Turkey, Bulgaria and Georgia, which he took over with his brother in 1984 and on which he built much of his success, sitting alongside brands including Hawes & Curtis and women's fashion label Ghost; both of which he took from the verge of bankruptcy and built up alongside his own manufacturing operation.

"Hawes & Curtis was broke, but it had a lot of heritage and was nearly 100 years old, and I wondered how I could add value to that," he recalls. "I bought the business for £1, on the basis that I would inherit the debt, so for about £100,000 I had the brand, the shop and the stock." Since then he's developed the brand into other areas beyond shirts, including suits, jackets and knitwear. Ghost was a similar story, with Suleyman

taking over the struggling manufacturer, and seeking to build it into an international brand in its own right, with its own stores and concessions. 

Yet it is perhaps his other investments in smaller businesses which attracted the attention of the Dragons' Den researchers, and provide him with the experience of developing and mentoring entrepreneurs which will prove essential in his new role. These include stakes in casual boat shoe business Docks Rio, which imports shoes from Brazil; online bicycle marketplace Bikesoup; luxury handbag manufacturer Huxley & Cox; digital marketing firm Intelligent Futures; and bridal business Maids to Measure.

Suleyman's approach to all these - and any potential future Dragons' Den investments - is clear; he has no intention of running the businesses but can help provide the foundations on which they can flourish. "They're all start-ups, and all start-ups need capital, so it's a case getting them on the right track," he says. "So they've all got some synergy, but my secret is they're all under one roof. They're all in my office in Paddington, and we have one IT team, one reception and one accounts department; so the burn rate of all these businesses is low."

It also means that he can be around each and every business, providing advice and guidance when needed. "I'll float round the office talking to this one and then that one, and making sure that everything happens," he says. "But it means I can take on other businesses, give them a couple of desks and a computer and they're in business here, without any rates and insurance, or any lighting, heating or telephone bills."

Yet all this will only get entrepreneurs so far, and Suleyman firmly believes the drive needs to come from within. "They have to really believe in themselves and want to do it," he says. "You also need to want the change. Life is all about wanting change; you take action, and you get results."

Having a unique selling point is also beneficial, he says, although he believes understanding the competition is more important than being the only provider of a certain product or service. "You've got to know your competition because without that you can't have a business plan," he says. "But if you look at the most successful businesspeople, they often don't invent anything; they copy traditional businesses and made them better. The other thing I say to people is that failure is only a result through a journey; it's not the end. You've got to keep on knocking on those doors, because if you don't no one is going to open them for you."

Comeback king

When Suleyman speaks about failure, it is from first-hand experience, and he's a good example of how to bounce back. His family moved from northern Cyprus to the UK when he was just five years old, and his earliest taste of business came through working in his parents' restaurant business. "I would help out where I could as a youngster," he recalls. "I wouldn't say it was in my genes, but it was definitely in the back of my mind that I wanted to be successful, and be my own person. But it those days it was not so easy to set up a business. Today, you can do it very quickly and there are many new ideas around but it wasn't the same back then."

Instead, his parents were keen for him to have a profession, and the young Suleyman initially trained as an accountant, only stumbling on his first business when taking some clothes back to his grandmother, who wanted to supply her friends. "I came across somebody who was in the clothing business and had a factory in East London," he says. "We went into partnership but it didn't last long because they weren't really interested, and I bought them out. But within a short time I became successful, at a very young age. I thought then that I could do things better than anybody else." The business became Kingsland Models, and grew to become a supplier for many UK high street retailers, including C&A, Dorothy Perkins and Top Shop.

His downfall, though, was he started investing in other businesses. Initially he invested in another clothing business by the name of Mellins, but was then persuaded - at the height of the 1980s City boom - that Mellins should become the majority shareholder in the retailer Bamber Stores. "They had an old image, and I thought I could add value to that business," he says. The deal went ahead - Suleyman admits he did not do sufficient research - and his two other companies began supplying Bamber.

To cut a long story short, the business was in desperate need of cash and on the verge of bankruptcy; any assets having been wildly overvalued. A rumoured rescue by Polly Peck founder Asil Nadir came to nothing, and Suleyman found himself forced to resign, bringing down his whole business estate. "It became a pack of cards: the public company collapsed and my private company collapsed," he says. "One minute I was very, very rich; the next I'd lost everything. I owed money to the bank, and had to sell my house."

He managed to stave off going bankrupt himself but a chastised Suleyman came out having learned a couple of tough lessons. "It was just the experience, at a very young age, of not having done my due diligence," he says. "But I also learned that I couldn't trust people who you would think you could trust."

Suleyman found himself with no alternative but to pick himself up and start again, working alongside his brother in his cash-and-carry business. "Blood is thicker than water and my demise meant that my brother and I got together, and we built Low Profile," he says. "With all my contacts, we got it up and running as a manufacturer, and then we had a lucky break." This came in the form of one of Turkey's most prominent textile manufacturers, who was looking to break into the UK.

"It was great timing for us, and we made good margins," he recalls. "British Home Stores was a big customer for us at the time, and we grew very prudently, and ran the business like a public company. We took a salary, and the rest of it we either re-invested in the business or in commercial property." Within a few years, Suleyman was back, building a second business empire.

Brand new vision

Today, his main focus remains firmly on his various business interests, and he has little time to get dragged into the limelight, despite the higher profile he now inevitably has. "I love my work, I love products and I'm happy with my career," he says. "I'm not looking to be a celebrity; I can't forget my day job." His immediate preoccupation is a two-year plan to grow Hawes & Curtis, including expanding internationally, while he's also set on continuing to transform Ghost from a supplier of clothing to high street retailers to a brand in its own right, following its relaunch in April.

This, too, is set to go international; Suleyman has just appointed an agent to expand into the US. "We may have our own store in New York but you have to test these markets, and then decide on the best way for you," he says. "A lot of English brands go to the US and come back really wounded, so you've just got be extra careful and make sure you don't make any mistakes along the way."

In time, he accepts he will take more of a back seat, particularly if Dragons' Den yields more investments, but there's no sign that he's easing off just yet. "I look at it as being on a journey, and success is part of that journey," he says. "I'm always asking myself where I want to be in three or five years' time. I certainly don't see myself stopping working."