Published: 00:00, 17 December 2014
by Mark Bloxham, managing director of James Villas
I walk into a pretty country pub in a peaceful Kent village and spot a relaxed gent sat at the bar, half pint in hand, tapping away on his iPhone and chatting casually to the bar team.
Meet James, as in James Villas, based in Maidstone. James Needham founded and ran the company for nearly 25 years, becoming the largest Villa specialist in the UK.
There is a lot more of him in James Villas than you might expect so I wanted to understand why more than just the brand name has remained as his legacy.
I get a firm handshake and a warm greeting with a surprising south-east London accent, surprising considering he was born in Sevenoaks.
Born in 1947 to a well-to-do family, James grew up in Kent. He decided not to follow his father into accountancy and instead went with his passion for engineering to become an apprentice mechanic at VW Motors.
James met and married his wife Shelagh and, aged 19, became a father.
His father-in-law played a pivotal role in his career and had a strong influence on his ethical and business beliefs.
Jim Stone, a communist, supported the trade unions within the printing and press organisations in the heyday of Fleet Street, then the centre of Britain’s newspapers.
He pushed the 21-year-old James Needham into the print industry, starting with a role at the Stratford Express as a copy reader.
James said: “I got into the job, moved to the Evening Standard in the 70s and stayed there for 13 years enjoying specifically a role in the trade union Natsopa. I enjoyed being a spokesperson for our working conditions and negotiating agreements with the management.”
You can tell he enjoyed his time on Fleet Street and that it fitted in with his ethical stance.
“You earned good money and worked in good conditions, that’s why I am still a believer in the trade unions.”
James and his wife had always liked travelling and wanted a holiday home which they could use year round.
“We ended up buying in the Barcorola Club in Lanzarote. After some great holidays we made a deal with the owner of the apartments, the complex would let out the apartment all year and pay me £200 per month net of expenses. I could also use the apartment myself for four weeks of the year.
“So I thought - I own an apartment, I got three to four weeks free holiday every year and I’m £200 pounds better off every month - better do that again.”
It was rented out so regularly that his Lanzarote neighbours asked him to do the same for their properties.
James soon became the unofficial travel agent for much of Fleet Street.
“It was always 'if you want a holiday, go and see Jim at the Evening Standard, get one of Jim’s villas',” he said.
Redundancy from the Standard in 1985 gave James the freedom to take the idea from hobby to business start-up.
After a second apartment purchase in Lanzarote, he moved quickly in consolidating his two properties to buy his first villa.
“I wanted to do this properly, but I thought I can’t call it Jim’s Villas, it sounds a bit common, so we named it James,” he said.
From 1985 to 1989 James Villas grew every year. Working from the spare bedroom in the house James and Shelagh did everything from answering the phones to posting the tickets.
Until the onset of the recession in the early 1990s.
Darren Needham, James’s son, a ‘Thatcher child’, as James refers to him, had spent some time in the City and, as the recession hit, he wanted out but wasn’t sure what his next venture would be.
Darren shared his father’s drive and beliefs so James offered him a partnership. Darren agreed and James had to tell him the truth that “the business was £20,000 in debt at this point and he now owed me £10,000”.
Their shared passions and hobbies had kept them close.
“A lot of his friends used to give him stick and ask him if he was still working for his dad, but it was never like that.
"He was a bright, intelligent man, and I still think that, because we played together with the cars and the racing, we were able to work brilliantly as a team.”
James and Darren as a team started to rebuild the business post-recession and develop longer-term strategies.
Growth meant that they started recruiting for staff to support them - some of whom remain with James Villas to this day.
“We did some great things early on - one of Darren’s friends worked for a TV advertising company and, coming out of a recession they had lots of space but not so many advertisers.
"We paid a certain amount of money and got double the amount of time, as the channels didn’t want empty airtime.
"We were on the telly all the time and people used to say, ‘how come James Villas is everywhere?’ We grew about 40% a year, me tearing around Europe trying to find villas and Darren holding the fort at home. It was crazy times.”
I pushed James on how much he considers his success luck or judgement. He feels it is about 50-50.
"If you stop thinking about the business and start running it for the right reasons, the money will naturally follow...” - James Needham
“Being in the right place at the right time was luck but the judgement was the clever business decisions we made.
"We didn’t tag on to something that was good. We were creating something new. We were brave, we contracted flights - things that companies our size didn’t do.”
James also feels that his strong sense of ethics was a major factor in the company’s success.
“One of my principles - and something the company continues - is never renege on a contract.
"The reason a lot of our suppliers are still with us - and in the early days we were able to beat some of the big operators for the best properties is that we have never not paid an owner, broken contracts or anything like that, so word passes around, neighbours talk to neighbours.”
Through James’ and his son’s principles the James Villas business became ever more successful.
“Quite honestly Darren and I never did it for the money - we loved it. It’s something I say to a lot of people in business; if you stop thinking about the business and start running it for the right reasons, the money will naturally follow.”
By the turn of the millennium James had taken a back seat and the business was being managed by Darren.
Tragically, Darren was killed in a motor racing accident at Silverstone in 2004.
After a time, James Needham returned to the helm, but was already planning to sell the company.
“The big thing that went through my mind was I am 60-odd, if anything happens to me now Darren was gone, there was nobody to take over the business.
"It was a natural time to move on. I took that decision in 2006, and I think we sold in 2008. There were a lot of personal issues to deal with, so although we had a successful sale, it wasn’t a smooth personal process.”
I asked James how he felt about his own name being a brand six to eight years later. Does he still feel associated with it?
“You never lose the association. It is me, it has my name on it (the tab behind the bar was under the name James Villas), everybody knows me - some of the people I first employed are still there and are still friends and I will never lose that.”
James believes that the new owners have the same ethos that he and his son had.
“I see new TV commercials, the brochures and the website and love to have my opinion, and I am still very proud of the business. I was excited when the Wyndham Group bought it back from the VCs (venture capitalists) as they understand the holiday market and they have similar thoughts to my own - they invest and grow companies.
"It is about the customers, the owners and the staff that work at the company.”
How would James like to be remembered?
“Being fair. There is nothing better than selling somebody a good holiday, and in that process, making sure everybody gets something out of it - customers are happy, staff are happy and owners are happy.
"I look back and if I was going to do it again, I would do exactly the same.”
From arriving not knowing really what to expect, I leave hoping to get the opportunity to meet up again.
I understand what James wanted James Villas to become and he has achieved that.
His real achievement is that, nearly a decade later, those ethics, and the premise that he and his son started are still very much alive in the organisation today.