Javad Marandi is best known for his glamorous investments in the high fashion brands Anya Hindmarch and Emilia Wickstead and for his close association with Soho House Group on a variety of ventures. Most notably, he's the owner of the private members club's Oxfordshire outpost, which is a favourite with the Chipping Norton set and frequented by a raft of A-listers, including Adele, David Beckham and Meghan Markle. But the British entrepreneur's life could have been very different if it hadn't been for one seemingly innocuous piece of advice.
Just qualified as a chartered accountant with PwC, the professional services firm, in 1991, Marandi was offered a job with the investment bank, Morgan Stanley.
Most would have jumped at the chance but, as he takes up the story, he was cautioned against it.
"There was a second offer, from the Coca-Cola Company to join as a business development manager in Vienna. My mentor at PwC suggested it was already obvious that I was not really what you may call the office-dwelling type and that business development seemed better suited to my talents, such as they are."
He adds: "I have never regretted taking that advice."
But if 1991 represented a sharp turning point for Marandi, it was not the first. He was born in Tehran in 1968, son of a property developer and a teacher. These were boom years for Iran, with the economy powered by oil revenues. A 2,500-year history, one of the longest of any nation in the world, bolstered political stability under a constitutional monarchy.
All seemed set fair for the future, yet, as we know now, the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 changed everything. The ruler, the Shah, was deposed and a revolutionary Islamic government installed. Marandi Senior had been in no way connected with the previous regime, but it seemed that Iran's new rulers equated a person's business success with the fact that they must have been up to no good in some way.
He recalls: "It became obvious before too long that our previous way of life had become unsustainable for as long as we stayed in Tehran. Fortunately, we had a small flat in Notting Hill, London, that we had used as a base for family holidays in Europe, so in 1979/1980, my mother, sister and I came to England, while my father had to stay behind for two years as the authorities confiscated our assets and delayed giving him an exit visa."
Marandi describes this first "bend in the river" as a traumatic event that fundamentally changed him from a young age, giving him what he describes as a hunger for stability. As the family had a place in London, they were able to come to the UK as residents rather than refugees, but, he remembers, it was still a huge upheaval in everything, from the language to the school system.
"Our home was fairly cramped and Notting Hill in those days was a million miles away from becoming a destination for the 'Notting Hill Set', he says, adding: "It was creative and diverse but it was also gritty and impoverished."
"But Britain gave us a home when we had none, something I shall never forget." Marandi learnt the English language through a love of popular music. "I can literally recite the words to every song by The Police, even the obscure ones!"
He is grateful also to the discipline he read at Cardiff University, electrical and electronic engineering – his sister read the same subject at King's College, London. Marandi says: "Anyone who knows me may be surprised by my choice, given that I have trouble changing a plug! But it gave me a framework for problem-solving that has been of very great value throughout my subsequent life."
Equally valuable, he believes, was his accountancy training, which gave him an "unparalleled" preparation for the business world.
Having taken his mentor's advice, he was off to Vienna for Coca-Cola, from where he applied for a more senior role with the company in Turkey. This very nearly went badly wrong. He could speak Azeri but not Turkish, despite which handicap he managed to survive the early rounds of the selection process, falling at the final fence when the top boss interviewed him in Turkish and he had to admit understanding not a word he was saying.
Marandi recalls; "Knowing the language was a strict requirement, so I didn't get the job, but he was so impressed that I had managed to advance that far that instead he offered me the position of business development manager for Central Asia and the Caucasus." In this role he oversaw the opening of the first Coca-Cola factory of the former Soviet Union in the Republic of Georgia. Doing the honours was the country's President Eduard Shevardnadze, an internationally renowned former Soviet Foreign Minister who had played a key role in the colossal changes that had transformed what had been the USSR.
"It was a great privilege for us," he says, "but he went a little 'off brand' when, on drinking the first bottle, he declared that 'it tastes like Pepsi'!
Philip Morris International, one of the world's big-four tobacco companies, approached Marandi with the idea of replicating for them his work for Coca-Cola, and he joined in 1993 as business development manager for Africa and the Middle East and moved up in 1995 to area manager for the Caucasus and Turkmenistan, where he remained until 1998. Philip Morris offered him the business development position for Russia, but by now it was time to strike out on his own. With the whole region going through a major transformation, opportunities seemed to be there for the taking.
Today, he says; "There has been a fair amount of criticism of this region, and as with much of the world, it is not without its challenges. But it's important to recognise that it has undergone a huge amount of change in a relatively short space of time, since the fall of the Soviet Union. My wife Narmina is originally from Azerbaijan, where women have the same legal rights as men and where the right for them to vote was introduced even before the US. The country has one of the fastest-growing economies in the Commonwealth of Independent States and is one of the most accommodating in the world to people of different religions, with faith groups co-existing harmoniously. So my overall personal experience has been positive."
Marandi founded two businesses in Azerbaijan, a distribution company and a firm specialising in outdoor advertising. With this second business, he approached the authorities and offered to build brand-new bus shelters in return for the right to the advertising revenue from them for five years. This was perhaps too successful, as, at the end of five years, he was contractually required to hand the shelters and the advertising rights back to the municipality. "Not a sustainable model in the long term, but good while it lasted!" he recalls.
His distribution company approached Imperial Tobacco, offering to act for them in Azerbaijan. He started with one container of cigarettes, then British American Tobacco asked him to do likewise, as did Japan Tobacco. Thus he was acting as distributor for three of the industry's big four. The business grew from one container a month to about 100.
Spreading its wings beyond tobacco, the distribution business was approached by a Motorola joint venture in 2000, and entered the fast growing market for mobile communications in Azerbaijan. "We went from 10,000 subscribers to 300,000, being, at one point, the most rapidly expanding mobile network in the world," he says, adding: "Alas, as with the bus shelters we were doing rather too well, and at the end of a five-year contract, the Motorola joint venture took the work back in-house."
By way of consolation, he had already purchased the franchise for McDonald's in Azerbaijan from 2004. Starting with two failing restaurants, he expanded this to 19, and has found it to be not merely a very profitable business, but a resilient one, as seen in its recent performance during the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2010, with two children under 10 and another baby on the way, it seemed to him and his wife the right time to return to the UK, to be closer to his mother and sister. So, having headed west from Tehran all those years ago, then east again, from Vienna to Turkey to the Caucasus, it was time to go west once more. It has been quite a journey to date, and he is happy to share what he has learned on the way.
The first, says Marandi, is that it is people and nothing else that make businesses and that the success or failure of an enterprise is intimately bound up with the characters of those running it. "Bad managers can destroy a good business and good managers can make a success of a mediocre business," he adds.
A second lesson is that absolutely nothing, beats hard work. In fact, in pursuing business success, hard work is all there is. A particular bugbear is, he says, trite advice to young people to "follow your dream". Says Marandi: "That would have done the younger me no favours. Not only do many people not have a dream, but an awful lot of working life can be grinding, even boring. It is hard work and commitment that can make it enjoyable."
There have, he says, been two stages in his business life so far. In the first, he had nothing to lose so felt able to take risks, not least that of turning down that first job offer. In the second stage, he has switched his focus to preservation. "When I reached the age that my father had reached when he lost everything, I said to myself: 'I don't want it to happen to my family.'"
But he is neither defensive nor downbeat. He has made many investments in continental Europe and in the UK, across multiple sectors, including the recent acquisition of Conran, one of the most iconic design and lifestyle retailers in the world, and he still retains business interests in Azerbaijan.
There has been fevered speculation that Marandi and Soho House's Nick Jones could soon be bringing a similar project to the much feted Soho Farmhouse to upstate New York in the near future. But he refuses to be drawn on the subject, merely stating that 'it's very early'.
Of the UK, he says: "Since arriving as a boy, I very quickly felt British and was made to feel welcome. The UK is a wonderful, insatiable melting pot and I am proud to be from it.
"It continues to be a huge pleasure and blessing to be able to contribute economically and philanthropically, particularly given the current difficulties and uncertainties that lie ahead."
NOTE: This article is a contribution and does not necessarily represent the views of IBTimes UK