John George – JAG Communications

Twenty years ago John George lived on a houseboat. Today he flies his airplane between homes in four countries – and runs JAG Communications, Britain’s third largest independent mobile retailer.
Apart from sustaining a heavy workload, John George has the gift of an exceptional memory. “At school in Cornwall I was fairly indolent but always managed to sail through exams after a few frantic cramming sessions.

“It’s amazing what you can absorb on the bus on your way to an exam hall.”

His first career choices were between the RAF and the Merchant Navy. “I ended up going to sea with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 1977. I served for two years and the highlight was a world tour, so I had a good few years’ worth of travel in one concentrated dose before I started afresh on dry land.”

This was in the motor trade – originally in Cornwall, but shortly afterwards in London with the Cowie Group. It was a huge operation, which has now evolved into Arriva. “My wife Sue and I lived on a houseboat at Northolt, which wasn’t quite Little Venice. So we were some distance away from Richard Branson and missed the chance to pop next door and borrow some teabags.

“In 1987 I won the Vauxhall Service Manager Gold Award and was offered a choice of prizes. Ever the technophile, I chose a mobile phone and was hooked immediately.

“At the time we were putting cellphones in cars and I produced a business plan that would put us into the Service Provider space. Tom Cowie, our Chairman, turned it down – correctly, as it happened – but I was smitten by the opportunities the mobile market offered.”

The result was that George returned to Cornwall to set up JAG Communications in 1989. “There was virtually no coverage in Cornwall and our first store was a 1920s railway carriage at Par. Mobile retailers were thin on the ground and on Saturdays we used to have queues stretching for 100 yards outside the door. Customers even drove from South Wales – ads in Exchange and Mart pulled them in.”

"We’re still expansionist, but we’re not hell-bent on growth at all costs … "

From such modest beginnings JAG Communications has grown to an 82-strong network in the South of England with a northerly presence in Oxford. “We’re still expansionist, but we’re not hell-bent on growth at all costs … We seep, and that seepage will stretch to the Midlands fairly soon.”

The company HQ is in Bodmin and George is domiciled in Andorra with homes in Guernsey, Spain and Cornwall. “You could say I’m rootless and it’s one reason why I took my pilot’s licence almost three years ago. I fly a TBN700 turboprop and in a four-day stretch recently I flew from the UK to Guernsey, then Alicante, Carcassonne and Andorra before returning to Cornwall.

“Everywhere I go there are ADSL lines and systems that keep me in real time contact with everything that’s going on.”

He prefers individual pursuits and has competed successfully in British Touring Car events. “I’m not up with the professionals, but I hold a pretty good ranking among the amateurs. I’m also a keen pistol shot and was a member of the winning British team in the mid 90s. It’s sad that one of the few sports at which the Brits are good has been banned.”

He has also tried ice skating and show jumping. “My daughter Kailey and son Kevin were keen, and I just tagged along.” Kailey now runs JAG’s payroll function, while Kevin is working his way through the business and currently manages one of the shops.

The family’s main home is on Guernsey where Sue, an animal lover, fusses over a white German Shepherd and a Bull Mastiff Doberman cross. “They are big softies,” says George. “Just like me.”

At a time when you can find half a dozen mobile retailers within a quarter mile radius of virtually every town centre, you might think that JAG’s organic growth would be about to slow down. George disagrees. “What we sold 20 years ago was largely a substitute for a public call box. Today we sell products and services that help everyone get more out of life. There’s lots more mileage yet.”

PERSONAL FILE
My sport Motor racing. I admit to finding all team sports boring
My night out Hard to say, since I’m teetotal. But I enjoy good stand-up acts such as Lee Evans
My books I stick to text books of the “how to” variety
In another life I’d drive in Formula 1
Unfulfilled ambition To complete 24 hours at Le Mans
Dream car I’ve had them all – but I look forward to racing the Honda Integra

TRACK RECORD
1977-79    Royal Fleet Auxiliary
1979-88    Service Manager, Cowie Motor Group
1988    Created JAG Communications, now the third largest independent UK mobile retailer