Where Are They Now? Stephen Dawson

What prompted you to open a village shop?
It was my wife Gitte’s idea. Our local store in Freshford five miles outside Bath had shut down, as had the one in neighbouring Limpley Stoke. Shops are the lifeblood of a community, especially for older people, so in 2008 we set about raising £300,000 to open our own community store, providing affordable basics, local produce and a café. It is staffed by 60 volunteers, with all profits going to community projects.

Do you miss private equity?
What I miss the most is probably what I miss the least: the buzz. It’s a very exciting environment but is a young person’s game; that’s very hard to do day-in day-out for years on end. In all, I was at ECI Partners for nearly 30 years, joining in 1985, taking on a senior role when ECI’s first managing partner Tony Lorenz died very suddenly in 1990.

Tony’s death must have been a big shock.
Yes – he was only 46. He collapsed and died from a blood clot in his lung. A huge shock. Fortunately, we had a very good senior team – a big issue with investors – and David Wansbrough, Jonathan Baker and I stepped up as senior partners. I ended up running ECI from 1995 until 2002, staying on in a non-exec role until 2014. After Tony’s death, we talked very openly about succession planning, the need not to rely on a single figure and how to pass the baton on to the younger generation.

What was your defining moment at ECI?
The buyout of ICL’s computer disaster recovery business Guardian iT in 1994. The deal went right to the wire and was our biggest deal to date – around 15x price over earnings – completed to a very tight timescale. We realised a 23x return following the float in 1998. The Sunday Times recently ranked ECI as the only private equity firm to have invested in three or more of Britain’s 100 fastest-growing companies, which really does prove that we worked with the best and most exciting companies around.

Are any of the skills transferable?
The great thing is that the private equity model can be applied to so many situations, as can the idea of adding value. After stepping back from running ECI, in 2002 I co-founded Impetus, the UK pioneer of venture philanthropy, where we applied many of these methods to help grow charities. And I’m a trustee of Sanitation First, a charity that installs toilets in Indian slums. The challenge is the same – trying to professionalise a young dynamic organisation.

But surely a village shop must be different?
Well, some of the challenges remain the same. The people issues are the most difficult ones: keeping people on board, making the 60 volunteers feel involved. When we set up, we were all amateurs; only one of the board had run a shop before. And inevitably some of the decisions are controversial, notably the decision to extend the café so it was big enough to act as a community hub. Village politics can be worse than office politics.

So what does a typical day look like for you now?
Multi-tasking is the best summary. I’m trying not to run things anymore, but to be a catalyst to help organisations and community projects develop. I’ve stepped down from the chairman role at the shop, and much of my time is taken up with Sanitation First; 90 million people live in India without proper sanitation. It’s a massive health issue.