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Steve Rigby: The business of being a billionaire

Inside a six-storey building on Brook Street sits Sir Peter Rigby and his £1.8 billion company. The secret of success? Keeping it in the family. His son Steve discusses the future of their fortune

“There is the adage that the first generation makes it, the second generation grows it and the third generation breaks it.” Steve Rigby is discussing the future of his family empire over a cup of coffee. And while I have only just met the man, his sharp suit, steady eye contact, affable smile and firm handshake are all pointers that he would never allow his children to let a multi-million pound company go to the dogs. 

The Rigby Group PLC was originally set up in 1975 as a computer consultancy business by Steve’s father, Sir Peter Rigby, who was equipped with just £2,000 and the worry of a young family and a mortgage. It is now a £1.8 billion success story with more than 7,500 employees, and has since diversified to include airports, hotels, real estate, aviation and financial services. With his father at the helm as chairman and CEO, Steve takes the role of COO and his brother James, chief executive. 

It’s an even distribution of responsibilities now, but there must have been a number of arguments starting out. “There were plenty of those,” Steve smiles knowingly. “But we are differently skilled people. I am mathematical in my approach, strategic; my father is sales-orientated and good at statesman-type activity; and my brother is very operational. We manage to co-exist, but there are some very fraught moments!”

While Steve didn’t necessarily yearn to work for the company from a young age, after education there weren’t many other options on the table. “Reality dawns when you’re leaving school. I wasn’t particularly academic and was desperate to start work. I went into the family business when I was about 19. We started a retail company in the UK, which we latterly sold to PC World – that was my first serious adventure.” Now he oversees the real estate and financial services, and sits on the board of the technology and airport divisions.

It’s easy to tell that this man has his head in the game, be it learned or in his DNA. Questions are answered pleasantly, if not vaguely; secrecy and privacy seem particularly important to him. (Are there any famous people you have worked with? Yes. Any you would care to mention? No.) The noticeable lack of a tie and his laid-back attitude (no PR flapping about), suggest he would be a genuinely pleasant boss. 

Talking of Rigby & Rigby, a super prime property developer set up in 2006 that sits in the real estate portfolio, he says: “I can still go onto a building site and I know the labourers’ and carpenters’ names. Not just their names but their wives’ names and how many children they have. If you can remember those things, which is a hard thing to do, it means a lot to people.”

Steve has three children aged from nine to 17 with his wife, from whom he has recently separated. Will the kids be picked for the Rigby line-up? “It’s too early to tell. My eldest son is very maths-orientated and he’s going to read economics, so I am sure he will find his way into the business.” He insists there isn’t a requirement for them to join up, but also wants to instil a strong work ethic. “We try not to overindulge them. I certainly don’t want them to be trustafarians.” 

Certainly, Steve’s competitive nature – he races cars and plays polo – seems to have filtered down the family tree; his eldest has played polo for England. “My son and I used to play a lot of table tennis together,” Steve says, “and when he started beating me it almost got to the point of taking lessons again.” A quick Google and there is hardly a whisper about the family – they’re certainly no flashy Branson equivalent. 

Even holidays seem to be a low-key event: Steve takes his family to Bovey Castle, a 300-acre retreat in Devon that is part of the Rigby Eden Hotel Collection. “It’s a really magical place. I go there two or three times a year. It’s a proper children’s holiday, playing in the woods and streams. As it should be.” Besides this, he takes to the seas around Europe or the Caribbean. Is it all hands on deck? “It’s more sailing with a drink in your hand,” he laughs. 

When he’s back on home soil, he splits his time between a country retreat in the Midlands and a townhouse on Dover Street. “Mayfair, compared with other parts of London, is unique. I love the restaurants, bars, private members’ clubs and architecture. I never fail to walk around and see things that amaze me.”

It’s a pretty handy commute to his new office at 80 Brook Street, which has been decked out by Rigby & Rigby, with a few personal touches from Steve himself. Less like an office and more like a show home, the building, which belonged to a law firm for 65 years, is decked out with comfy sofas, accent colour cushions, dark wood shelves, perfume diffusers and glossy tomes. The drinks trolley next to the table looks particularly inviting. 

Steve shares a floor with his father and I ask what valuable lessons Peter has divulged. “He has taught me that hard work is the predication of any success in life. He taught me never to be afraid, never to be put off by the size of a challenge, and to have the confidence to knock on a door and ask for someone’s business.” He pauses and adds with a smile: “My father also tries to teach me patience, but I’m not so good at that one.” If that’s his only failing, I’m pretty sure the next generation is in good stead.