One of Wales’ most successful entrepreneurs tells how he went from living in poverty on a council estate to a multi-millionaire.
Paul Ragan is the brains behind one of the UK’s biggest private hire operators, one-time owner of Cardiff Devils, and a guest twice over on Channel Four’s Secret Millionaire.
He even once owned a couple of racehorses, including a Grand National runner, and he has an expensive-looking watch on his wrist, according to Wales Online.
But the entrepreneur started his journey after leaving school at 16 years old with only one O’ level behind him. He spent months unemployed and living on jobseekers allowance.
This all changed when a then 20-year-old Ragan found himself in charge of a £50m turnover business in London and with the opportunity to launch his own business.
Three years later Ragan started his Mataquote insurance company, which went on to sell for £10m twenty years later.
The now 53-year-old has opened up about his traumatic early years as he and his younger sister grew up having to endure the wild swings of their schizophrenic mother’s personalities.
“We’d come home from school to find biscuits for dinner,” he says. “We had no money – she was giving everything to the church and there was absolutely nothing left at all.
“It was very traumatic – crying yourself to sleep was just a normal thing in those days. I was happy spending hours kicking a ball against the wall and my sister had a doll and that’s all we had.
“Dad was my hero, we did everything together, but he went and my mum had a breakdown and became schizophrenic,”.
Ragan, who is now a father of four himself described how his mum used to hear voices and how her illness “played tricks on her brain”. Davina reached out to a Pentecostal church and between the ages of five and 11, the church became the only other family Paul knew.
“We lived a very sheltered and poor life until I was 11 years old,” continues Paul. “It was devastating to live with. Mum could be fine or very aggressive towards us and would hit us because the voices told her to do so. It’s an illness, she had no idea what was happening, but to us as kids, it was very difficult to comprehend at the time.
“It was really hard – living with somebody who had a total split personality. She’d be absolutely fine one moment and then she’d be hitting us the next.”
Football was his passion but he wasn’t allowed to play. “I can remember school coming to the house asking mum could I play football at a national competition,” he says. She refused.
Davina gave all the money she had to the church – something Paul found hard to come to terms with.
The teenage Paul was frustrated, if not bitter, at how much the church had taken from his mother when she was obviously so vulnerable and aged 17 he went back to find the answers but ultimately left empty-handed.
“I don’t blame my mum but the church took everything from her and never acted in good faith towards us as children,” he says.
At the age of 11, his fortune changed when his father came to the church and he moved to start a new life with his father and step mum in Surrey.
His mother and sister moved to a council house in Southampton, and Ragan says he still speaks with his mother daily.
Still, Paul’s life was far from settled even then and he moved to Yateley, then Skipton, and finally back to Wales in Sully all before he reached 16.
His education “suffered massively,” he says, and he left school at 16 with a single O’ level in history.
He decided to go to college to study a business course but did not make it two months before he threw in the towel.
Instead, he went straight to work, after completing a two-week work experience at Golly Slater advertising agency.
“They offered me a job to stay,” he says. “I thought: ‘Stuff college, I’d rather do a job and earn money’.”
He can still remember exactly how much he was paid – £2,000 per year. He stuck with that for a year until a mate offered him a job testing road materials on the newly-built M25. The job came with a £5,500 salary and accommodation on-site in a caravan and it seemed too good an opportunity for the 19-year-old Paul to turn down.
“I turned up in a suit on this building site along with 80 guys all dressed in wellies,” he recalls. “I didn’t know – I thought that’s how you turned up for interviews.”
He got the job – probably out of sympathy because he was so naive – and started straight away, although he adds: “I never thought it was a career though.” After a spell there he moved back to Southampton to rejoin his mum and sister.
“I was unemployed, mum was living in a council flat, and I must’ve applied for around 100 jobs,” he says, recalling how life seemed hopeless at 20.
“And then I got three jobs all on the same day – driving a van, working in a bar, and a data input position with Sun Alliance.”
He chose the latter and soon found he was doing really well – hitting all the targets being set for him and then some.
“They called me in for my appraisal and said I was doing really well and was in line for the top pay increase they could give me,” he says. I was expecting a massive jump up but when it came to it it was £250. That was the highest and best pay rise they could offer.”
Such was the insult Paul left pretty much the next day. He was much more ambitious than that, he says, still bristling at the memory.
He moved back to Cardiff in 1987 and lived with his dad again in Rhiwbina where he took up a job with Chris James Insurance. Typical of Paul’s approach to work he would turn up early and leave late at night determined that one day he would be allowed to run his own branch.
Eventually, he was asked to cover the office in Aberdare for two weeks, which he “blew out of the water” he says. So much so he was asked to stay there and he was finally in charge of an office – just like he’d dreamed of.
After turning that office around he was sent to another one and then another after that. Paul gained a reputation for being a troubleshooter – his style was to work long hours and solve problems in his own time.
“It was very hard, it was big pressure, but I worked hard, led from the front, and this seemed to work well,” he says.
“It was just determination to do whatever needed to be done. I’d come in and work out what was the first thing that needed to be done. I’d say ‘Let’s get organised’ and I’d work in my own time to get that done.”
Then at the age of 21, he was asked to relocate to London where he was put in charge of £50m turnover across eight offices and was the youngest of the other 30 area managers.
But in 1990 things changed when his stepmother Sue, who was a “real grafter”, passed away with MS. A few months later her life insurance arrived in the post presenting Paul with an opportunity to finally realise his potential.
“My dad phoned me up and said he’d just received a cheque for £100,000 in the post,” says Paul. “It was the life insurance for Sue. He couldn’t remember ever taking out the policy but at some point, he must’ve ticked the box which says to take £10 every month.
“So I said to dad: ‘Why don’t you give me the money to set up my own business? I’m obviously good at it’.”
His dad was initially unsure. “He said business was business and family was family and he didn’t want to fall out about it,” continues Paul. “But eventually he said: ‘Write me a business plan’. He refused the first and second attempts but, by the third, he bought into it.”
In August 1991 Paul opened up Motaquote in Birchgrove, Cardiff, while still living in London. He’d commute to Cardiff every day – a brutal regime that required him to leave at 5 am every morning and not get home until after 9 pm. It took six months before Paul could afford to eventually move and live nearer Cardiff and he bought a place in Llantwit Major.
Within 12 months he had turned over a million pounds. Two years later his dad came on board. A branch in Tonypandy quickly followed, and then another one in Risca, and then in 1997 Paul bought his first business.
Over the next decade, Paul set about buying insurance brokers across south Wales, snapping up 15 businesses and creating Wales’ largest independent insurance broker and one which ranked 60th in the UK. Soon he had bought everything he could in Wales and had a turnover of £30m.
In 2004 Motaquote rebranded to Protectagroup Ltd and Paul sold his business to Callum Capital Ventures, part of the Towergate Insurance Group, for £20m. Paul initially stayed on as a consultant but gave that up after a few years as it took over his life.
“I was just working all the time,” he says. “I missed seeing the kids. I was always on a laptop, in meetings, or on calls.”
At that time he was living just outside Cowbridge with his then-wife Dee and four young children – Molly, Max, Aaran, and Bobby.
During that period he bought Radio Cabs Taxi Company in Bridgend but never worked in the business as he was committed to a number of consultancy roles, eventually heading up close to 20 companies.
Consultancy suited Paul: “It doesn’t matter if you’re selling doughnuts or widgets, corporate governance is corporate governance,” he explains.
“Someone needs to be there and to say someone needs to make a decision. I always say you’re better off making a bad decision rather than no decision at all. At least if you make a wrong decision you’ve moved on from where you were and know what you should have done.”
Paul talks with the clinical detachment of a businessman and an in-built, unshakeable confidence. “I’ve not always made the right decisions but I’ve always acted and I’ve always acted quickly,” he says when I ask where that comes from.
“People lose confidence if they don’t see anything happening. You need to act and the strike rate of success gets better as you get older and wiser.
“The only way I could see I could make things better was to act. The penny dropped really early on because I had so much life experience compared to most 19 and 20-year-olds. I was forced into making decisions.
“I’ve just grown up with it. It’s not rocket science. A lot of making decisions is just confidence – just waiting for someone to say: ‘That’s the right thing to do’.
“Over the years success bred success and more importantly confidence,” Paul says he doesn’t define success by how much money he’s made but admits that it has certainly afforded him and his family a certain quality of life.
Not everyone, for example, shells out £10,000 for a racehorse called Postmaster which went on to run in the 2012 Grand National.
It was in 2010 that Paul was invited onto the hit reality TV show The Secret Millionaire where he made it his mission to help families in need, partly motivated by his own tough upbringing. But after the emotionally-charged experience of giving away £65,000 to good causes, Paul found the experience had an impact on his own family.
The self-confessed workaholic said he felt moved to spend more quality time with his wife and four children. “It was difficult filming because of all the emotional stuff,” he said in 2010. “Even though I was a carer as a child I never once looked back and had always put me wanting to achieve down to my childhood.”
One of his chief worries was the fact his own children had grown up with swimming pools and helicopters and holidays in Sandy Lane, Barbados, and that was “not real life”.
Dee, now his ex-wife, said at the time: “I can always remember him saying right from when we met: ‘Let’s get over this time and it will be much better’. He’s been saying that for the last 14 years. The plan is to go into horses. My daughter competes in the world of showing so we have a few horses – I think it’s 17. We don’t do anything by halves.
“Paul’s more into the racehorse side of it but if we go into it big and have a yard, stud, and stables I am not prepared to do it on my own. I’m giving him three or four years.”
The year 2010 was a “big one” for Paul who was already the chairman of the Cardiff Devils. Initially, something he took on as a way to “engage the kids” it soon turned to another business opportunity: the man in charge at the time went bankrupt and emigrated and so Paul found himself buying the club. It would be his most “difficult commercial challenge” he says.
“[It was] a business poorly run and haemorrhaging cash – effectively I was left holding the baby,” he says.
“I did it initially as I felt for the staff, fans, and history of the club, which I could see meant so much to so many. I tried to apply business logic to what I was doing and that didn’t go down well.
“I sold the club in 2014 to a Canadian consortium and at its peak, we were very nearly breaking even but the sport is so fickle – just because you spend more money it doesn’t guarantee success. And if you’re not successful on the ice revenues collapse quickly despite how many stars you have in your team – it’s definitely what I would call a lottery investment.”
For all the difficulties he endured while at the helm, there was one massive positive that came out of it: ice hockey captured the imaginations of all three of his boys. His youngest son, Bobby, now plays for the England under-15 programme.
Never one to sit still, Paul had also added Dragon Taxis in Newport to his portfolio and the idea of bringing his two taxi businesses together quickly followed. In 2012 he met with another business owner, Nathan Bowles, and together they created Veezu.
Within three years they were turning over more than £20m and today Veezu is the UK’s leading private hire business with several thousand drivers across the country.
Paul stood down as chief executive in 2017 to focus more time on his children and sold the majority of his equity at the end of 2019. He has since remarried and had plans for “semi-retirement” – albeit Paul’s idea of retirement isn’t quite the same as most peoples’.
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Yet he has now at least found the time to focus on the launch of a small property business, Ragan Property Ltd, in partnership with his two older sons and his wife Sarah.
He is also dabbling in the world of festivals with his company Climax Promotions, although the coronavirus pandemic has rather poured cold water on that venture for now.
His main focus today – apart from his family – is his role as the executive chairman of Equine Register in Rendcomb, just outside Cheltenham. It’s not quite what he’d planned in 2010 but he does finally have an equine business – his company administers the data held on the Central Equine Database and enables people to keep their horse and passport details digitally.
Perhaps it’s taken a global pandemic to force Paul to finally slow down – he can’t even head to his local golf course at Southerndown to squeeze around in due to the level four lockdown restrictions.
For now, he’ll have to be content with settling into his new home in Cowbridge with Sarah and the latest addition to their family – a new dog.
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