James Palumbo.com

Biography

I was born with many advantages. My family was wealthy and I had the best education, going to Eton, then Oxford. And yet despite it all, I never really conformed to the norms of my background. As with so many people, my life can be read as a struggle to find my own identity.

I was brought up in a beautiful house near Windsor, which now belongs to the Jordanian royal family. It was bought for my parents by my grandfather, who made a fortune developing bomb sites after the war.

My home had everything - rolling lawns, stables with horses, woods to play in - but from an early age I felt the family fortune wouldn't survive my grandfather's death. My desire to make money was driven by the fear of losing what I had.

At school I reacted against its traditions. I wasn't naughty, more questioning and difficult. This made me unpopular. I still believe that the changes I helped to enact - like the abolition of 'fagging', the system of younger boys doing tasks for their seniors - were for the best.

During the 'gap' year between school and university, I wasn't interested in work experience or bumming about on a beach. I wanted to make money. So, aged 18, I took myself off to California with a group of friends to start a buttling business.

In those days domestic work in California was done by 'wet backs' - Mexicans who swim the Rio Grande to find work for $1 an hour. With our plummy English accents and butler tailcoats we charged $10 an hour. The business was a hit, and we began to make a lot of money in cash.

Unfortunately the business was also illegal. It wasn't long before the Immigration Police came knocking on our door. A smart young lawyer called Randolph Fields saved us from being deported. When we eventually returned to the UK, having sold a film treatment of our experiences to a Hollywood studio for $50,000, Randolph came with us.

Oxford was the most beautiful and stimulating place in which to while away three years, but I was still on the make. I threw myself into doing deals with the money I'd made in California. One of these was with my friend Randolph, who was obsessed with airlines.

We opened a small office in a basement in London and began setting up an airline with just one plane. Starting a new business is a roller coaster ride; in this instance getting a licence to fly, leasing a plane, design, marketing, finance. The fledgling venture was named Atlantic Airlines. A few years later it was sold to Richard Branson and became Virgin Atlantic.

After university there was a rush to get jobs in the City. No one really knew what was involved; it just seemed the best and most glamorous way to make money. I kept up my wheeler-dealing, but to my shame joined the money herd. I still hadn't completely broken free from my background and what was expected of me.

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