Peter de Haan has a tip. He’s investing in bees. Or more accurately, he’s investing in 500 young people to behave like bees.
The project is called “S’warm,” and it’s the largest performance that the U.K.’s National Youth Theatre has put on. Massed youngsters will swarm across London to create site-specific happenings that highlight the recent alarming drop in the honeybee population. Over five days, the project travels from Battersea via the financial heart of the City to Canary Wharf, and is supported by the Peter de Haan Charitable Trust.
My own bees suffered a mysterious collapse this year and, sadly, didn’t make it past May. So I was curious to meet up with De Haan who, along with his brother Roger, figures at No. 76 on the Sunday Times Rich List 2010 with a combined fortune of 800 million pounds ($1.3 billion).
We meet in his gleaming new offices, stylishly converted from an old gin factory near London Bridge. He has installed his printing, wine and other businesses there, and also offered a new home to the National Youth Theatre, whose members are 13 to 21 years old, and other charitable groups.
“We provide the infrastructure, we provide the IT, and we pay the rent,” he says. “So they can actually do what they’re good at.”
De Haan, lean, tanned and looking younger than his 58 years, bursts with old-fashioned entrepreneurial energy. He gives the impression that almost anything is possible, and that not much gets in his way.
“If I support a charity, I try to bring business rigor to it,” he says. “Some of them have no idea how to run themselves. I put my money where my mouth is, and say: You need to improve your management or infrastructure or whatever. I’ll pay for it. Of course, too much rigor can be bad too. I don’t want to stifle creativity.”
De Haan’s father set up Saga Group Ltd., a Folkestone, England-based provider of insurance and vacations for people aged 50 or more. Peter de Haan joined the company in 1977, and became group finance director.
When he left in 1999 he established several other businesses, and also founded the Peter de Haan Charitable Trust. “I wish I hadn’t used my own name,” he says. “Now it sounds a bit pompous.”
He gave 25 million pounds to the trust, to last for 20 years. Will he extend the period? “No. I invested the money, and we haven’t done too badly. I’m slowly selling out the investments to pay for costs. We don’t fundraise, so the pot gets smaller.”
The trust is a four-day-a-week, hands-on affair for De Haan. Initially, it offered support to social-welfare projects, or “helping the underdog” as De Haan puts it. Then it added an environmental strand, a cause dear to De Haan’s heart. In 1998, it set up an arts platform, which is called IdeasTap. It’s aimed at 16- to 25-year-olds, with the aim of helping them develop their creative talent.
“We went into the arts because the trustees were exhausted dealing with bombed-out charities and difficult kids,” says De Haan. “We needed to do something a bit uplifting as well.”
Along with the National Youth Theatre, other arts beneficiaries include the Old Vic theater, and the Magnum Photos cooperative. Since the launch, IdeasTap also has commissioned 110 arts projects, funded 1,500 applicants, and given tailored mentoring to more than 200 young people.
Business of Art
IdeasTap will give out a total of 1.8 million pounds in grants, bursaries and prizes to 16- to 25-year-olds this year. How much goes to the youth theater? “I can’t say at the moment, because we have to decide the best way to present it in our accounts, and how to show the ‘in kind’ as well as cash,” De Haan says. “We’ll seek advice from the Charities Commission and adopt best practice.”
With “S’warm,” the youth theater is doing a project close to De Haan’s ecological interests. Is it a case of an environmentally keen piper calling the tune over an arts organization? An example of old-fashioned patronage?
“Yes and no,” he says. “Paul Roseby, the artistic director of the National Youth Theatre, and I discussed this together. I don’t think it’s a case of undue influence, I think it’s a collaboration. We have a bit of influence over them, and now that we share offices, they influence us too. I really believe that in this case two plus two equals five.”
Are there any ways in which business and charity are linked? “One thing I learned while working for Saga was quality control,” he says. “It’s an issue in the charity sector. They often don’t have that discipline. If you can get it right, in theater or in business, you’re going to have happy customers.”
“S’warm” will take place across London through Aug. 22. Information: http://www.ideastap.com/swarm. For details about IdeasTap, see http://www.ideastap.com. For the Peter de Haan Charitable Trust, go to http://www.pdhct.org.uk.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)