Playing his cards right
PUBLISHED: 09:18 20 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:56 20 February 2013
From selling cards from the back of a car, Chigwell'sDon Lewin has become one of the county's richest men as chairman of Clinton Cards. Pat Parker meets the man behind the millions
WHEN Don Lewin opened a card shop on Epping high street in 1968, his fellow shopkeepers thought he was mad. Today, there is a Clinton Cards shop on practically every British high street. Don is chairman of a company which owns around 1,100 shops and employs around 10,000 people. He's a multi-millionaire with a huge house in Chigwell and a
villa in Portugal.
Don's really is a rags-to-riches story. He was born in 1933 in Bow, the son of an East-End chimneysweep. But even as a boy, Don dreamed of becoming a millionaire. His greatest ambition was to own a Rolls Royce.
'Everyone has ambition, but I was so ambitious, I could almost taste it,' he explains, sitting in his office at Clinton's Loughton headquarters, surrounded by hundreds of the cuddly toys for which Clinton's is famous. 'From the age of ten, I wanted a Rolls Royce. And I always knew that somehow I would have what I've got now. Even as a kid, I saw myself in a house with a long drive. I live in Chigwell now, and my front drive is a quarter-of-a-mile long.' Of course, a Rolls Royce is parked outside.
Don's education was completely disrupted, and he left school at 15 with no qualifications - just a burning ambition to get that Rolls Royce. He answered a newspaper ad for an agent to sell greetings cards.
'The first shop I tried was a sweet shop in Loughton, where I was living at the time, and the guy bought 13-worth,' says Don. 'At Christmas I earned 1,000 in a week.'
In 1968, he opened the first-ever Clinton Cards. 'I knew I was on to a winner that Christmas Eve, when we sold 200 padded boxed cards. It was incredible that in a town of 14,000 people, we sold so many. It shook everybody rigid.'
By the time he was 40, he had a string of card shops in and around Essex, as well as other businesses. He also owned Hebden's newsagents in Epping, which involved him getting up at 3am for newspaper deliveries.
It was all getting too much, so he sold all but one of his shops, bought the Rolls Royce he'd so long coveted, and considered retirement. But, after a few months' break, he wasn't feeling well and his doctor told him that if he continued to take it easy, he'd be dead in six months. Don Lewin just wasn't cut out for a life of leisure and luxury.
So he began all over again, opening new stores up and down the country, and setting himself the ambitious goal of owning 1,000 card shops - a target he achieved a few years back with the acquisition of rival card chain Birthdays in a 46 million deal.
Staunch patriot GET THE BOOK
Don has helped change the face of card-selling in this country. As a staunch patriot, he introduced the St George's Day card and every year, he sends thousands of Mother's Day and Christmas Day cards out to British troops stationed abroad, so that they can send greetings
to their families.
He's 75 now, but has no firm plans for retirement. His son, Clinton, is the group's managing director, and daughter Debbie is head of marketing, and he knows the company will be in safe hands. All the same, he admits he will find it hard to hand over the reins. 'I've got to start thinking about packing up, but not in the immediate future. I want to be sure I leave
at the right time,' says Don.
For a man who had rarely had a day's sickness in his life, it came as a shock when, a year-and-a-half ago, he woke up one morning feeling ill. Don was rushed to hospital, and spent eight weeks in intensive care
with pancreatitis - a condition which proves fatal in around one
in three cases.
'Not many people know about it, but it's the fourth biggest killer in the western world,' says Don. Despite spending weeks in hospital, and taking nine months to recover, he survived, and is now in good health. But, always having given generously to charity, he was determined to do
his bit to help fellow sufferers.
He did it by writing his autobiography, Think of a Card, which went on sale last year, and by donating the proceeds to a charity researching the disease. Together with extra money raised by Clinton's charity Christmas cards last year, he has managed to raise 90,000 for
But Don hasn't lost his love of business. 'If I did retire, I would probably buy and sell property. I'm not a gardener and it would drive me to drink playing golf all day, even though I've got my own nine-hole golf course at home. I've seen it so many times - guys like me retire, and six months later they're dead. They just pack up. I'm not going to let that happen to me. I'll never stop buying and selling.'
GET THE BOOK
Think of a Card, by Don Lewin, costs 14.99, or 9.99 when bought with any Clinton Cards product, and is on sale at all Clinton Cards shops. All proceeds are donated to the charity for pancreatic research.