Interview with Secret Millionaire Mike Holland
PUBLISHED: 00:38 11 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:02 20 February 2013
For Brighton property developer Mike Holland, the experience of appearing on Channel 4's The Secret Millionaire reinforced his commitment to lifetime giving. Words and picture: Ian Trevett
Mike Holland arrived in Brighton, fresh from the Merchant Navy, as an unemployed 18-year-old, but he was in no mood to waste any time on the dole. He found work on building sites and invested his wages in tools.
By the time he was 21, he was overseeing house building, and he soon took the plunge investing in his own property developments, building up an impressive portfolio. His passion is the regeneration of Hoves forgotten industrial landmark, The British Engineerium, but he is also driven by personal tragedy, memories of which were brought to the fore after he agreed to appear on the popular Channel 4 show, The Secret Millionaire.
For many entrepreneurs the experience triggers a Road to Damascus moment, where they suddenly realise they have been living a privileged existence, forgetting about the struggles of those in more difficult circumstances, especially when they meet people who dedicate lives to help others. For Mike this was never going to be the case.
The show in which I appeared was a bit of a one off because I have always been involved with charities due to my experience of my son Brian dying when he was 13 years old. I know how important it is for the family to get help and I now know how important it is for the family to have counselling, but it took me a very long time to understand this.
Brians possessions were in a suitcase and it took me 25 years before I could bring myself to open it up and look inside. I wish I had looked many years earlier as I found a notebook in which Brian wrote about how much he loved his dad. I wish I had seen this a long time ago as it would have made things much easier for me.
Mike stayed in a run-down area of Grimsby for the show and while there he volunteered to help at a charity called FLAG (Family Links Around Grimsby) which provides recreational activities for people from 4 to 21+ who have a range of disabilities and special needs. He also met the parents who had set up a charity in the name of their daughter who died after an asthma attack and became involved with The Motor Project which offers hands-on training for under-achieving young people.
It was an emotional experience for him: I think for me it reinforced my view of how important lifetime giving is, as my son Christopher has cerebral palsy. I know that there are many very generous people out there who will donate to charities, but it has to be ongoing. You can leave money in your will but it is nice to do it when you are alive so you can see the good work being done.
I always find it tough emotionally to talk to a parent who has suffered a bereavement because I know what its like myself. I find it very difficult as I know what they are going through. The Motor Project and FLAG are the sorts of projects I am used to working with but it did reinforce how ridiculous it is for the government to make cuts in these kinds of areas.
These are the areas that we should be promoting and adding money to rather than cutting funds. Cut money from other sectors by any means, but not from the voluntary sector as this is where you get the best value for your money. I dont believe that public funds should be spent on the arts in the current climate. It is far more important to support the essential work of the volunteer sector.
If there is a north-south divide it is emphasised when you go to Grimsby. The difference between Brighton and Grimsby is very stark. At least in Brighton there are companies that you can approach for money, even if they dont always want to part with any. At least you can approach them. In Grimsby there didnt seem to be any businesses you could go to the first place, or at least not many. Grimsby can only be described as grim. There are nice places there, but not where I stayed.
What I did discover was that there is an enormous difference in housing standards across the country. Maybe because it is such a poor area the Environmental Services arent able to get landlords to comply with British Regulation Standards. A lot of people up there were living in sub-standard housing and it seemed to be the accepted norm, but in Sussex landlords would be prosecuted. We supply social housing for local councils so I have a good idea of what is and what isnt acceptable. Id love to take part in a fly- on-the-wall documentary up there to expose the landlords.
The programme was broadcast in December, but it was actually filmed in June 2011. Mike has kept in touch with the people he met in Grimsby and, in association with The Lords Taverners, he has arranged for a specially adapted mini-bus to be delivered to the FLAG project this spring, contributing 11,000 towards the purchase.
Mike is also arranging for The Motor Project to be taken under the wing of The British Engineerium Trust, in order to secure extra funding.
The Trust, which was set up in the 1970s, runs the steam part of the The Engineerium, as Mike explains. When we bought the Engineerium, we kept the trust and the staff so they could maintain the steam heritage in perpetuity. What we want to do is to lead the way encouraging young people to get into engineering. We have more than 60 volunteers, aged from 65 to 85, who can pass on their experience and skills. They have experience that money cant buy and it is fantastic that they can pass their skills on to a new generation.
The British Engineerium, formerly the citys water pumping facility, is a wonderful example of the splendour of Victorian innovation and industry. Situated by Hove Park, it will become one of the citys most important tourist attractions, thanks to the dedication and investment by Mike. Most of the site will be open within two years, and it will be well worth the wait.
Now the Secret Millionaire experience is over, Mike can concentrate on the Engineerium with no small sense of relief. After all, his reputation was in the hands of the television editing team. Happily, the show was sensitively directed, but Mike wasnt taking any chances: I refused point blank to say that I am a multi-millionaire and a successful businessman, as that makes you sound like a complete prat. I made it clear that I would only say, I would like to give you a cheque. The programme has changed as a result which I am pleased about as I always thought it sounded a bit naff.
Mike Holland is a patron of Chestnut Tree House and The Whitehawk Inns Appeal Learning for Life
For more on the British Engineerium go to www.britishengineerium.com