Interviewed: Mo Chaudry, on his multi-million pound leisure empire

Mo Chaudry

Mo Chaudry, owner the UK’s biggest waterpark – Waterworld in Stoke-on-Trent, and a string of health clubs tells John Woodhouse about how his ambition drives him every day

Chaudry has just pulled off one of the biggest deals in a long and high-profile business career. “I’m a classic pioneer, and I haven’t finished yet.”

“WHEN I started out,” ponders Mo Chaudry, “I thought that making a million would be great. It turns out It was just a starting point. It’s like being a martial arts black belt – that’s not the end of the journey, it’s just the start of becoming a real expert.”

Mo, familiar to many as the region’s most high-profile businessman, has never stood still. There are some who walk through life, others who race towards the next hurdle. For Mo, life would simply be a little too tame without a challenge.

His latest move has seen him invest “a significant sum” in Congleton-based health and leisure business Pulse Group. His ideas for the company could never be said to lack ambition. He wants to take Pulse, already a major international player, to a whole new global level.

Add in other expansions to his already considerable business empire – a multi-million pound expansion of gym and leisure facilities alongside the existing Waterworld building at Festival Park, plus a national network of indoor Adventure Golf centres – and it’s clear that Mo is someway away from the feet-up stage of his business career. Indeed, with deals done and infrastructure in place the number of employees operating under the Mo Chaudry umbrella will double to around 1,000.

“I’ve been in North Staffordshire for 38 years,” he explains, “I’ve made my life here. But I also want to play in the bigger international arena and this is the opportunity for me to do just that – for me to use all my experience to help the business grow globally.”

In their mid-fifties, many businesspeople are looking for a way out. Simple avoidance of undue pressure is the number one driver. Not so for Mo – he is a man who feels he still has a lot to prove.

“It’s about an inner drive” he says, “and a will to fulfil my potential. A lot of people have some talent but are never motivated enough to fulfil themselves. I never want to be looking back with regrets.”

Mo built the foundation of his fortune, now in the region of £100m, on property and finance. The modern Mo retains that clear business acumen, but one major aspect is different.

“I look at life as an adventure,” he reveals. “Every day I have to enjoy what I’m doing.”
It was that realisation that business needed to deliver a deeper personal as well as financial satisfaction that reshaped Mo’s vision.

“I’m a classic pioneer, and I haven’t finished yet.”

“I was having an early midlife crisis,” he reflects. “I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I felt like I was at a loose end. I’d lost my sense of purpose.”

When the Rank organisation then put a failing waterpark on the market, Mo saw his chance to inject new momentum into his life.

“When Waterworld became available,” he recalls, “there was something telling me it was absolutely the right move for me. It was a big risk, a big move for me, but it felt so right. I sensed it would be the right opportunity.”

But there were no guarantees. “That’s the point. That’s the challenge. That’s where you have to stand up for your beliefs, your convictions. I’ve always had this perverse mentality – if someone can’t make something work, then I want to prove that I can.

“It made me feel good about myself,” he says of the Waterworld acquisition. “It satisfied my ego, aspirations and ambitions. It triggered a new sense of purpose.”

‘Ego’ is a much-maligned word, seen to describe an overblown sense of importance. But Mo believes, if accurately directed, it’s the bedrock of success.

“Without ego there’s no ambition,” he states, “without ambition there’s no success, without success there’s no legacy or sustainability. Controlled ego is good for society. It gets you up off your backside and makes you prove yourself. It’s through such enterprise and spirit that you create wealth, and that wealth then cascades down through society, and everyone benefits from it.”

Certainly, Mo’s inner drive did Waterworld no harm. He hauled a drowning business from the mire and turned it into a leisure powerhouse.

Not that Mo would then continue on a seamlessly successful journey. “Maybe I’ve picked the wrong fights as well,” he smiles.

Notably, these included a conflict over Dimensions, the Stoke-on-Trent City Council-run leisure pool the authority discussed closing with Mo – Waterworld providing alternative provision – and Port Vale, the club he once hoped to buy.

“The Dimensions business and Port Vale were negative experiences,” he admits. “But once they had gone I closed that mindset and saw a different opportunity. When I saw the chance to open M Club, I grabbed it with both hands and that was the start of the rejuvenation.”

Without ego there’s no ambition

Some used Dimensions and Port Vale as a stick to beat Mo with. But when you grew up in a tiny Pakistan village, living in a house with an earthen floor, and a subsistence way of life, then the barbs of critics are unlikely to bruise.

Certainly, the strength Mo showed in building a business empire from a position where, aged eight, he arrived in the UK unable to speak a word of English, bullied for being ‘different’, was not going to be threatened by a few words.

“When you’ve faced many challenges in early life it’s ingrained into you,” he explains, “it gives you a sense of genuine deep confidence in your ability to survive and get through any challenge or situation. I know that any given situation you can overcome so long as your mindset is strong.”

Mo still has critics, but they have yet to land a blow to his confidence.

“Society as a whole doesn’t like people who are different, who stand out from the rest,” he says. “In Britain, we like to conform, we queue, we act in an orderly manner, and when someone comes in and rattles that situation they are not always welcomed.

“Don’t get me wrong, I can conform too when needed, but free spirit is what makes a person, and a country succeed. It’s what made Britain a great country. Sir Francis Drake was essentially a pirate and yet he became a British hero – that was because he was a maverick, an adventurer, and a chancer. Somewhere along the line that has been lost.

“There’s two ways to live your life. You grow up, get educated, get a job, make a living, get your head down. Or you live your life in the fullest possible way and try to fulfil your dreams. A lot of people lack confidence and belief and so don’t bother.

“I am what I am and that doesn’t always go down well with certain people. Generally, that’s people who haven’t made a lot of themselves. I have also found there are a lot of people who are Mo-likers and respect me for what I’ve done. I’ve seen that more and more in recent years.

“Either way, it doesn’t bother me. If you spend all your time worrying about whether people will like you then you’re never going to get on.

“The way I see it I’m a classic entrepreneur. Does that benefit me? Yes. But it also benefits everyone else – the people in my businesses, the businesses I’ve saved, and the community as a whole.”

Mo has previously sought challenges away from business to add further spice to his life – in 2015 he was part of a team which rowed 500 nautical miles from Tower Bridge in London to the Eiffel Tower in Paris to raise money for the Donna Louise hospice. Now, though, he doesn’t feel the need.

“I have never psychoanalysed myself,” he says of his past penchant for such endeavours. “I’m not sure what I’d find. But I know that through life I stood, I survived, and I thrived. The physical trials I have done have been part of that process. If I can row 500 nautical miles, be seasick for three days, and still pull my weight, I know I can do anything. I don’t need to take anything else on, so from now on I will put all my efforts into business. Unless of course something captures my imagination then I will be off again!”

One thing that Mo has never left behind is a resolutely down to earth attitude. Some businesspeople of Mo’s business strength and financial means take the ivory tower approach. Mo’s office at M Club is small converted treatment room. He only got a new laptop last month because his previous one was held together with Sellotape.

“I’ve got a great all-round balance,” he ponders. “I can converse with royalty or I can converse with a kid. I’m adaptable and I love that about myself. I love being the centre of my businesses. I love being part of it all day to day. I feel in a good space right now.”

That sense of contentment is backed up by the stability of domestic life. “Family has always been big for me,” states Mo. “My wife Ann is the most talented person I know. She’s been the making of me, the trigger for my motivation and ambition.”

The couple met in 1983 and married four years later – “Meeting her was the best investment I ever made!” – and have three daughters, Shaheen, Josephine and Charmaine.

“For me,” considers Mo, “success in your personal life and in business go hand in hand. Ann’s been there when we faced a lot of challenges in my early business life. She’s always been involved with the companies. The kids are very level-headed. They’ve had to make their own way and not depend on their dad and are all getting on very well with their lives – I am very proud of them and how they have turned out.

“I’ve tried to give them the edge and the hardness, Ann’s given them the warmth and the comfort. Together we’ve managed to balance it up. They all have a competitive edge, are very well educated, and personable.

They care. Each has worked around the world while embarking on expeditions, including working in orphanages. We have taken them to where I was born, so they could see the real Pakistan. It has reinforced their perspective on life, that they are very fortunate.”

Mo is clearly talking from the heart when he says he feels “totally reinvigorated”. His investment in Pulse Group comes after investment in some notable individuals.

First up was Eddie Hall, who Mo took under his wing and managed from truck mechanic to World’s Strongest Man. Then he added his backing to North Staffordshire ex-Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton’s subsequently Oscar-winning short The Silent Child, and he is now sponsoring Paralympic rower Ian Marsden to what will hopefully be gold at Tokyo in 2020.

“I’m a dreamer,” he says, “and if I have those dreams then I want to make them reality. I saw a bit of me and a bit of my dad in Eddie. I had the resource to make his dreams a reality. A joint dream – I felt like I was living the dream with him.

“With Rachel, I met her and I followed my instinct. Ian, I like his persistence and tenacity, so why not?
“It’s like having an extra sense,” he continues. “Positive energy is so contagious and so powerful. If you surround yourself with positive people and are a positive person, it really does create opportunities for you. There are things out there that with a negative frame of mind you don’t see.”

Investing in others also helps banish the predictability that Mo so disdains.

“I find that predictability breeds complacency,” he explains. “Unpredictability breeds growth, opportunity, and success. You need challenges to improve yourself. It’s the same as fitness – strength comes from your mindset. I find nothing more boring than treading the steady course. If I was just in business for the sake of making money, I wouldn’t be in it at all. It’s not about the money. Money comes as a bi-product of enthusiasm and passion.”

That enthusiasm and passion extends to the world outside business. Mo’s M Club Foundation provides community grants, in particular for the advancement of health and fitness as well as alleviating financial hardship, mental health inequalities, and sickness.

In his home village in Pakistan, meanwhile, Mo supported the Al Amir Foundation School, which teaches around 200 children. By providing the land and financing the start-up, Mo delivered the best possible beginning for children who may otherwise have been denied equal educational opportunities.

Mo has also appeared on C4’s Secret Millionaire, spending two weeks in a rundown, predominantly Asian, area of Leeds. The programme’s effect on him was profound. “I lived the life I only knew as a kid but from an adult perspective,” he says. “It made me realise why I made the mark that I did in my life and why some don’t make the mark – and how they could.”

This understanding of life away from business has given Mo perspective. Unlike the Mo of early business years, the Mo of 2018 is a more relaxed character, willing to delegate responsibility across his empire.
“I’ve put myself in a situation where I’m unemployed,” he laughs. “I don’t have a specific job. I just like to roam around, which suits me fine.

“I enjoy work, the hustle and bustle of business, being creative and taking chances, but business doesn’t have to be a killer. I can have a few meetings, finish in the afternoon, go home and walk the dogs. I’ve surrounded myself with good people, which means I can do that. I’ve done all the hard yards and have given myself a floating, strategic role. It’s a great stage to be at.”

At the same time, he still leads from the front.

“Having people fighting alongside you only happens when you lead properly,” he says. “Loyalty is very important. I’m strategic and can carry people with me. People will follow as long as you lead – the problem is that most people don’t lead.”

The next five years will be all-defining in Mo Chaudry’s business life.

“We are judged by deeds,” he says. “Mo Chaudry – actions not words.”