Interview: Jason Shifrin
How one man's desire to emulate Jewish tycoons brought him to the brink of suicide.
In deep water: Shifrin on holiday with his wife Nicole - but he was being pursued by gangsters over money he owed
Businessman Jason Shifrin always knew how to make money. Unfortunately, he was also an expert in how to spend it. And he spent in huge amounts - on holidays, on cars, on houses and on his friends. When there was not enough money coming in to finance his lifestyle, he borrowed to fund it. And when those debts were called in, he borrowed some more to repay the original loans.
Eventually, in 2003, after living in denial for years, Shifrin, who is now 41, did a few calculations. He realised to his horror, that if he won the jackpot on the lottery the following weekend, he still would not have enough to pay off his creditors - and some of the people to whom he owed money to were not the kind who liked to take no for an answer.
Shifrin does not believe in the sackcloth and ashes approach to repentance. He remains outgoing and confident despite a trauma which took him to the very edge of catastrophe. He is, however, full of regrets.
His book, Money Money Money, details his disastrous spiral into debt. He had made a good living dealing in watches and jewellery, but eight years ago, the spending caught up with him. He recalls: "I used to go into my office, open the safe and see loads of high-value watches and jewellery and I would think to myself that if the worst came to the worst I could sell my stock to pay my debts back. Then one day I looked in the safe and realised there was next to nothing in there."
Hounded by gangsters and in complete despair, he considered taking his own life. He was on holiday with his wife, Nicole, and their children in Florida and was moments from throwing himself over his balcony to the poolside hundreds of feet below, when he heard his young son calling to him and realised he could not go through with it.
He says: "I heard of a man who committed suicide a while back. He was dealing with some of the same people I was. They walked into his office, roughed him up a bit and threatened his family. I completely understand why he did it."
Instead of taking the quick way out, Shifrin faced the music. His first impulse was to call on old family friends who had made fortunes in business, people like Lord Sugar and property millionaire Cyril Dennis. However, when it became apparent that he was not going to be bailed out, Shifrin told his wife, Nicole, about the seriousness of his situation. She decided to stick with him. She and the children took refuge in Israel while Shifrin went into hiding in Paddington.
He sold his house and his parents sold their home in Chigwell, Essex. However, the creditors were impatient for their money and Shifrin soon discovered the lengths to which they were prepared to go. "Someone attempted to kidnap my dad. They beat him up on the drive in front of my mum. That was a complete nightmare. There is nothing worse for a son than to see his dad get hurt, knowing that I was solely responsible for it. I would rather have done 25 years in jail than put him through that.
"Once people realised that I hadn't stolen the money and run off to Australia or somewhere and that I was trying to pay them back, it all calmed down."
Shifrin had been determined to make money from an early age. But he was not happy just being a prosperous businessman like his own father. He wanted to "take it to the next level", as he puts it. That meant a huge house and a Rolls-Royce in the drive, a bit like Alan Sugar, the father of his best friend, Simon. Shifrin made a start at the age of 13. "There were a lot of Rolls-Royces in Chigwell and I decided to market myself as a Rolls-Royce cleaner. To give me some experience, Alan Sugar allowed me to clean his Rolls… for nothing. In fairness he told me something which I didn't know, which was you always had to clean the inside of the door frame - he was the only person who criticised the way I cleaned, but it was constructive criticism."
Although Sugar was already successful by the early '80s, as Shifrin began on his ultimately doomed entrepreneurial career, the Amstrad boss was not his inspiration. He says: "At the time Alan was no different from a lot of successful men in the area. Sure, he was doing well, but he was living the same lifestyle as the majority of the people I was growing up with. In fact, there were a few others who were more flamboyant."
Shifrin liked the flamboyance - and he wanted to emulate it. But the hunger to make it big was what destroyed him. "I wanted it all before I could afford it. If a friend of mine had a GTi, then I had to have one too. I wasn't thinking whether I could afford it. There was easy finance available. I was always spending more than I earned. I had all the makings of becoming a very successful boy if I'd just slowed down."
But he could not slow down - nor could he rid himself of the delusion that everything would be fine. "I used to go to bed on a Friday night and think to myself that everything would be OK because I would win the Lottery that weekend. That's how stupid I was.
"The sad reality in our community is that everyone is obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses. We're desperate to be doing slightly better than the neighbours. People are getting themselves into horrendous debt. It was bad enough in the '80s - it's even worse now."
Shifrin makes no bones about the fact that he hopes his book will help him clear his debts. He says he has paid around 80 per cent so far, with around £1 million remaining.
There is a possibility it will lead to a film, which could, he thinks, prove a moneyspinner.
He also wants his own experience to be a cautionary tale for other people. "If I can change this huge negative into a positive by helping other people then it will have done some good. I'd love to be able to be the sort of person that people can come and talk to, particularly in our community. There's no better feeling than reaching out to people who are in trouble."
Shifrin is now living in a rented house with his family and working as a consultant. "My dream is to wake up one morning and not have to worry anymore about who I owe money to."
'Money, Money, Money' is published by John Blake Books at £7.99