Bullet-proof cars, crime-ridden streets, the threat of kidnapping at every turn. If you have seen the hit TV show Narcos, you will know that Colombia in the 1970s and 1980s was a brutal place to live.
But for Joel Perlman, such was the reality of life. Born into a Jewish family in Bogotá, he lived in a permanent “hyper-state”— aware that, at any moment, violence could flare up for the smallest of reasons.
Then, there was the added pressure of being part of such a small minority in a Catholic country. Not only did his Judaism set him apart from his classmates in the American School he attended, but on the weekends, it was even worse. As a Sephardi Jew, he was bullied by the Ashkenazi children at Bogotá’s Jewish country club, who beat him up and called him “Falasha”.
Today, sitting inside his state-of-the-art offices in central London, the businessman and entrepreneur could not be further removed from his childhood. But, he explains, the conditions he grew up in were “formative”, setting him on a tireless path to success. His latest venture OakNorth, a new bank specifically focused on lending to entrepreneurs, is testament to that.
In little over a year since it began trading, the bank has seen its loan-book grow to £260 million and last month it broke even, becoming the first new UK bank to achieve profitability.
“In Bogotá, entrepreneurship was the only way to make money,” the 42-year-old says. “Jobs didn’t pay. Wither you owned it or you got nothing.
“There was a lot of pressure inside my home to make money. I come from a family of entrepreneurs; they viewed it with disdain if you didn’t have money. There was a need to be somebody.”
As the eldest of three sons, Perlman worked hard to rise to the challenge. Aged 16, he went to boarding school in Massachusetts, where he found relief from the 24/7 threat of attack in Bogotá. From there, he studied at Georgetown University, before coming to London to do an MA in accounting and finance at the London School of Economics.
“I loved London from the moment I arrived,” he says. “The city was so tolerant, so accepting and so free. People were reasonable, police were reasonable.”
He then joined global consulting firm McKinsey and Company, spending two years in Caracas, Venezuela, where, he says, “there was money to be made in the crazy chaos”. But, still, his family’s aversion to “the professions” weighed down on his shoulders.
“I looked at the partners at McKinsey and thought: ‘I don’t want to be that guy, I want to hire that guy for my business in the future,’” he says. “So I left and started internet companies during the dot com boom. Then of course, there was the crash and we bankrupted all of them.”
Following this, Perlman started working with his brother Alberto in Miami, approaching a Colombian dance instructor named Beto Perez to launch an exercise regime based on Latino music and dancing. But Perlman soon left, while Alberto continued to work on the brand alongside their other brother, Jeffrey. Within six years, they had developed a global phenomenon which soon became the number-one fitness routine in the world. You may have heard of it: Zumba.
In the meantime, Perlman returned to the UK in order to form a business partnership with his friend from LSE, Rishi Khosla. Together, the pair started Copal, a company that pioneered the idea of outsourcing research; they provided research and analytics to banks, all outsourced in India. In 2003, the businessman moved to Delhi to oversee the company on the ground: “I would have gone anywhere for the money,” he says. “Nothing would have stopped me chasing it. The only reason I stopped was because I made it.”
In 10 years, Copal grew to 3,000 employees and incredible global success; Perlman and Khosla sold it two years ago for several hundred million pounds.
Why then, you might ask, did they jump into their next venture so quickly — launching OakNorth soon after the deal was done? Surely their big sale had afforded them some time for leisure?
Perlman admits: “It was always my dream to have a bank. One of my childhood idols was Jaime Gilinski, the 500th richest man in the world. He has banks all over the world.
“He was always a symbol for me of what I wanted to achieve.”
More than that, Perlman is passionate about giving entrepreneurs the tools and space to expand their brand in situations where larger, more established banks might retreat behind barriers of red tape.
They have just given a loan of £19 million to Leon restaurants, which will see the popular restaurant chain open 50 more sites across the country.
“Things that scare other banks don’t scare us,” he says. “We understand what it is to build a business and how to structure it. We are entrepreneurs ourselves; whatever they want to do, we’ve done it. That gives us credibility. Meanwhile, we look at the whole structure in a far more holistic way.
“We don’t have a check-list, we just sit with the person and hear their plans. We aren’t as afraid as other banks and are much more flexible.”
As for his success, he says, it has eased the pressure he felt from early childhood.
“In Spanish, we have an expression meaning ‘being nailed to the wall’. By making money, I took the nail out. I now work for the fun of it. I enjoy having an impact and meeting people.”
“I’d never want to see any children being raised in an environment where success is only gauged by profit; children should be free to choose their own path and be happy adults.
“To do that, you need to have good relationships, be at peace with yourself and enjoy what you do. If you make money along the way, great. If not, it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re happy.”