Jewish News meets… Sir Lloyd Dorfman: ‘Giving is in our DNA’

Jewish News meets… Sir Lloyd Dorfman: ‘Giving is in our DNA’

We speak to the newly-knighted Sir Lloyd Dorfman, founder of Travelex, the world’s largest retailer of foreign exchange, and supporter of the arts

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Charity at heart: Sir Lloyd Dorfman also serves as    deputy chairman of the Community Security Trust 
Charity at heart: Sir Lloyd Dorfman also serves as    deputy chairman of the Community Security Trust 

For the newly-knighted Lloyd Dorfman, it has been a heady few weeks. Along with his new title for services to philanthropy and the arts, Sir Lloyd has become a colonel and has been busy getting fitted for various uniforms at a military tailor.

Unsurprisingly, both honours have reverberated in the Dorfman family. His knighthood, he says, has bounced his mother Anita, a busy 90-year-old, to “10 out of 10 on the kvellometer”, and while he is plainly thrilled at the award, made in June’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, he is evidently enjoying just as much his new role as honorary colonel of the Third Battalion of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment.

Sir Lloyd’s path to his knighthood–  he was made CBE in 2008 for his charitable work –  is pretty straightforward. After growing up in the West End of London and attending St Paul’s School, he chose not to go to university and, instead, after a year studying for the Bar, founded a business which became the world’s largest retailer of foreign exchange, Travelex.

“I liked the Bar, but didn’t like studying”, he says. But the Bar brought him one of the great prizes of his life, his wife, Sarah, whose sister was on Dorfman’s course. At 22, the couple married and for a short time he went to work for his father-in-law in the city, gaining some commercial expertise.

He knew what he wanted to do – make money – but not how to achieve it. “Within three months of starting work [in September 1973] I was getting an absolute baptism of fire, because there were miners’ strikes, three-day working weeks, and [in October of that year] a Middle East war. There was a quadrupling of oil prices, bank collapses and the Bank of England trying to hold everything together. It was an incredible apprenticeship. I was going to meetings where not only the borrowers were in trouble, but the banks were in trouble, too.”

Dorfman doesn’t think of himself as a gambler, more of a calculated risk-taker. Call it a gamble or a calculated risk, he spotted a niche in the market and filled it when he founded Travelex in 1976, working out of  single shop in central London.

The business was sold in 2015; he retained a five percent shareholding until August last year.

“I was never a foreign exchange expert”, says Dorfman. “I was and am a builder of businesses”. He attributes some of his success to maintaining a narrow focus, not trying to spread himself too widely, and retaining an interest in niche businesses.

In property, for example, he was chairman and majority shareholder in The Office Group, which specialised in flexible offices. This too did well, selling last year for £500 million to the Blackstone group. Currently he is building up a new company, Doddle, which is a retail “click and collect” enterprise.

Last year he began a new project with his son, financing, producing and servicing in the media world.

“I often say, stick to what you know. Better to be a specialist than a generalist. And, as far as the banks were concerned, crumbs from their table — foreign exchange — became a banquet for us”.

As he became more successful in business, opportunities arose to marry his non-business passion –  the arts –  with his financial expertise. Most famously this coalesced when Travelex joined forces with the National Theatre (NT) to offer a tranche of £10 tickets designed to encourage young people to join NT audiences.

Dorfman pictured at the National Theatre

Dorfman, who served on the board of the National Theatre for more than nine years and is now a board member of Nick Hytner’s London Theatre Group, was introduced to Hytner by Susan Chinn, wife of Sir Trevor.

Unlike many of his Jewish communal contemporaries, Dorfman stuck to what he knew and enjoyed, becoming a trustee of the Royal Opera House, the Royal Academy Trust, BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Arts), and – spectacularly – having one of the NT’s three theatres named for his family, so that the Cottesloe became the Dorfman Theatre.

He is also chairman of Prince Charles’s charity for young people, the Prince’s Trust.

But in the Jewish world, he is a trustee of JW3, the Jewish community centre for London, and is deputy chairman of the Community Security Trust.

Wearing his Jewish hats, he is worried about the future: about whether the younger generation “get it” in terms of an obligation to practise philanthropy in the way that he has; about anti-Semitism and how it differs today from how things were when the CST was first founded; and, almost more than anything, about the “burden” of running the Jewish community.

“The one thing that needs to happen is to merge some of our charities. There is a burden of rising costs and expenses.

Sir Dorfman with former Prime Minister David Cameron at a CST dinner

“There are around 2,300 Jewish charities. There is a finite pool of resources, and I think there is an obligation – easier to say than to do – to try and merge some of these charities and make them a lot more effective.”

“It’s important we look after our own,” says Dorfman, “but it’s also important we do our bit in terms of the wider community. For example, I’ve just been involved in the first building project at Westminster Abbey for 275 years”. It’s a tower at the side of the Abbey, designed to take visitors up to the galleries of the church.

Pitching the project to his wife, Dorfman told her: “This is not any old church, this is our national church, this is the seat of the Coronations of our kings and queens – and don’t think church, think museum”.

Of the 30 or so donors to the £25 million Abbey project, five are Jewish famllies. “One of my fellow Jewish donors said he saw it as a way of saying thank you to this country, which had embraced and welcomed our forefathers. Our community has always punched above our weight, and I think it’s in our DNA to give”.

The new knight has a parting thought.  “I can do stuff now, and I can make a difference. I couldn’t be a passenger.”

As his fellow board members will attest, Lloyd Dorfman has a knack of making things happen.

 Listen to this week’s episode of the Jewish Views Podcast:

read more: