FT investigation: The darker side of a British tech baron
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There are two sides to Lawrence Jones, MBE, one of Britain’s wealthiest technology entrepreneurs with an estimated £700m fortune.
The first is the self-made man, music lover and generous philanthropist who mixes in high society and holidays with business magnate and Virgin founder Richard Branson at his properties on Necker Island in the Caribbean and in the Swiss Alps.
Last year, Mr Jones and his wife Gail attended Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding at Windsor Castle. This month, the 51-year-old Welsh-born father of four was photographed arm-in-arm with prime minister Boris Johnson at the Conservative party conference in Manchester.
A powerful figure in the north of England, Mr Jones recently broke into the ranks of the UK’s 250 richest individuals. His cloud computing company UKFast was selected this year as one of Britain’s top 10 places to work in the Sunday Times employer rankings.
The software services provider, which employs 400 people, is expected to open a new school soon, which will focus on digital skills alongside the Dean Trust, an educational charity. The two organisations were granted government permission in 2017 to open the school and are looking for a suitable site.
But there is a darker side to Mr Jones, whose Manchester-based company counts the National Health Service and the Ministry of Defence among its customers. Allegations about his conduct emerged during an FT investigation that involved interviews with more than 30 former employees.
It is alleged that Mr Jones sexually assaulted two women in his employment in the past decade and he has been accused of wide-ranging misconduct in the workplace.
A number of other former employees have also accused him of sexual harassment; unwanted touching in the workplace; verbal abuse and bullying; and cultivating an atmosphere of fear at UKFast.
All spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation by Mr Jones. Their claims about the office culture are supported by documents, photographs and screenshots reviewed by the FT and interviews with family, friends and colleagues.
Mr Jones, for his part, denies categorically claims of any unlawful behaviour, declaring they are wholly untrue. “They are also hurtful and damaging, especially to my wife, our family, and the UKFast team,” he said. “We have dedicated 20 years of our lives to UKFast and we are hugely proud of how amazing the business that we have built together is.”
He also denies having sexually assaulted any young woman or female employee of the company.
Mr Jones’ life story as a rags-to-riches philanthropist is compelling. He set up UKFast from a spare bedroom 20 years ago, overseeing its growth to become Britain’s largest privately owned hosting provider with five data centres providing IT services for 5,700 UK companies.
Last year, UKFast sold approximately a 30 per cent stake to Inflexion Private Equity in a deal valuing the software company at £405m. Mr Jones and his wife each own 30.9 per cent of UKFast, making him the eighth-richest person from Wales, according to the Sunday Times Rich List.
Dubbed the “cloud computing king”, Mr Jones has rubbed shoulders with political heavyweights from Manchester mayor Andy Burnham to Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson. He has donated £100,000 to the Conservative party since 2017, and was last year appointed an ambassador to the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester.
The allegations of misconduct are far removed from the fun-filled side of his company, which has the motto: “Your future is our business.”
At UKFast’s headquarters in Manchester a large slide runs from the top floor to its reception area where beanbags catch employees hurtling to its base. Staff can make use of a free gym, a games room and a giant chess board near its entrance, and beers are handed out from an office bar on Friday afternoons.
In the summer the company car park is converted into a makeshift beach with sun loungers; one winter it was transformed into an ice-skating rink. Cinema and fancy dress events for staff are held throughout the year, and the Joneses are known for hosting an annual summer festival for the entire company in the grounds of their own home, dubbed UKFest.
Aside from Bupa health insurance, one of the most alluring company perks is the fact that large numbers of staff are invited to Mr Jones’ properties — Le Farinet in Verbier and the Castell Cidwm Lakehouse in Wales near Snowdon — for sports-filled holidays and team-bonding weekends.
Landing a job at UKFast often seemed like a dream come true, especially to those in their late teens and early twenties who were recruited directly by the entrepreneur in Manchester. One former employee said getting a job working for the millionaire initially felt like “winning the lottery”. Another viewed it as the “opportunity of a lifetime”.
The reality of working with Mr Jones quickly became apparent, according to former employees who described routine verbal abuse and sexually inappropriate behaviour in his daily interactions with staff at his company’s headquarters located at the end of Manchester’s Princess Parkway.
One woman, who was 20 when she began working for UKFast, said she was taken to a sex shop by Mr Jones just days after starting her new role as his PA, where he thrust a dildo into her face. She added that later that day he purchased a sex swing and lingerie and asked her to gift wrap the items back at the office.
The woman, who worked for just two weeks at UKFast, remains horrified by the experience. “In what world do you take a young girl to a sex shop three days after hiring her?” she said.
Referring to himself as ‘Loz’ or ‘LJ’ in the office, Mr Jones commonly sat in meetings or at social events with female employees on his lap, or walked around the office bare-chested, multiple sources said.
It is claimed the entrepreneur would openly discuss with junior employees intimate details about his sex life and quiz them about their own relationships.
Another woman said she was once called into his boardroom when he was having his hair cut while topless. She said Mr Jones put his fingers on his nipples and asked her: “Does this make you feel awkward?”
A third woman described how he knocked a glass of water into her lap and asked: “Am I making you wet?”
His overt displays of physical affection towards favourite employees — typically the young women hired to work as his PAs, receptionists or in marketing roles — allegedly often involved tickling, hugging, stroking women around the waist, or patting them on the bottom.
Impromptu shoulder rubs and massages for both male and female staff were also a regular occurrence, according to more than a dozen former employees.
Even worse for female staff were the meetings he organised in hot tubs or steam rooms at his properties in Manchester and Switzerland. “He would be encouraging people to sit on his knee or cuddle up next to him,” said one man, who described the working environment as “misogynistic”.
At the 2016 Christmas party, bowls were dotted around the venue filled with Le Farinet-branded condoms. A WhatsApp conversation, reviewed by the FT, between a group of employees shortly after the party showed their disgust, with one complaining that it felt like working in a “brothel”.
Public humiliations and foul-mouthed tirades by Mr Jones were common. He was often verbally abusive in meetings, across the open-plan office and in emails, according to more than a dozen former employees.
Many of those interviewed said they witnessed colleagues being sacked on a whim. “There was this atmosphere of fear and keeping your head down and being a yes-man because anything else would get you fired,” said one former communications assistant.
Representatives of Mr Jones have denied this, insisting that dismissals happened in accordance with employment law and good practice.
Representatives of UKFast said they took the allegations against Mr Jones extremely seriously and intended to investigate them.
Mr Jones in a statement emphasised that UKFast was a highly regarded business that had won several prestigious awards for its corporate culture. “We take great pride in the fact that our team have over the past 10 years been responsible for UKFast featuring regularly in the Sunday Times’ ‘Best Companies to Work For’ list and similarly in the ‘Great Place to Work’ list.”
Some of the FT’s sources spoke highly of working at UKFast when not working with Mr Jones personally.
The most serious allegations against Mr Jones involve sexual assault. One alleged victim said she was molested by the entrepreneur while on work trips to Mr Jones’ properties in Wales and Switzerland, including once at Richard Branson’s luxury Swiss chalet The Lodge.
She said: “[Mr Jones] would wake me up with his hands under the duvet. It was frightening. Then I would recoil, and he would walk out. He would have his hands under my knickers, in a place where I could not get away.
“[Once in Snowdon] he stood there with a cup of tea in one hand and the other hand in my underwear. I moved and he took his hand away and said: ‘We are climbing Mount Snowdon today’.”
A second alleged victim of sexual assault requested the details of her story were not published.
Mr Jones’ alleged actions have had a devastating impact on these two women’s lives and they remain traumatised by their experiences. One victim said she had struggled to form lasting romantic relationships in the aftermath of her experience, and although the abuse happened a number of years ago, she had only recently been able to talk about it to her mother.
One of the alleged victims left the company but later returned in a different role. Mr Jones’ supporters say this undermines her allegations.
Several former employees said they felt compelled to come forward about the businessman’s behaviour given his growing wealth and influence, particularly in Britain’s educational sector.
His company claims to have developed partnerships with more than 60 schools and colleges and to have supported 60,000 young people across Greater Manchester.
The focus is on improving digital skills and encouraging young women to enter the science, technology, engineering and maths industries. On UKFast’s website, the company promotes, for example, its links with the Girl Guides and a new “digital challenge” badge.
Last year his company posted pre-tax profits of £8.96m on turnover of £53.94m. Profits were lower than in 2017 because of a one-off £5m charitable donation to the UKFast Community and Education Trust, which aims to help disadvantaged youths.
Mr Jones’ business success has enabled him to make sizeable donations to numerous other causes, such as tackling homelessness.
In 2015, Mr Jones was awarded an MBE from the Queen for services to the digital economy, an accolade he highlights in his email signature and social media profiles. Last February, HRH Princess Anne visited UKFast’s Manchester office after granting the company a Princess Royal Training Award in 2018.
Several former employees have spoken out, despite confidentiality agreements, to raise complaints about Mr Jones’ behaviour and prevent other young women being put at risk. Multiple former employees described him as a “bully” with an intimidating presence in and outside the workplace.
“The ability to pay your way out of trouble — that’s really dangerous,” said one former male employee.
“When I first started, UKFast seemed amazing and Lawrence seemed like he had built this amazing company with this great culture,” said one former employee. Several months later, she had taken a radically different view. “It was really dire . . . You felt like you were walking on eggshells a lot of the time. You didn’t know when [Mr Jones] was going to be like your best friend and giving you shoulder rubs, or when he would explode.”
Many former employees said it had taken months, if not years, to recover from their experience working for the entrepreneur. One says she is overcome by anxiety whenever she sees a Bentley — one of several luxury cars he owns — drive through Manchester.
For the alleged sexual assault victims whose lives have been ripped apart by the entrepreneur, that recovery process is ongoing.
One said she wanted to expose the businessman’s behaviour to ensure no other women endured what she went through. “If I can do anything to protect anyone’s daughter from going through that, that’s what has driven me.”
Additional reporting by Andy Bounds
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