Having started his first business when he was just 17 Jonathan Ruff is a career entrepreneur. He made Jersey his home nine years ago and since then he’s become most well known for changing the face of entertaining families and youngsters, thanks to the building of Tamba Park. We talked to him about life before and after dinosaurs…
Talk to us a little about Tamba Park and in particular the charitable element of it:
I have a feeding programme called Ruffs Kitchens, it feeds starving children at schools in Zimbabwe. Up until Tamba was born I supported the feeding programme myself, feeding 5,000 children every day. I wanted to grow the programme and make it sustainable so it can carry on if I’m around, or not!
So when I found out the old Lion Park was for sale I thought it would provide the perfect opportunity to build a business which would support the feeding programme, as well as making somewhere for children to have fun, and that’s how Tamba was born! I acquired the park and then spent several months thinking of what to do with it and it snowballed from there. We started with dinos, a boat lake, an outdoor play area, café and sculpture garden. Then eight months later we added the indoor play area, bird of prey centre and restaurant. We can now feed over 10,000 children and I want to keep on growing Tamba with the aim of reaching the 20,000+ meal mark as soon as possible.
Having moved to Jersey nine years ago, what’s your favourite thing about living here? There are many things to like about Jersey. I like the community feeling which I didn’t get where I come from in Preston. I also like that I don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to do business and I can put my kids to bed each night!
It’s a fantastic place to bring up my children. Some people say Jersey is sheltered and children don’t know what the real world is, but I’d rather have my kids live a sheltered life at a young age than have to deal with the real world. Let’s face it, the world is a messed up place and they have a lifetime to deal with that, so I feel privileged I am able to bring them up in Jersey.
Do you have a place you always take visitors? Being asked this sort of question makes me realise how much I work and how little I socialise!
I like to show people Tamba, that’s very sad isn’t it? Jersey is very different from the UK, around every corner there is a beautiful view, an awesome restaurant, a great beach, so just traveling around the island is what I like to do with visitors and family when they’re over.
You’re really hands-on at Tamba Park, has this helped you to identify ways in which to grow and develop it? I like to be hands on with all my businesses. It’s the key to fully understanding it and making it work and I like to learn new things. My current obsession is the kitchen. It’s the first restaurant I’ve owned so working the pass, learning how to create meals and how the kitchen operates is very exciting. We have just three chefs who oversee up to 500 covers a day. Listening to our customers and making changes based on their feedback is how we’ve grown Tamba though.
All that time in the kitchen, do you have a signature dish? Toast it’s awesome and very understated! Seriously though, I’m no chef, although I like to try.
Ever thought about running for local politics? Never, ever,, ever! I am an entrepreneur not a politician, I like a dictatorship. I think I would be a nightmare in politics. But, I have learnt over the years you need to fight for what you believe in and I am not scared to say what I feel and if something isn’t right I will go to great lengths to make it right.
You started your first business when you were 17 and have continued to build successful businesses since then, have you ever had an idea that’s just not made it?
Oh yes, I don’t dodge raindrops like some people think! I have been lucky in business, but you can’t win them all! As long as you learn from your mistakes and aren’t scared to admit when you’ve made one, you will be successful in business.
My biggest mistake was a company called Promo Machine. It was an affiliate based search engine for online deals I created. I spent far too much on creating the website and then underestimated the marketing spend required to get it off the ground. After spending £1M on development and marketing and not getting the return I’d have expected I closed the business down before I got in too deep. It hurt a lot and I still think about it today as it was such a waste of money. But it taught me loads and I’ve had many successful business ventures since.
You were quoted in The Sunday Times saying “When a company gets near to 100 employees or sales of £40m, it isn’t for me.” Why is that? That was a while back! It depends on the business but I don’t like it when I don’t know the people I employ. I don’t like it when a company turns corporate, revenue is just revenue and that doesn’t matter to me, it’s how the business feels. I feel I’m good at starting businesses from scratch and taking it to a level. Or going into a business, analysing it to see how they could grow or where they are going wrong. But when a business needs to become corporate to grow someone else is better at the helm. The great thing about what I am doing now is it’ll never be the case.
What’s next for Ruff Ventures? That’s a good question I would like to think I will take it easy one day, but I can’t see that happening in the near future, if ever.
I like what I am doing now, I have a property development business that’s growing. With Tamba Park, Tamba Arcade, Tamba Bar, my charity Ruffs Kitchen’s I have a lot on the go. But I still have the energy to do more. I would really like a themed hotel, and to get my hands on Fort Regent and get that cable car going again.
I see my future in entertainment. I enjoy putting smiles on people’s faces, it gives me a lot of happiness. So I hope to continue developing entertainment in Jersey.
*Editorial note: If you’re not familiar with The Prodigy’s album ‘Experience’, then the title of this article is probably lost on you.