It was more than ten years ago, while gazing on to the Thames from his favourite bench in south London, when Peter Hanratty finally decided to take the plunge. He made a decision that led him to leave behind his banking career, start his own business and move halfway across the world.
He was 45 and searching for something more meaningful in his life. The epiphany on “Peter’s Bench” was the final straw in his increasing dissatisfaction with the direction of his life.
“I needed to do something different. I was becoming very disenchanted with the world’s response to climate change, and I felt that I wanted to do something about it.”
So he left the city to help a Portuguese entrepreneur set up a biofuel business. For three years, Peter helped him to raise money, which brought him to Latin America and Germany, where he learned about the technology and the biofuel industry.
When a deal with BP fell through, Peter decided to go it alone.
The solo move led him to become interested in harvesting jatropha, a plant that grows on eroded land and can be used to produce an alternative fuel for tractors, trucks, central heating and air conditioning.
Crucially, jatropha uses marginal land that would not be able to sustain food crops.
The decision to start his own biofuel company eventually led him to Madagascar (by way of Tanzania), where he set up Fuelstock (a play on the word “feedstock”), which harvests and sells the jatropha biofuel.
No regrets about quitting London
On a recent trip back to London, Peter sat down with High50 back at his favourite bench on the Thames, where he first had his idea to change his life radically. Despite the huge change, he tells us he has no regrets about leaving London.
“It’s terrifying, yes, but then after about six months or a year and you look back and think, ‘Why didn’t I do this earlier?'”
However, it wasn’t easy, especially when he was trying to raise funds for his burgeoning company.
“Sometimes you’ll have one meeting scheduled all week, and it means so much to you. If someone cancels on you, you start asking questions about yourself and you start getting paranoid – and you cannot go there. You’ve got to look in the mirror and go, ‘OK, I’ll find someone else.’”
“It’s not easy to do, but you have to do it and that’s where you acquire real strength and inner belief.”
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Now, at 57, Peter is happily settled in Madagascar, but admits that sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
“What I’m doing now is not something where you can just look at the Evening Standard or the FT and find an advert saying ‘Entrepreneurs needed to set up a project in Madagascar1. It just doesn’t happen. You have to create it yourself,” he says.
His day-to-day life is virtually unrecognisable from his previous life in London. He never wears trousers or a jacket and instead is always in a pair of shorts, since he spends a great portion of his day on the jatropha plantation.
“Now, my employees are like a family. We have an Irish bar called Hanratty’s Irish Bar in the town of Mahajanga [in Madagascar]. It’s surreal – and that’s our head office. We have an office in what used to be the living room, but the whole terrace is now a restaurant and it’s where people come to work and do business.”
Employing local farmers: the most fulfilling part of my business
When asked to muse on his previous life and his current one, he laughs.
“Chalk and cheese. I’ve never been poorer. I’ve never been richer. Poorer in terms of money: pounds and pence but richer in terms of what we’re doing.”
What he finds most fulfilling is being able to employ thousands of jatropha farmers.
“You’re giving them a livelihood they never otherwise would have had, like creating employment for them. It’s a fantastic feeling to be able to help create something and see it before your eyes.”
It was the skills Peter honed in his banking career that give him the ability to start his own business: raising money, negotiating and travelling internationally.
“So many people stay at the same job because they think that’s the only thing I can do. They’re programmed. But in fact, you use it for the information and the expertise you’re acquiring to do completely different things. And that’s a liberating feeling,” he says.
When asked if he’ll stay in Madagascar forever, he doesn’t balk at the question.
“Never say never. At the moment, I feel probably more fulfilled and happy than I ever have in my life. I also feel I’m meant to be there and that does sound a very pretentious thing to say but it’s honestly something very strong in me.“
Peter Hanratty’s top tips for later-life entrepreneurs
1. I take inspiration from my father. He was a GP for nearly 40 years in Derbyshire and he found his true vocation at 60. He helped set up the hospice movement looking after people dying of cancer. He was a really inspirational figure. I used to joke with my father and say, “I beat you to it. You had to wait until 60. I found mine at 50.”
2. It’s never too late to find your own way in life.
3. If you feel that people laugh at you, probably you’ve found the right thing to do. Go down to basics.
4. Never be too proud to accept you make mistakes. It’s through mistakes that you really learn and that’s frankly how it should be.