James Palumbo is a living enigma. A man of many contradictions.
He loves classical music, but is the founder of the Ministry of Sound
He lends Peter Mandelson a chauffeured car during the election, while at
the same time lending his support to the local Southwark & Bermondsey
Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes.
He is the millionaire, Eton-educated son of a property developer,
inhabiting a world a far cry from the people he is in the business of
In fact, the only thing certain about Palumbo is that he has the Midas
touch. He has turned a derelict south London warehouse into arguably the
world’s most successful nightclub.
Since it opened its doors for business in 1991, the Ministry of Sound
has grown from its south London roots into a worldwide empire, giving
birth to a number of lucrative spin-offs, including a record company
with one million sales annually and a clothing brand.
Now, the Ministry business is said to be worth pounds 20m, and its
founder Palumbo has aspirations to take the brand with its distinctive
globe logo to greater heights.
This week, he launches a magazine, Ministry, which aims to be the ’first
magazine in Britain to reflect all aspects of clubbing life’, according
to the PR blurb. It might be just another magazine but it is a measure
of the confidence that Palumbo has in the power of the Ministry
It is hard to believe that only six years ago after he had sunk pounds
250,000 of his own money into the venture it was on the brink of
collapse. Within weeks of opening the club - which is modelled on a New
York gay club called the Paradise Garage - it had become a haven for
drug dealers. Pilfering and drug dealing by staff and security was
slowly draining away the fund, and slowly but surely, Palumbo saw his
investment dwindle to nothing.
Instead of closing up and counting his losses he decided to reinvest and
make a go of the business by himself.
After months of searching, he found the right people to staff the club
and recruited a team of young marketers to promote it. Given the
shelf-life of anything in the fashion world it is remarkable the concept
has remained so fresh. But by changing the look of the club every six
weeks Palumbo ensured the Ministry always appeared to be new and
’By changing the way it looks, we sort of changed some of the rules,’ he
Posters and flyers constantly flow from the marketing department and a
slick, if low-key, PR campaign maintains the Ministry’s presence among
Again, being an outsider, Palumbo felt comfortable in changing the
rules; he brought discipline to an industry not exactly noted for its
It is this business sense that has led brands, such as Absolut Vodka and
Sega, to knock at the Ministry’s doors to expose their brand to the
But his notoriety also derives from the long-running battle between him
and his estranged father, the former Arts Council chairman and
property-developer millionaire, Lord Palumbo, which has been widely
aired in the press.
He has not spoken to Lord Palumbo in over a decade and recently went
through the courts to wrest his trust-fund off his father - an
experience that has left him thoroughly bored of talking about the whole
affair to the media.
Instead, the 34-year-old Palumbo, who on leaving Oxford went into the
City and worked as a merchant banker, has poured his energies into the
Ministry. He has serious ambitions for the brand. An illuminated sign on
the wall reads: ’We are building a global entertainment business based
on a strong aspirational brand respected for its creativity and quality.
The Ministry of Sound team will be more professional, hard working and
innovative than any other on the planet.’
As mission statements go it beats the sort of notice one expects to read
at nightclubs, which normally absolve the management of any
responsibility for one’s personal welfare once you pass through its
It’s clear that Palumbo’s sights are set on his future profile as a
businessman, entrepreneur and politician.
The club ran an advertising campaign using explicit shots, such as a
urinal daubed with the words ’Piss on Niggers’ and a picture of a man
carrying the placard ’Praise God for Aids’. Underneath ran the line ’Use
your vote. You know he’ll use his.’
Palumbo was recently appointed by the government to bring new teeth to
the Citizen’s Charter. But politics is unlikely to seriously divert his
attention from the business of running the Ministry.
After all, a man who has been used to wielding unaccountable power and
influence is unlikely to be happy in Parliament.
Various positions in the City of London at Morgan Grenfell, Hambro
Magan, Merrill Lynch
Founder and owner, Ministry of Sound