Sir James’s career started in 1953 when he took over his brother Teddy’s tiny company Dagonal, which held the licence to sell unproven rheumatism remedy Lloyd’s Adrenalin Cream. It was losing money and sales were declining, but in Sir James’ words, ‘it had a licence, and a letterhead, and something to get to grips with.’
After realising Dagonal’s business model – owning trademarks and farming out the production of its products – was not profitable, he formed his own manufacturing company, Laboratoires Cassene. From the start Sir James was a dynamic businessman, expanding the company at a breakneck pace while making extraordinary innovations such as the introduction of generic drugs to the European market, and an entirely new system of trading that bypassed distributors and sold directly to wholesalers – at the age of only twenty-three. Sales ballooned and the workforce grew to more than four hundred after just four years.
However, larger drug companies conspired to block his plans, and after taking on too much debt to finance expansion, Sir James found himself facing bankruptcy in the spring of 1957. This was a harrowing experience he never forgot, and he was saved only by a stroke of luck. A six-week bank strike gave him time to arrange to sell the company for £120,000 cash and ongoing royalties worth approximately £4,000 per month – enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life. But Sir James had bigger ambitions. In November he set up a new company in England, Ward Casson, to sell cortisone derivatives and the business grew quickly.
In 1959, Sir James purchased an English chain of twenty-eight old-fashioned chemists called Lewis and Burrows. He envisioned turning these into a new kind of chemist aimed at mothers with young children. During the next few years, he partnered with his previous banker Selim Zilkha to develop the Mothercare chain, along with a new fake-tan product, Right Tan, developed by Sir James’s French company.
While Right Tan found success in France, Mothercare proved more difficult and expensive to get off the ground. After facing losses of more than £200,000 at the end of 1961, Sir James sold his stake in Mothercare to his partner and bought Zilkha’s stake in the French business.
On his own again, Jimmy began launching new products in 1962, and found success with a slimming product: Milical. In 1963 he sold a third of Milical and began looking for food companies to buy in the UK, where he believed an economic boom was on its way.