The Wild West: Eastenders founder Dave West remembered
In later life, Dave West became something of self-parody, frequently snapped in trademark flamboyant coloured suits surrounded by glamorous young women, sipping Champagne and enjoying the high life. His murder just before Christmas was the final tragic chapter in the life of an ordinary bloke from a humble background, seduced by the trappings of wealth and power that his success in business brought him.
The former boss of the Eastenders Cash & Carry business died from a single stab wound at his £2.5 million house in London’s wealthy Mayfair district. Neighbour and actor Stephen Fry heard the screams. West's son, Dave Junior, has been charged with his murder.
To the tabloids, West was a colourful working class hero done good, the owner of restaurants and clubs in London’s West End, prepared to make a show of himself for the cameras in fly-on-the wall documentaries.
West’s exploits in opening his Hey Jo celebrity hang-out were the subject of one such TV series, but he wouldn’t have looked out of place in an adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel or as a character in the soap opera from which he lifted the name of his business.
But to the drinks trade he will always be the founder of the notorious cash and carry in Calais, and a cigarette warehouse in Belgium, that became the biggest players in the booze cruise business of the early 1990s and left an enduring legacy for the industry.
Without West to light the fuse, booze cruises may not have taken off as they did. Off-licence business in the south east of England that have long since been forgotten might never have gone to the wall. UK wine agency companies and wholesalers that closed in subsequent years might not have gone the same way.
The supermarkets might never have seen the opportunity that low-cost alcohol presented to drive footfall to their burgeoning estates of superstores. There may have been no slab-of-lager deals, no two- cases-for-£16, possibly even no three-for-£10 on wine.
Cross-Channel shopping might not have spilled over into the shadow activity of diversion fraud in the UK wholesale trade, without which there would be no duty strip stamps on spirits to authenticate them
as eligible for sale on the domestic market. Recent campaigns for similar marks on beer and a registra- tion system for drinks wholesalers have direct lineage back to those times and the businesses that supplied booze cruises, of which West was the biggest and best-known.
But West was also the most brazen in his business approach. Many British companies who joined the rush to set up shop in Calais tried to put on a show that their customers were buying for personal use, even though the queues of white vans in their car parks told a different story.
West made no bones about the fact that he was selling to gangs who were breaking the law by driving back van loads of booze to the UK to sell on the cheap and without a licence on the streets of Britain’s housing estates. West was always careful to point out that in doing so he had kept within the letter of the law, citing himself as a “modern day Robin Hood”, taking from the rich drinks manufacturers and supermarkets to give to hard-up drinkers who might otherwise not be able to afford their favourite tipple.
Many observers privately raised doubts about the legitimacy of West’s affairs and there were frequent visits from the tax office and other regulators – though no mud was ever made to stick.
Marco Attard was a competitor of West after opening a store in Calais in 1993 and remembers him as “lovable rogue who bent any rule he could”.
“Make no mistake, he was a very shrewd man,” says Attard. “I first met him in 1992 and he remembered me three years later from that first brief meeting when I’d stuck my head through the hatch at the warehouse.
“It’s hard to explain, but he had this way of knowing what you were thinking – nothing sinister but he was just very clever.”
By the time HM Customs & Revenue raided Eastenders’ UK depots in 2010, West had long moved on to his glamorous tabloid lifestyle.
The drinks trade had already seen signs of his flamboyant style back in the booze cruise days when he hired space at a succession of London Wine Trade Fairs, spending most of the time holding court or parading round the exhibition floor with scantily- dressed female models.
These were times when the wine trade was considerably more stiff upper lip and pin-striped than today and many visitors and fellow exhibitors chose to keep their distance, not quite sure how to take it. West admitted privately that he wanted to be there as much to stick two fingers up to his critics as to do business.
Attard says: “There was certainly a nervousness about him in the UK trade because they were naturally worried what he was going to do with their brands, and let’s face it, Eastenders wasn’t a very nice place to go into. But they also knew that he had a lot of buying power.”
The public face was gung-ho but West was a canny operator who learned about business as a barrow boy on Romford market and, later, flogging cigarettes to day trippers from the top of a double decker bus. It was business conducted through instinct, nerve, opportunity, brass neck and the nose for a deal, not through studying for an MBA.
His hand-written letters to OLN at the time were barely literate but there was never any doubt about the message they carried. It was a style that relied a lot on charisma.
“He was very good at generating interest from the press and getting the TV on board,” says Attard. “He always wanted to do the controversial thing. If the trade was going one way he’d go the other, because that’s how he got attention.”
He may have intimidated the suits at the LIWF but he was always approachable, open, humble even – aware of his own good fortune, the graft that had won it, and the fragile foundations on which small business empires are sometimes built.
Today’s drinks industry is filled with brand owners, bar owners and retailers who claim to be doing things “a little bit different”, but West was one who went the whole hog.
Love him or loathe him, there’ll never be another like Dave West.