It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: British tycoon gave away supercars and fortune to find happiness

Mr Dylan Wilk secured a £2,500 loan from Prince Charles' foundation to start a business selling games, and at 25 became the ninth-richest man in Britain under the age of 30. However, he gave it all up and started a social enterprise to help the poor
Mr Dylan Wilk secured a £2,500 loan from Prince Charles' foundation to start a business selling games, and at 25 became the ninth-richest man in Britain under the age of 30. However, he gave it all up and started a social enterprise to help the poor.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Briton who built a computer game empire at 25 has been helping the homeless in the Philippines

When Dylan Wilk was 25 in 2000, The Guardian newspaper named him the ninth-richest man in Britain under the age of 30.

"I had a Ferrari 355 Spider, a Porsche 911, a BMW M3 and BMW M5, all at the same time," says Mr Wilk, now 43.

For good measure, he would take a helicopter to work if he did not fancy being caught in a traffic jam.

Although his wealth, which came from a computer game empire he built and sold, afforded him all that his heart desired, he was not happy.

So he sold off all his shares and travelled the world to find out what would make him fulfilled.

He gave freely to causes but never found one that resonated.

Then one day, someone convinced him to go to the Philippines and look at initiatives by Gawad Kalinga (GK) Community Development Foundation, a poverty alleviation movement out to end poverty for five million families by 2024.

Over six years, he gave away his fortune to build settlements for slum dwellers and the homeless.

He now runs a highly successful social enterprise, Human Nature, which produces cosmetics and other products. The business combines fair trade and eco-friendly practices to pay higher-than-average salaries and help poor farmers.


Mr Wilk (second from left) with volunteers and residents at the opening of GK Human Nature Village in 2014, where the homeless and slum dwellers are resettled. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DYLAN WILK

"I've realised money can be a path to happiness by enabling other people to have it, more than me getting it myself. And I have enough," says Mr Wilk who was in Singapore recently on a visit.

He was not born with a silver spoon, not by a long shot.

In fact, his was a sad childhood and adolescence, marked by poverty, neglect and abuse.

He was born in Bradford, to a musician-cum-writer and a housewife.

His father left the family for the United States when Mr Wilk, who has a younger sister, was five.

"My earliest memory was of him kicking my mother," he says grimly.

For a couple of years after his father left, life was happy.

"There were no more conflicts. And my mother really tried," says Mr Wilk who managed to get into Bradford Grammar School, one of the best independent schools in Britain, on a scholarship when he was eight.

Things, however, took a bad turn at home. Years of abuse and trauma caused his mother to turn to the bottle. "To insulate myself from the trauma at home, I stopped feeling a lot of emotions, stopped feeling a lot of things," he says, adding that he also threw himself into his studies.

But things got so bleak that he turned to self-harm when he was 16, cutting his right cheek with a knife. His alarmed teachers alerted social workers.

"My sister went to a foster family. I went to stay with an aunt and her husband in France. It was a terrible time and completely painful," says Mr Wilk, who spent a year in a small farming town called Hazebrouck.

He had a hard time coping in school because of the language barrier. His misery was compounded by the fact that his aunt's husband was also an alcoholic.

He went back to Bradford barely a year later to live with his maternal grandmother, and got himself a job with an aquarium and pond supply company.

"The company did direct selling and mail order. In those days, there was no Internet, so people would just call up and we would ship their orders to them. I learnt a lot about logistics, marketing and other things," he says.

One day, he found out through his paternal grandmother that his father wanted to see him and would pay for him to fly to California.

"So I went. There was anger but I also wanted to get over it and see if anything could be built from the ashes," he says.

Holed up in a tiny shack in a city called Twentynine Palms in the Mojave Desert, his father was struggling to make ends meet as a scriptwriter, and was bitter.

"After he met me, he said, 'I don't think you'll ever amount to anything. You're just ordinary, you won't go very far. You will never get rich working for someone else'," he says, shaking his head.

After a couple of weeks, Mr Wilk flew back to his job. His father's words, however, stuck in his head, prompting him to think about what he wanted to do.

Eventually he decided to start a business selling computer games by mail. Although he did not know much about computer games, he reckoned he was young enough to connect with his customers.

"My idea was simple. Just sell games at prices lower than those on the High Street."

Getting a loan from the banks proved impossible, so he turned to The Prince's Trust, a British charity set up by Prince Charles and Mr Frederick John Pervin to help young people.

A loan of £2,500 from the trust in 1994 changed his life.

To start his company, Gameplay, Mr Wilk spent weeks on the phone negotiating prices with distributors.

Next, he blew nearly £2,000 on an advertisement in a magazine called Mean Machine Sega.

"Frankly, I survived only because of a mistake."

The magazine had laid out the ad and faxed it to him, but he did not notice that there was a mistake in the price of Mortal Kombat II, the biggest-selling game then.

"I wanted to sell it at £46.99 but they put it at £42.99. So I became the cheapest place in the country to buy it from, but that was less than what I was paying for the game."

He spent the next two weeks pleading with the manufacturer to drop the price and let him make at least £1 for each copy he sold.

"They just got sick of me and they agreed," says Mr Wilk, who sold 3,000 copies of the game that month.

 

The episode taught him three important things. "One, price really matters. Two, never take no for an answer. And three, you can always find a way to negotiate."

His revenue in the first year was more than £980,000, with a small loss of £2,000.

"By the second year, I was earning more and by the third year, I was earning a lot. In the fourth year, I bought a Ferrari, a BMW and a Porsche, and I started going to work by helicopter," he says.

When he was 25, Gameplay became the first dot.com business to be listed on the London Stock Exchange.

"The valuation in 2000 was £600 million," says Mr Wilk, who became a director of the company and was given a 5 per cent stake.

But he soon started feeling guilty, a feeling which intensified when his grandmother died in his arms.

"It was a very powerful moment because I remembered everything she had taught me, which I had forgotten as an adult," he says.

"She was an orphan and a refugee from Poland and started working as a household helper when she was four. She had a really tough life but was the most giving person I knew, and when she died, I suddenly realised what a selfish person I had become."

Not long after, in a hotel in Beverly Hills, he had another awakening.

"I realised there was a big difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure, whether it's a new car or nice clothes, always has a price tag. Happiness comes from your relationships and knowing there is a purpose to your life," he says.

So Mr Wilk sold off his shares and started travelling the world to find meaningful things he could do with his money.

Nothing stirred his soul until 2003, when he visited a GK settlement in Bagong Silang where the denizens were resettled from various slums in Manila.

"I went home and looked at the brand new BMW I had bought and started feeling sick, because the car was worth about 80 houses in the Philippines," says Mr Wilk, who sold off the car and donated the sum to GK.

Meanwhile, Mr Tony Meloto, then the head of GK, told him he should help to build the settlement too if he really wanted to help.

"When you write a cheque, you don't feel the joy of giving because you don't see the result. But with GK, I saw the houses go up. I saw the people whose lives were transformed and what an amazing impact it had on them."

His initial plan to stay just six weeks fell by the wayside because he "fell in love with the Philippines, the work and his (Mr Meloto's) daughter".

Over the next six years, Mr Wilk gave away his fortune, which incidentally shrank to a few million because of the dot.com crash, and built many GK villages.

He also spent a year in the US with his wife Anna - Mr Meloto's daughter whom he married in 2004 and with whom he has six children, aged between six months and 12 years - building a network of volunteers for GK.

There, they noticed a trend for affordable and ethically made products and started thinking about a line of cosmetics which would be "pro-Philippines, pro-poor and pro-environment".

They set up Human Nature in 2008 with Anna's sister Camille.

There were a couple of bumps along the way but Human Nature soon took off in a big way. Today, the company has its own team of scientists who have developed nearly 250 products - from shampoo to laundry detergent - which are sold in the region, the Middle East and North America.

Many of the people they employ are among some of the poorest in the country. The company also has a no-firing policy and pays higher-than-average wages.

Turnover last year was nearly US$10 million (S$13.6 million), and Mr Wilk expects that to increase by 30 per cent this year.

The social entrepreneur is happy with the way his life has turned out. His mother, he says, went on to work with the homeless and alcoholics after successfully kicking her drinking habit. His father, however, does not talk to him any more, although Mr Wilk is hopeful they will reconcile one day.

"If I hadn't gone through those hardships in my life, I don't think I would have succeeded the way I have. I don't think I would have learnt to help other people."

He laughs when asked if he misses his cars. "Sometimes, so when I'm overseas, I'll rent a nice BMW for a few days just to reminisce.

"But I will never buy one again, because one Ferrari is 200 houses where I live. And I just can't do the maths in my head any more and come out on the side of the Ferrari."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 12, 2017, with the headline 'Tycoon gave away supercars and fortune to find happiness'. Print Edition | Subscribe