Big-hearted Ken to give away millions

Ken Townsley
Ken Townsley
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A multi-millionaire who bounced back from being made redundant to feature on the Rich List is giving the majority of his fortune away.

Former Blackpool Airport baggage handler Ken Townsley, who went on to launch Gold Medal Travel, which he later sold in an £87m deal, has already started handing out hundreds of thousands of pounds to worthy causes.

And Margaret Ingram, who runs the media-shy entrepreneur’s Kentown Wizard Foundation from an office off Preston New Road, said a total of £100m has been pledged, which will go towards helping children with life-limiting or terminal illnesses in perpetuity.

But rather than taking applications for funding, the foundation is – after scrutinising each charity, including their accounts and a Dragons’ Den style grilling of its staff – approaching them directly to help.

Speaking from the foundation’s tiny base, in a shared block that once housed Ken’s entire empire, Margaret said: “Quite often they are very surprised to hear from us because they have not applied. We just ask if they want some money!”

Two of the charities to benefit so far include Brian House Children’s Hospice in Bispham, which will be given £75,000-a-year to fund two nurses’ wages, and Donna’s Dreamhouse in central Blackpool, which is being gutted and will get a full refurbishment in time for Easter.

David Houston, chief executive of Brian House, said the donation will make a ‘huge difference’ to the 80 youngsters currently being cared for at the outstanding-rated hospice, in Low Moor Road.

He said: “This is such a generous donation. Covering our day to day running costs is a constant challenge and having the support of Kentown Wizard means such a lot to us. Grants like this do not come along very often and we feel very fortunate to have the support of this local foundation.”

And Len Curtis, the founder of Donna’s Dreamhouse, in Chapel Street, said: “It’s a phenomenal charitable gesture. I can’t believe it. It’s like winning the lottery.

“We got a letter saying we would be considered, but it didn’t have much information other than they wanted to come and talk to us. Then it came to a couple of meetings. It was only revealed on Wednesday the extent of the help they wanted to give.

“We’ve had the Secret Millionaire and people who have given anonymously, but nothing like this before. It’s unique.”

AIRPORT

Ken, now 71, started working at Blackpool Airport at 15. He worked his way up to position of reservations manager and went on to work for British Eagle Airways until it closed and he was made redundant in 1968.

Ken used his redundancy money to set up Trident Travel, later renamed Gold Medal Travel, in Church Street, Blackpool town centre.

By 1990, it employed 85 staff and moved to Blackpool Business Park, before moving to a £5 million hi-tech office complex at Preston’s Docklands in 1999.

Despite the shift, it still employed dozens of coastal workers, with staff numbers topping 600 – including 300 call centre staff.

Ken is estimated to have pocketed around £87m when the company was sold to Thomas Cook. It still operates from its Preston HQ, and now belongs to the Emirates Group.

And although he now lives in Florida, Ken, who declined to speak about his generosity, still has a flat in St Annes and was there last week.

Margaret, an accountant who worked for Gold Medal before it moved to Preston, described Ken as someone who is careful with cash and shuns the media spotlight.

Though he lives a comfortable lifestyle and enjoys travelling the world, she said he still looks for value for money – even checking price tags on everyday items.

“He doesn’t have a chaffeur or cook,” she said. “I went out to see him in Thailand recently and he cleans the place himself and he cooks for himself.

“He does not have a Playboy lifestyle.”

And it was Ken who identified the first five charities he wanted to support. In addition to Brian House, he chose Operation Smile and gave £200,000 towards a medical mission that saw youngsters’ cleft pallets fixed for free in Somalia.

He also gave £200,000 each to Make-A-Wish Foundation and Dreams Come True, and £20,000 to the Rainbow Trust, which gives emotional and practical support to families of poorly children.

The foundation has since chosen to support Kids Cancer Charity, formerly the Christian Lewis Trust, in Wales, by paying £50,000 for a specially-adapted caravan that will be used for respite breaks.

“Ken just lets us get on with it,” Margaret said. “He does not really want to be involved in the day-to-day decision making process.

“The charities will be UK-based but it’s nice we are starting in Blackpool because Ken is Blackpool born and bred.”