FORMER troubled teen James Benamor knows all about going off the rails.
But father-of-four James – living on the equivalent of benefits and driving a clapped out car – had a secret.
He is actually a multi-millionaire, worth £77m, and had gone undercover to meet people tackling the problems of gun and knife crime and social deprivation.
He ended up handing over part of his own fortune to some of the people he met during a journey of discovery which left him in tears.
James, 30, is managing director of The Richmond Group, which looks after the financial needs of people who have been refused credit.
Now a hugely successful businessman based in Bournemouth, he started his finance company at the age of 21 after overcoming teenage problems.
“I was taking a lot of drugs, I became a petty criminal, really. I was a nightmare,” he tells a new series of Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire.
“There were several occasions where I could have ended up in prison or intensive care. But I managed to pull myself out of it.
“What turned me from a criminal into a member of society was believing that there was a place for me there, and I’d like to be able to open those doors for someone who is in the situation that I was in.”
Having left his luxury lifestyle behind, James spoke to people on the streets and visited a number of local projects, keeping up his cover story about voluntary work.
He worked as a classroom assistant at the Manchester Settlement, a place for youngsters who don’t fit into mainstream education. It encourages them to gain the qualifications they will need in later life.
One of the students told him: “You went through school – and done all your GCSEs, and you ain’t earning lots of money cos I’ve seen your car.”
James also met members of Mothers Against Violence, the group of Manchester mums whose children or loved ones have been the victims of street violence.
He broke down in tears on camera when talking to Miranda, whose only son Justin, 19, was shot dead five years ago.
“Speaking to Miranda brought it home how enormously just one single death can affect someone or a family or a whole community,” he said.
His search of the area also led him to retired couple Ann Panks and Terry Panler, who opened up their home as a hostel for homeless teenage boys – with some 870 referred by local authority agencies in the last 29 years.
At the end of his stay in Moss Side, the tough entrepreneur revealed his true identity and handed out cheques to those he believes will benefit from the cash. One astonished youth worker said: “This is the sort of stuff that you dream about.”
James admitted: “I wasn’t really prepared for the emotional side of it. I didn’t expect to get emotionally involved in what I saw. It’s been surprising.
“There are people that we’ve met that have just blown my expectations out of the water. I’ve also taken away a respect for volunteers and for people who take action themselves to make their communities a better place.”
July 31, 2008
Manchester Evening News