A multimillionaire founder of a massive housebuilding company once lived in a caravan with no electricity or water.
Steve Morgan, from Garston, Liverpool, lived in a caravan for three years while growing up in Merseyside and North Wales.
He was born to teenage parents who had little money, and he didn’t have an indoor toilet until the age of seven.
They also lived without any electricity or water, while his dad worked for the Royal Air Force.
Six decades on, he has donated more than £50m to diabetes research
Sitting in a converted barn, home to his office with an ornate wooden desk below exposed beams, the 69-year-old founder of Redrow housebuilding company – which is on the London Stock Exchange – is a long way from the two paper routes he cycled every morning before school.
He regularly arrived late to school after delivering 120 papers on the 15-mile rounds, which one day landed him in trouble with a prefect who tried to give Steve detention.
Steve said he punched the prefect’s face after they tried to ‘yank’ Steve ‘back from behind’, ultimately leading to him being kicked out of school.
He doesn’t regret it, saying: “If I’d have known what was going to happen, I’d have hit him twice.”
With too low a threshold for boredom to become an accountant, and not good enough eyesight to be a fighter pilot, Steve got a job on a building site.
He fell in love with everything about construction, even the smell of the earth, and worked his way up to become a site manager by 19.
But when the civil engineering company he worked for in Liverpool announced it wouldn’t be taking on any new work, Steve knew he’d be out of a job in two months when it closed down.
They’d just taken on a council contract to build a sewage system, which they weren’t able to complete, so in two weeks, 21-year-old Steve set up Redrow to do it for them, using his dad’s business and PAYE system to hire workers and pay for supplies.
With that £5,000 investment, Steve said he finished the job ahead of schedule and made a profit of £5,000, which would be worth more than £38,000 in 2021.
Redrow eventually expanded from roads, sewers, factories and offices to building council and housing association homes.
But by the early 1980s, it was “a contracting business” while councils “were really feeling the squeeze” of Margaret Thatcher’s cuts to public spending.
Steve “cursed her” for a while before seeing an opportunity in the higher profits of the private housing market, where he said companies could sell houses they built for an average of £19,000, while the council had been paying Redrow £10,000.
By the time he stepped down as chair of Redrow in 2019, after 45 years with the company, it had a revenue of £2.1bn and had built enough homes to make a city the size of Nottingham, which had a population of 323,700 at the time of last year’s census.
Steve said: “Even from the early days, I loved speaking to the customers, I loved them saying ‘I love my new home’, and always took pride in it.”
He’s made mistakes along the way, with the failure of his bid for being his biggest regret. Watching Liverpool, managed by Bill Shankly, win the 1965 FA Cup “on a little black and white screen” is Steve’s happiest childhood memory.
In 2004, Steve tried to buy a majority stake in the club, but he said “some quite serious black holes” in its accounts led him to offer £73m, which the club’s board rejected because they felt it undervalued by the club.
Had he known LFC would win the Champions League in Istanbul the next year and see its TV revenue soar, he’d have put in a higher bid.
Steve said: “If I’d have had a crystal ball, the deal would have gone through.”
Always “being the new kid on the block”, picked on for fights in school, toughened him up, taught him how to adapt, and helped shape him for his future.
He doesn’t resort to fists anymore, but Steve still considers himself a fighter, describing himself as “tough but fair in business”, and more recently warming to the title of “disruptive philanthropist”.
His first foray into charity was in 1996 when he stopped taking a salary from Redrow, instead donating what he would have earned to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital for a new oncology unit there.
He used his money to set up the Steve Morgan Foundation in 2001 “to make a difference to the lives of those suffering from disability or disadvantage in our region”, according to the charity’s website.
Since then, he’s donated to hundreds of charities across Merseyside, funding the Cradle to Career project in Birkenhead, building a new Maggie’s Centre to support people with cancer at the Clatterbridge Centre, along with a £50m donation to help Diabetes UK and JDRF UK find a cure for Type 1 diabetes, announced in April this year.
He said: “We don’t just give money to any causes. We give it and we want to know what it’s doing, and are they doing things in the right way.
“So we put this huge sum for Type 1 diabetes research, but we’re having bi-monthly meetings, because I want to know what’s going on.
“And if I think there’s something going on that’s not going to serve the cause, we won’t have it.”
The 69-year-old is keen to see all his donations make a difference, but the April announcement of “the largest-ever single gift in the UK for diabetes research” was particularly personal for Steve.
His son Hugo was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes after feeling lethargic and losing weight despite ‘eating like a horse’.
He was ‘drinking enormous amounts’, meaning he had to make frequent trips to the toilet, but one night he didn’t quite make it, leaving a puddle ‘like liquid sugar’ on the floor, which led to a hospital trip and a diagnosis.
Steve said: “I didn’t actually understand what Type 1 was. I thought, ‘Oh I’m sure, as soon as we get back, we’ll get something sorted, we’ll get him to the best guys and we’ll get it sorted’.
“But there is no cure. It’s a life sentence. There are about 400,000 Type 1 diabetics in the UK, and a lot of them are children, so it’s for all of those people, we’re trying to do this, plus the millions of Type 1s worldwide.”
Although donations to charity form part of Steve’s main legacy, he also emerged in recent years as a major donor to the Conservatives.
Despite earlier cursing Thatcher, his views on her legacy have changed, crediting her for bringing stability in “almost revolutionary times” of “strikes, hyperinflation and rubbish all over the streets”.
He said he was once approached to stand for election to the House of Commons but laughed off the idea, adding: “Who in their right mind would want that job?”