The downfall of Lawrence Jones – Manchester’s MeToo moment
There was always something odd about Lawrence Jones. But the true depths of his depravity were probably only known by the women he drugged and raped.
He was found guilty today, 23 November 2023, of raping two women in Manchester 30 years ago.
The former UK Fast chief executive denied both offences, claiming the sexual contact had been consensual with one of the women and that he had never met the other woman.
However he was found guilty of two counts of rape following the trial at Manchester Crown Court.
For the first time in over a year we can now report on the drawn out process that led to the founder of leading Manchester tech business UK Fast being convicted and jailed at the Crown Court in Manchester in January 2023.
He was convicted of sexual harassment, which the judge said today in court. Reporting restrictions have prevented anyone from discussing his case in the media, in order that he could receive a fair trial.
But now we are able to share what a court found and what people right across the business community and in the tight knit world of tech have been saying for years. Jones was a menace, a sexual predator who presided over a toxic culture at his tech company in Manchester that had long been derided as outdated and sleazy, but beneath it lurked something far, far darker.
A high performance culture? Or a mood of fear in thrall to an ego out of control?
There are two things to note about UK Fast and Lawrence Jones’ leadership of it.
One, it was hugely successful. It was recording revenues of over £50m and profits of £8m, enjoying strong recurring revenue from hosting contracts.
In December 2018 private equity investor Inflexion took a 30% stake, valuing UK Fast at £400m, revealing that Jones favoured private equity investment to crystalise his wealth, rather than a stock market float. He paid handsomely for the best advisors, either top lawyers, or in this case, GCA Altium.
Second, the sexist culture was in plain sight.
Linked to both of those self-evident truths was that personally Jones craved respectability and wanted to be taken seriously, while holding the same two conflicting positions.
Culture of fear
The culture in the business was a high-pressured sales environment. One raw recruit, now a senior commercial executive for a major regional company, describes the atmosphere at the offices, then located in City Tower, overlooking Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens, as one of bullying, fear and misogyny.
“From my first working day it was apparent that the company culture was centred around Jones’ personality. Day one was an induction that was almost exclusively centred around the history of Jones’ achievements.
“The culture of the business reflected absolutely Jones’ personality. it was one of bullying, fear and misogyny.”
But it was Jones’ recruitment of women, and his treatment of them that caused such particular distaste.
“Everyone knew the recruitment policy when it came to young attractive women. Jones would often have a harem of young attractive women in tow. Some (male) staff looked up to him as a role model and idolised his behaviour, but most were like me – young and too naïve to know how outrageous his behaviour was at the time.
“People were also too fearful and intimidated by his reputation and financial clout to speak out about it, but everyone knew. These trials have been a long time coming.”
Let’s just pause there. Everyone knew?
Desperately seeking status
Before his denouement, and at the height of his hubris, Jones would comfortably defend the use of scantily clad women as his coterie at trade shows and as part of the sponsorship entourage at Sale Sharks rugby club, who’s shirts were emblazoned with UK Fast’s logo.
In a blogpost, since deleted, called “Who are the UK Fast girls and what is their purpose?” He attempted to defend the practice as a tool to spread innocent joy.
“The girls help break the ice at events and play an invaluable role in so many areas of the businesses. They all double up in some capacity or other – be they a PA, sales person, account manager or even senior manager. By hanging around with the girls we develop strong relations with each other cementing a bond which is necessary when working under pressure.”
Adding: “UK Fast girls are also expected to always greet people with a big helpful smile, and proved to be a big hit at the premiership rugby this year.”
We have historic pictures of the UK Fast girls at a trade show, but have chosen not to share them here.
But Jones was also a respectable member of the business community, if an eccentric one. In 2015 he received an MBE. He used his title at every opportunity and it is noticeably used in every reference to him in his own vanity publication Business Cloud.
In 2016 Manchester Metropolitan University made him an Honorary Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to the digital economy in the North West region”. Though he had to be tactfully reminded by the University that he wasn’t able to call himself a “proper Doctor”.
He picked a vicious Twitter row with economist John Ashcroft, the former chief executive of pro Manchester, accusing him of buying followers, which Ashcroft admitted, pointing out his own PhD had been earned, rather than gifted.
Jones also sought the company of fellow high achievers and joined the prestigious YPO, Young Presidents Organisation, where the North West leaders amongst its membership recognised that he was a highly capable businessman, in charge of an enterprise that was going places, if a bit strange.
Though many in the tech community felt deeply uncomfortable about Jones’ personal style, it was on a par with the bravado of many of his tech bro contemporaries.
His blog posts hinted at a close personal friendship with Sir Richard Branson, though the reality was he paid a huge amount of money to holiday on Branson’s Necker Island and effectively stalked the Virgin founder to get a selfie.
He was photographed with Boris Johnson at Conservative conference in Manchester and attended Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, as a thank you for supporting their charity efforts.
Seeking an advocate for the burgeoning tech community, Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester Combined Authority conferred a ‘most favoured status’ on Jones and UK Fast. They empowered an organisation called Tech Manchester, staffed entirely by UK Fast employees, to be the voice of the tech community. In doing so they overlooked the established bodies such as Manchester Digital, and the Manchester Tech Trust, formed by Neil McArthur, the philanthropist and founder of Opal Telecom and TalkTalk.
Even the Twitter biography of the organisation included the words “funded by @lawrence_jones”.
The technical term is astroturfing, but plenty of people in the tech community signed up as mentors.
He sought political influence, donating £100,000 to the Conservative Party and to the first election campaign of Labour’s Andy Burnham to be Mayor for Greater Manchester.
As well as sponsoring Sale Sharks and the Greater Manchester run, which gave a great profile to UK Fast, he sought approval on bigger stages.
He would insist on bringing his own chef to business dinners because of his own unique diet and tastes.
Other entrepreneurs found him odd, one said they considered his self-promotion unnecessary and crass.
At one private dinner event at a Manchester hotel in 2010 Jones sat in silence as Matthew Riley of Daisy eloquently spoke of his road to success in the telecoms world. Elder statesmen like Michael Oliver of Oliver Valves held court, which seemed to shrink Jones in the company of confident Alpha males.
He had a burning desire to be taken seriously. Socially awkward in an unfamiliar setting, he would sometimes mask his lack of knowledge with an overconfident bluster and a brazen use of the facts.
At a London Tech Week event he appeared on a panel with more confident tech leaders and appeared terrified and spoke erratically and in incomprehensible tech babble. “He was nervous and out of his depth,” said one person who was there who knew him.
One well-respected corporate banker said he asked him what he thought was an innocuous question at a business event at a bank and was met with a dismissive and aggressive answer. On hearing Jones’ name again, he said: “There’s one arrogant f***er I never liked.”
One prominent business woman said there was a “Donald Trump” vibe to him and from around 2014 began advising people to avoid him.
At a round table at Manchester Science Park in 2014, Andy Burnham, then Shadow Health Secretary, was confronted by Jones about tax laws and threatened to quit the UK for Switzerland if Labour were elected to power and increased his personal taxes.
On the surface, his whole persona, the workaholic, the highly capable driven entrepreneur with his impressive tech campus, positioned as a gateway site into the south side of the city centre, was an attractive place for a politician’s photocall and conveyed the ambition of a progressive tech city that Manchester wished to be.
Manchester’s tech community has a leader
At Burnham’s first tech summit held at the Museum of Science and Industry in July 2017, just two months after his maiden election victory, Jones made it his mission to dominate the event. He was everywhere and his team played a starring role in proceedings.
His visit to the event was even accompanied by a film crew, recording his musings and observations even as he drove away in his open topped Bentley.
One of the key actions from the event was the formation of a steering group for the tech sector in Manchester to advise Burnham. Jones was on it alongside Sandy Lindsay MBE, founder and chair of communications consultancy Tangerine and founder of social media apprenticeship programme The Juice Academy; Katie Gallagher, managing director of Manchester Digital; and Kirsty Styles, head of talent and skills at Tech North.
Those familiar with the situation describe the follow up meetings as “weird”. Jones appeared to want keynote speaking opportunities and had what one of those present in an observing role described as a “temper tantrum” when it was made clear that wasn’t the objective.
The turn of public perception
By the tail end of 2017, the perception in the business community was that Jones was an ego out of control and had become unbearable. But the murmurings were restricted to off-the-record briefings and idle gossip in WhatsApp groups.
But that all changed when a backlash emerged on social media at the use of burlesque dancers at the Digital Entrepreneurs’ Awards, sponsored by UKFast, and organised by the UK Fast events team in November of 2017.
It felt like the dam was bursting, that the public persona was that people would eye roll at Jones’ ego and his crass and unpleasant demeanour, but somehow it was tolerated.
Mark Garratt, director of external affairs at the University of Bradford, was one of those who criticised the event on social media at the time, and returned his team’s award from the event.
He was threatened with legal action and further letters were sent to the Vice Chancellor of his university in order to turn up the heat on Garratt, as one other critic, the human rights activist Aisha Ali-Khan said, “not to him directly- presumably to amplify the ‘speak out against me and I will have you sacked’ threat”.
If you want to mark a date when the tide turned, this was it. November 2017.
The social media pile-ons, unpleasant as they were for the individuals in Jones’ events and media team, represented the bottled up feelings many in the tech community had about Jones, but also about the message the event sent.
The backlash was well covered by the Manchester Evening News, and the issues it threw up were a discussion topic on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and in the Guardian.
A number of women mobilised to create a letter that sought to dampen Jones’ influence and drive a wedge between his relationships with powerful figures in the Manchester family, presenting it to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, at his second and smaller digital summit event at Federation House in December 2017, where Jones and his UK Fast and Business Cloud team were nowhere to be seen.
It was signed by mainly women in the tech sector, and was carefully worded. But it not only drew attention to the awards, claiming it “did not position our city as the kind of place someone, no matter their background, would want to start, grow or join a digital business,” but placed Jones outside of the tech community too.
Typically, Jones threw his events team under the bus and attempted to blame the decision to hire burlesque dancers as theirs. Also typically, he attempted to chuck money at the problem, and committed a £50,000 fund to “help carry on and widen the conversation of gender equality and diversity”.
There was particular ire that Jones tasked TechManchester, his own UK Fast-backed project, with deciding “who, what, why, where and when and how this money should be spent”, through a ‘diversity panel’ of men and women to help make the decision about who gets what.
Effectively the letter was saying – “we see you” and that £50k from a man of Jones’ wealth “smacks of damage limitation”.
It went on to say: “It is clear when looking at the various writings of the CEO of UK Fast and the activities of the media company he operates, BusinessCloud.co.uk, the DEAs are a symptom of a culture that doesn’t support diversity and inclusion, they are not the cause.”
Top of the list of signatories was Kirsty Styles, one of the appointees to Burnham’s digital team alongside Jones.
Campaigner and activist Aisha Ali-Khan, on her blog Women United, came close to describing the appalling truth that lay behind the culture of the business. “Everything the UK Fast Girls stand for is wrong and inherently sexist. Even by the standard of the current climate of #metoo and the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, this level of misogyny towards women has been staggeringly jaw dropping.”
The reaction from the Jones camp was to systematically approach signatories to that letter and request they take their names off.
Over at Bradford University, Mark Garratt, who’s return of the award and his subsequent comments about the evening had such a propelling affect on the public conversation about Jones, was confronted with a “cease and desist” letter from heavyweight lawyers Lewis Silkin, acting on the instruction of Lawrence Jones.
Another critic, and signatory to the letter, Naomi Timperley, was leant on and asked to delete a blogpost from October 2016 that slammed the advertising campaign that Jones ran in his vanity publication Business Cloud, depicting a naked woman at a ski resort – bravely asking “what is a naked arse doing in a tech magazine?”
We have a copy of that appalling advert and have chosen not to share it here.
At a meeting I had with a senior business leader in Manchester in early 2019 the conversation had been around the conduct of a number of fraudulent businesses who had been hiding in plain sight.
He then said, without prompting: “When is someone going to do something about that stain on our city at UK Fast?”
Throughout 2019 it became clear that journalists were making enquiries into Jones and the culture at UK Fast that went way beyond sexist adverts for UK Fast, the use of scantily clad women as part of his entourage at the rugby, but of pay offs, sexual harassment and bullying.
Yet Jones carried on in high profile mode, attempting to use charity donations as a means to court power, claiming in June 2019 to have donated £50,000 to Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s homeless charity, A Bed Every Night, through the UK Fast Community and Education Trust. Pictured with Burnham and charity chair Tim Heatley, Burnham was quoted as saying “It’s heartening to see the private sector getting involved to support worthwhile causes. Lawrence and Gail are setting a fantastic example to other businesspeople in the region and donations like this help A Bed Every Night make a significant difference to people living in extreme hardship.”
Word clearly hadn’t got to the Mayor of what was coming in Jones’ direction, but he was warned to stay away from him prior to the storm that was about to hit Jones at the end of that year and the seriousness of the allegations.
And worse, rape.
While they all pointed to something untoward, it wasn’t until an explosive expose by the Financial Times into Jones’ culture, and his use of Non Disclosure Agreements to silence former female employees, that his world began to crumble.
The FT investigation, published in November 2019, was deep rooted and spoke to over 30 separate sources. Led by Madison Marriage, special investigations editor, who had already nailed the sexism of the City of London and the Presidents Club, leading a team of reporters to investigate misconduct and abuse of power across business, politics, housing, education and beyond. That team also included writer Lizzie Cernik, with support from the Northern editor Andy Bounds.
The story was clearly well sourced and referred to specific times and places where Jones engaged in predatory and outrageous sexually charged behaviour.
The details of his attacks on employees took place in the office, his property in Snowdonia and at the Farinet Hotel in the Swiss resort of Verbier. The distressing effect his actions had on the women concerned made it clear this was way beyond playful office banter and the use of “the UK Fast girls” to “bring a smile to people’s faces”.
The impact of the story was swift and devastating. This was no longer just Jones’ private fiefdom, but a private equity backed business with serious governance concerns.
Jones stepped down almost immediately, replaced by his wife Gail, both furiously denying any wrongdoing on his part.
Also in November 2019 the company hired law firm Squire Patton Boggs to instigate an enquiry into the culture of UK Fast.
In an email to all staff, leaked to the FT, there was a strong hint that change was sweeping through the business.
“We want to emphasise that this team are totally independent of the business and of anyone on the board and they are being asked to gather evidence and report to us about the culture of UK Fast and matters of concern of which they are informed,” the message said. “They want your views of its values and culture and, if applicable, to raise any particular concerns. A number of our directors have already volunteered to speak to the independent team this week.”
The results of that independent investigation were never made public, and despite the persistent efforts of the FT, never leaked either.
But within six months, with a global pandemic affecting every home and business in the UK, Inflexion took over the entire company with Gail Jones following her husband, and managing director Jonathan Bowers, through the exit door.
By January 2021, the media exposure emboldened the women to make official complaints to Greater Manchester Police and he was charged in early January 2021 with one count of rape and four counts of sexual assault.
In April 2021, two separate charges of rape, alleged to have taken place in Salford in 1993, were put to him.
In June of that year, with Jones now facing multiple charges for rape and sexual harassment, Inflexion also acquired long term rival Manchester hosting and tech business ANS and merged it with UK Fast, providing the investors with the opportunity to eradicate the tarnished brand for good. The companies were brought together under one parent group “to address the rapid market growth opportunity for digital and cloud services.”
Jones also sold the publication Business Cloud to its management in 2021.
The merged business, located at the tech campus Jones still owns through a property investment business, is called ANS and as Jones was facing the closing submissions in the second trial, where he was accused of drugging and raping two women, across the city centre, the Prince of Wales was visiting the building that Jones still owns but no longer bears his company’s name. The irony.
Questions to answer
In any other circumstances, with such serious allegations of poor behaviour, of an independent report being commissioned by lawyers, an individual leaving a business would be a ‘bad leaver’. It was alleged by the FT that ex-employees signed NDAs. Who drafted them and enforced them? Who enabled this pattern of outrageous behaviour?
According to a source familiar with the situation, the existence of any NDAs did not breach any of the warrants Jones signed with Inflexion about the condition of the business and the quality of their investment.
Indeed, such was the clamour to buy UK Fast by other private equity buyers that any insistence of binding warrants of this nature would be dismissed out of hand. It was a sellers market.
And did Jones, leaving in the manner that he did, suffer any financial detriment as a result of Inflexion exercising a call option on the rest of the equity in the business, held by Jones and his wife?
A former UK Fast executive who says he still feels anger towards Jones, says there are others who have escaped scrutiny.
“For me, Jones hid his behaviour in plain sight. Everyone knew. It makes me feel angry. But the anger that’s sat with me for many years hasn’t been towards Jones, but towards his leadership team who worked to protect his behaviour and limit its damage to their careers and their interests,” he said.
The path towards Jones’ downfall has been as the result of incredible bravery from a number of women who were prepared to speak out publicly – like Aisha Ali-Khan, Kirsty Styles and Naomi Timperley – and women with a media platform – like Lizzie Cernik and Madison Marriage – who took enormous risks to give a voice to many, many more women who had been intimidated by a monster.
He is clearly the villain of this story, and they are the heroes.
But he is not the only villain. For now, justice has been served, but questions remain over a scandal, a stain. Manchester’s very own #MeToo.