The Fabulously Entrepreneurial Life of Ronnie Biggs

Wed Dec 18, 2013 9:16am EST

Crime never pays, but Ronnie Biggs certainly found a way to make a successful business out of it.

Biggs, who died Wednesday at the age of 84, was certainly no role model, given his part in one of the greatest robberies of the 20th Century and his subsequent break out of prison and life on the lam. But there are some lessons to be learned in the way he lived his life -- lessons that actually resonate with many entrepreneurs.

First, the history. Biggs was a down-on-his luck carpenter in England in 1963 when he was approached to be a bit player in a daring plan: robbing the Royal Mail train. On the morning of August 8, the gang, led by Bruce Reynolds, tampered with railway signals in Buckinghamshire, stormed the train, and walked away with 2.6 million pounds (which is estimated at $70 million today). 

It was considered the crime of the century in England. If you grew up in Great Britain or Ireland in the 60s and 70s, you heard stories about what became known as The Great Train Robbery. The heist was a study in planning, innovation and ingenuity. To tamper with the signal, the gang simply covered the green "go" light with black tape, then used a household battery to power a red light to make the engineer think he had a "stop" signal. With the train stopped, they attacked the train and were able to steal 120 bags of money, weighing 2-1/2 tons, in precisely 30 minutes, using a human chain to take them from the train car to waiting getaway trucks. 

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As with all best-laid plans, the getaway didn't go quite as planned. Eventually, the police caught up with most of the gang, they were arrested and sentenced to prison. Biggs was among them, even though his was a minor role -- simply waiting in one of the trucks.

But here is where Biggs' life became far more interesting. Sentenced to 30 years at Her Majesty's Prison Wandsworth in London, Biggs hatched a plan 15 months in to break out. And it worked. Using the most cliche of all escape means -- a rope ladder -- Biggs and other prisons scaled the walls and took off in a waiting delivery truck.

Free, Biggs fled to mainland Europe and eventually ended up in Australia, where he lived a quiet normal life for a few years until he was identified. He then hopped a boat to South America, and ended up in Brazil in 1970.

When life gives you lemons (or, in Biggs' case, you steal lemons), you make lemonade. That is how Biggs became the world's most famous criminal -- he decided to turn his status as a fugitive into a business in and of itself. Without an extradition treaty, Biggs could live freely. He milked it. In fact, he marketed it. To earn a living, he hosted parties for U.K. and American tourists. Yes, cross his palms with a few Cruzeiros and you could eat skewers of beef with Ronnie Biggs and hear him regale you with stories of The Great Train Robbery and his daring escape from Wandsworth. 

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Biggs also did what all marketers do: He sold his brand. Visit Rio in the late 1970s and you could guys Ronnie Biggs t-shirts and coffee mugs. He appeared in Brazilian television commercials as a pitchman.

What else did he so with his rockstar status? Well, he tried to be an actual rockstar. When Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten quit the Sex Pistols, the band tried to stay together and got Biggs to sing lead. The single "No One Is Innocent" isn't one of the band's shining lights, but Biggs screamed the lyrics with honesty, particularly when he sang "Ronnie Biggs was doing time, until he done a bunk, now he says he's seen the light, and he's sold his soul for punk." Biggs would record with other bands untl the 1990s.

Eventually, the law caught up with Biggs. In 1997, Brazil and the United Kingdom signed an extradition treaty, starting the process by the Brits to get back their most famous fugitive. 

Ever the entrepeneur and showman, Biggs decided to return on his own terms. He agreed to come back in 2001, but not in handcuffs. The Sun newspaper flew him by private jet and paid a reported 20,000 pounds for an exclusive interview. It was a circus when he arrived back. Biggs had left England a criminal and returned decades later a bona fide celebrity.

Truth was, Biggs knew he wouldn't be in prison law. By 2001, his health was ailing. By 2009, at the age of 80, the U.K. government actually just let him out of prison altogether, on compassionate grounds. He was in a long-term care facility when he died Wednesday.

Make no mistake, Biggs was a criminal, but he had a certain flash that one can only admire. Robber, yes. Fugitive, yes. But also showman, marketer, innovator, punk rocker and, yes, entrepreneur. 

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