Outsider brings the Foyles family saga to an end

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When two young brothers seized upon the enterprising notion of selling their textbooks after failing an exam, they started what would become one of Britain's best-known bookshops.

During the next century, Foyles, of Charing Cross road in central London, became as famous for its books as for the eccentricities of its family ownership. But yesterday, 100 years after the first textbook sale, the Foyle family announced that it was to succumb to growing pressure to modernise and recruit an outsider to a management position for the first time.

Mike McGinley, the former managing director of the music chain Our Price, has been appointed chief executive in an attempt to "bring the company in line with the 21st century". The decision to hire from outside the family was taken by Christopher Foyle, the store'schairman, and his cousin, Bill Samuel, who is a director; both are grandsons of William Foyle, who started the business with his brother Gilbert in 1903. Mr Samuel said: "There are advantages to keeping the business in the family but there comes a point when all the family shareholders are in their fifties and sixties and you have to look forward.

"We are very much aware of our limitations, as we are not retailers, and we are not too proud to look outside for help. Realistically I believe that we are the last generation that will have a strong personal involvement in the business."

For Mr McGinley, who has worked for companies such as Littlewoods and Virgin, the opportunity to transform a well-known business with an eccentric reputation is one he relishes. "I'm aware that I am the first non-family member but I'm very excited and honoured by the prospect of joining the firm," he said. "I'm looking forward to bringing the company further into the 21st century, building on its heritage as a uniquely different bookshop."

The appointment is one of a number of steps to modernisethe business made by Mr Foyle and Mr Samuel since they took over four years ago.

Under the auspices of their predecessor, their aunt Christina Foyle, who managed the business for 55 years, the shop was synonymous with a quirkiness that flouted conventional business practices. Without any computers and using an erratic filing system, row after row of dusty books lined the labyrinthinepassages. The shop's eccentric reputation was also bolstered in literary circles for its legendary luncheons at Grosvenor House.

However, by the time of Ms Foyle's death in 1999, the business had descended into a dilapidated shadow of its former self. The extent of the inefficiencies of its archaic business practices was reflected in a £10m fraud that went undetected for nearly two decades.

But Mr Samuel and Mr Foyle have masterminded a dramatic revamp to drag the bookshop into the 21st century. After introducing several changes - including a website, barcodes and computers - their efforts finally paid off in September when the shop earned a profit for the first time in 10 years.

And the shop has managed tomaintain the quirkiness that has endured it to customers for so long. Its second floor, home to an array of books ranging from archaeology to folklore, remains stubbornly old-fashioned. One of the shop's bestselling books is not a Booker nominee but Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves; The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. "Christina's management style was totally different from ours. She had her own way of doing things," Mr Samuel said. "Modernising the business was a natural progression for us and we will continue to be innovative. But it will always remain different and quirky compared to the other bookshops around."

He said about the past four years: "I've aged 15 years and my hair's gone grey. But I've also been having great fun and I know that whatever happens, it will be even more successful in 10 years' time."