Gadget guru benefits from shock treatment

Business Profile: Chris Gorman enjoys fruits of his risk-taking
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The Independent Online

If more evidence were needed that retailers in central London are having a rough ride, Chris Gorman, executive chairman of The Gadget Shop, does not mince his words. "It's crap at the minute," he says.

So bad, in fact, that Mr Gorman says: "It's getting to the point where you say actually it's just not worth being here."

Fewer people are doing their Christmas shopping in London, he reckons, for reasons such as the congestion charge, a fear of terrorism and the decline in tourism. And those who are coming are leaving it until the last minute.

Coming from the company responsible for one of last year's best-selling gadgets - the chameleon phone, a handset which featured in the BT adverts and which sings Boy George's Karma Chameleon instead of ringing - this is not particularly good news.

Not that it means The Gadget Shop business won't do alright as a whole. Only 12 of the 70 Gadget Shops are within the M25 and, fortunately, other areas are trading well enough to offset the damage.

The gadget shaping up to be the chain's best seller this year is Lightning Reaction - a game that gives you a small electric shock if you don't react quickly enough and which is selling about 10,000 a week. The Mini Vectron, a remote controlled flying saucer, is proving popular too.

But there is no getting away from the fact that trading in central London is terrible, with footfall down 20 per cent in the Gadget Shops, he estimates. "London is just diabolical," he says. "If you walked down Oxford Street today, you would not think it's the week before Christmas.''

Not that he'd consider pulling out of the West End. "You've got to continue trading it. Central London will still make a contribution but it's not the jewel in the crown it used to be."

The serial entrepreneur, estimated to have a £45m fortune, clearly enjoys the success and wealth his risk-taking has brought him.

It is all a far cry from his childhood - which he describes euphemistically as "financially very challenged". Like many entrepreneurs, Mr Gorman did not go to university. He left school at 16, having "scraped" five O levels, to take a job as a management trainee in the supermarket chain Fine Fare. He sold LED message boards to retailers, and later moved to Scotland and sold mobile phones.

It was in Scotland - with £40,000 of debt thanks to negative equity - that the got his first big break by investing in the mobile phone retailer DX Communications.

"I went and borrowed £25,000 from the bank and everyone said, 'You're a loony. You've just got back on your feet and you've got yourself in debt again'," he says.

It proved a smart move, though. DX Communications was sold to BT Cellnet for £42m in 1999. He then set up an internet service business called Reality Group which he sold to Great Universal Stores for £35m.

After a failed attempt to buy the budget chain TJ Hughes, he ended up investing something like £10m for a 30 per cent stake in the Gadget Shop alongside his friend, the Scots tycoon Tom Hunter. The pair teamed up again recently to buy the Birthdays greetings cards chain.

Yet he seems relatively unaffected by the rags to riches transformation. His favourite meal, he says, is pie, chips and beans and he likes nothing better than spending time with his family and friends at home. He met his Scottish wife Mary when they were both working at Vodac, part of the Vodafone group. They now have three sons and are expecting another baby in April.

Life is busy. Aside from his Gadget Shop and Birthdays stores, he also sits on the board of Quintessentially, the concierge service set up by the nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles that he invested "a fair amount in" during its early stages.

He is also involved in a small property company called Development Capital.

But it hasn't all been plain sailing. He invested in Toyzone - a business designed to sell toys online - with Tom Hunter and the PR guru Matthew Freud. It didn't work and he lost about £100,000.

So what's next for Mr Gorman? There are a couple of "small things" that he's looking at, but he stresses they are "small". For now, he seems to have enough on his plate.