Eat, drink, be merry

profile: David Simons
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The Independent Online
Wall Street on the brink, London jittery, advisers fretting: David Simons should be a worried man. He's just lost pounds 1.7m and if there's another US slide this week, setting world markets tumbling, three-and-a-half years' hard graft might go up in smoke. Events beyond his control would leave Somerfield's chief executive up the aisle, as it were, without a trolley.

On Friday the supermarket group, Britain's fifth largest, put the "sale" signs up over its forthcoming flotation, spectacularly slashing pounds 90m off the maximum pounds 570m it hoped to raise. Enough, advisers hope, to attract bargain hunters, come what may.

But Somerfield's prospects have already been panned in many a City quarter as the largely high-street group tries to hold its own against the giant out-of-town Sainsburys, Tescos, Safeways and Asdas.

The money, too, holds no crumbs of comfort. It goes not into stores but to repay banks which backed the ill-fated pounds 2.1bn buy-out of Gateway seven years ago, one of the most disastrous legacies of the greedy 1980s.

If Simons is nervous, it doesn't show. "Conditions are not discouraging. The adrenalin's still flowing," he says, midway through yet more 15-hour days and a gruelling City tour. The bonus naturally helps: just pounds 4m now, admittedly, against pounds 5.7m before Friday's drama, but with up to pounds 3m more to come if a revamped Somerfield, full of fresh produce and sprouting cheeky slogans, fills more shoppers' baskets.

Of course, Simons has been panned on the "greed" score himself, but he remains unfazed by a prying press. And as for rescues and phoenix-like rises from the ashes, in nearly 30 years of business, he's been there before.

At just 23, Simons was the financial controller at an aero-engine plant in Derby when Rolls-Royce collapsed in1971.

"I still remember the day of the crash as if it were yesterday. The first we heard about it was on the radio," he says.

"You could have mistaken the boardroom for the Chartered Accountants' Convention. There were scores of redundancies. I should have been on the list: last in, first out. But somebody must have put a good word in for me somewhere, then it was all about picking up the pieces."

Simons was born in 1947 in Edgware, north London, and went to Harrow County, Michael Portillo's old grammar just down the road from the elite public school. Six years his senior, Simons would have been a prefect when the Defence Minister was just swapping out of short trousers. But there were other notable contemporaries: Bert Weedon, the guitarist, and actor Harvey Shields, Simons' best friend, who has just starred with Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire.

With that bonus now to come, Simons hardly rues it, but for him the rather bleaker shores of the University of Hull and an economics degree beckoned after school. Why Hull? "I was desperate at languages. I failed French three times and Hull was then one of just three not to need it. The other big advantage was that I came out a reasonably good bridge player," he says.

He also came out with a wife and has two sons from a 16-year marriage that ended in 1984. At 26, the eldest, Howard, is doing a PhD. "On genetic engineering to extend the life of the tomato. When he's successful, he can develop the most wonderful products Somerfield can sell," Simons jokes. Simons' second wife, Jane, is a solicitor he met in 1983 while organising a buy-out of John Collier tailors from Hanson. At pounds 50m, it was hardly in Gateway's league, but was still one of the biggest of the time.

It also lifted his investment ten-fold when Collier was sold to Burtons a couple of years after: "The hardest part of raising pounds 50m was going to my local Lloyd's bank manager and asking to borrow the initial pounds 30,000," Simons remembers.

Collier was his third retail job. After four years at Rolls-Royce, he itched to move on, opting for Empire Stores, the catalogue group, where retail worked its way into his blood and has never let go. "I love it. It's the greatest industry in the world, if you're competitive, which I am. I really got the bug," Simons enthuses.

He moved to Burtons in the mid-1970s, where he worked at Top Shop with the now infamous Ralph Halpern. Then after Collier, he was in at the UK start-up of Toys 'R' Us, spending five years, until 1989, helping turn it into Britain's top toy seller.

Four years as group finance director at House of Fraser and Storehouse followed - more exciting times with Tiny Rowland's siege of Mohammed Fayed at Fraser and a key role in putting the BhS-to-Habitat chain on the straight and narrow after design guru Terence Conran's empire-building in the 1980s.

Colleagues say Simons is sometimes tough to deal with, a fact he openly admits. His greatest fault? "I think at times I have a degree of intolerance which others find hard. But I'm a nice guy really. And sometimes you have to realise you've made mistakes."

He freely admits to high ambition. For 10 years he hankered to shift from finance to running his own show and when the Somerfield job came up in 1993, through the same headhunter who poached Simons to Toys 'R' Us, he jumped at the chance.

Gateway, as the group was then called, was a 1980s folie de grandeur to rival them all. Cobbled together from a mish-mash of old high-street names including Fine Fare, Liptons, Key Markets and Mac Fisheries, it was bought out by Isosceles for pounds 2.1bn in 1989 in a deal that left greedy City institutions with egg all over.

His start was hardly auspicious. Days afterwards Sainsbury's started its first January sale - the shops were tatty, products pricey and systems so bad the group barely knew what it was selling. "Sales were falling off a cliff. Suppliers were worried about supplying - it was strictly cash on delivery - and employees about jobs," Simons says.

He immediately fired many of the old directors, brought in new people and promoted fresh blood. "Once you'd cleaned off some of the surface, the people were very good," he says euphemistically .

Simons also moved quickly to reschedule pounds 1.4bn of debt, cut costs and modernise systems. The new Somerfield name had already been chosen - a leafy play on Summer - but from just a handful in 1993, 343 of its 609 stores now trade as Somerfield and the rebranding will be complete by 1997. The product mix has also been shaken up with more own label and fresh produce. Go into a Somerfield store now and Birds of a Feather vamp Lesley Joseph beckons with "Go on, get fruity" and "Get fresh with Lesley".

As for the shares, Simons reckons they're now not just good value, but a steal at 160p. The flotation, he vows, will not be pulled. Stubborn? "Determined," he responds. And his three maxims of management? "Don't give up. Don't give up. Don't give up." As good as his word? The next few days will tell.

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