Me And My Partner

When the IRA blew up their first business, Philip Newton and Jeremy Seigal turned their attention to Ozone, a perfume chain they bought from a bankrupt in 1992. They renamed it The Perfume Shop, and today their 50 outlets have a pounds 30m turnover.
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The Independent Online
PHILIP NEWTON: When I was 22, I started my own business but it became under-capitalised so I had to sell a third. The guy I sold it to had two trustees, who were instrumental in my development. One was Harry Seigal. Twenty years later, I got a phone call from Harry saying his son Jeremy was thinking about joining Merchant Retail Group. When I met him, I said to one of my colleagues: "He's an SKA - a smart kid alright."

We got thrown together because part of the business, Barnum's Carnival Novelties, was in difficulties.Then the IRA blew up Staples Corner, where our first superstore was. I handled the insurance claim. By the time we'd finished, there wasn't the enthusiasm or belief to start it up again.

We had another business called Ozone that was in deep trouble, and Jeremy came with me. He understood product and I had a bit more commercial nous and experience. Jeremy calls it the "smarts". It's touch and feel. If I feel it's right, it's right. He will analyse things to death. I think it's fantastic, and it's what the success of The Perfume Shop is about - I go on touch and feel, he says: "Hold on a minute, let's see if it works." He will look at every nut and bolt.

We bought the idea for Ozone from an undischarged bankrupt: I was put in to sort that out and Jeremy was put in to sort out the stock. We were given a brief to clean it up and sell it. I was the director responsible for it, and I wouldn't sell because I could see it was a brilliant idea. For example, my mum would have been frightened trying to buy fragrance. She wouldn't have been able to explain that she didn't want to spend pounds 60: she wanted one for pounds 9.99.

I would love to tell you there was a grand strategy for TPS but there wasn't. It was "Let's move from A to B". I could see D and E, but Jeremy was very much: "Oi, come back; one step at a time." Every time we took a step, our knowledge increased. We realised how brilliant it was when we opened our sixth or seventh shop. When things first start to work, you think, thank God for that. You are too tied up with relief to say yes, it's working, although Jeremy probably did. We've always been a bit surprised by our success. Suddenly we found it worked because there was an alternative way of selling. In the business, I run the people and property side, and Jeremy runs the product and systems. I would be hopeless as a buyer. I always go with him on buying trips - we go all over the world - and in seven years, I had two successes and he had 2,000. He's his own man in buying. I can make a reasonable judgement of somebody we are dealing with: I think I give him confidence. We are very good company.

There's 12 years' difference in our ages, and Jeremy is a bright kid. He doesn't suffer fools at all. I don't either, but he can be quite tricky about it. In our partnership, I accepted Jeremy more easily than he accepted me. He had to learn to trust my instinct and that was very difficult for him. It's against all his disciplines. If you deliver it, he'll say first time lucky; the third time he'll say, maybe you can do it. He's very careful. Everything he does is an endgame.

I love the business to death, and I love my girls: there's a chemistry that works between us. Firstly we have to have the right product, and then the right people to sell it. When Jeremy and I go into a store, I look at the manager and see if she's happy. Jeremy looks at the product.

I've never asked him what frustrates him about me - maybe it's that I make very quick decisions and he would want to go back and look at it inside out. But neither Jeremy nor I would have got down the road without the other. We both work in the stores for six weeks, seven days a week, up till Christmas. We split the country between us and he goes one way, I go another. We should never get too big for our boots; we get to understand how difficult it is for the people who work for us; and it's a time when we can see what the customers want.

These days, we don't see enough of each other. When we go away on trips, we'll stay away a couple more days so we can talk and think about the business and the way forward. You get more achieved when you have some space around you.

JEREMY SEIGAL: I showed the annual report of the Merchant Retail Group to my father and he saw Philip's name and said: "I know that bloke. He's a smart kid, I'll give him a call." I was at Debenhams: I didn't see eye to eye with the people in ascendancy, so I thought it was time to move on. I had the impression that Philip was a "cor blimey" barrow boy. When I went to meet him, I did a double take. He cultivates an impression of underwhelming you. Philip's impression completely belies the truth.

We had an Ozone shop in Sheffield. I am short-sighted, and when I saw it, it wasn't clear what it did. So we renamed it. Everyone knows what WH Smith does, but we were the first of a kind on the high street. You have to have a name that's simple. Both people involved in Ozone had scarpered: Philip had to deal with some tricky legal issues and I was left to hold the thing together. The good thing was that the previous people had cocked it up so we couldn't lose. Philip had to knock some heads together to get people to do what they didn't want to do, to finesse a situation. I trained as an engineer, and I regard business as a matrix. It's all about making sure we've got the right things in the right shops. At first, we had to close a couple of shops. But then we opened a shop in Blackpool: as we put the stock on the shelves, people said: "Can I have some?" Suddenly I realised we had a business.

Philip breathed a sigh of relief when I joined the board. He said: "It's up to us now and we have to do it together." He'd had to put up with my wrath, and now there was no third party who was the object of my irritation. The growth took place in the last five years, when we both got involved.

When we go into a shop together, Philip will talk to the manager about her children or her boyfriend or how she's changed her hair. I would look at the things: he would look at the people, and would empathise with them. Philip's a complete flirt, and in a business mostly run by girls, that works very well. It does misfire though. We had an annual managers' meeting four or five years ago and there was a manager who called Philip's bluff. She said: "Here's the keys to my room." I've never seen Philip get in his car and go back to London so quickly.

When you spend a lot of time on the road with someone, it can be difficult. Philip has very precise requirements, one of which is a swim every morning. When we go on trips, we have to stay in these grim hotels with pools that look like cold water tanks.

Sometimes I go for the jugular when it's inappropriate. I get stroppy if someone gives bad service. It's a personal affront. If one person bothers to write to us with a complaint, there will be 10 people who didn't put the stamp on the envelope, and 100 others who just thought about it.

Philip and I reach the same conclusions from different angles. We'll get there about the same time. Both of us have an open approach to what interests the other person. He loves horses, and when he saw his foal for the first time it was like his own child. It was fascinating. When I took him around the Picasso exhibition, he was mesmerised.

We know where the other has blind spots: I can probably fall out with people more quickly than Philip. I wouldn't say you can go through your whole life with people you are comfortable with and have empathy with, but it does make a difference.