My Biggest Mistake

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The Independent Online
The managing director of 4-Play Records ignored his headmaster's advice and chose a career in the music business. More than 30 years on, including a spell with Virgin, he has nearly 40 shops with turnover of pounds 16m.

MY BIG mistake was in trying to build a company in the music business from the North of England.

It has always been obvious to me that everything that goes on in the record industry happens within a couple of miles of London's West End. Based in the North, it has been difficult to build the right kind of contacts and get your name in the right circles.

I'm sure I have missed out on a few favours, a few good deals and some discounts just by not being at the right parties and taking the right people to dinner. This industry is very much about who you know rather than what you know, and it is difficult to have the same kind of profile when you are 250 miles away.

But I'm not really the moving type. I like the quality of life in the North and the fact that I can leave my home, or my office, and be out in the country within minutes. I do enjoy visiting London, but when I'm there the traffic nearly drives me crazy.

Even so, I've managed to build a chain of nearly 40 record shops and a turnover of pounds 16m. I'm a David battling against such Goliaths as Woolworth and W H Smith (which also owns Our Price) - but I'm still here.

Being in this business has always felt right to me. It started as a hobby when I was still at school, and I remember going in to see my headmaster for a career interview and telling him I wanted to be a disc jokey or run a record shop.

He told me to 'be serious'. But I took a part-time job on a record stall in a market in Nelson, Lancashire. It was a very exciting time. You still had some 78 rpm records back then, and vinyl was just catching on. It was a family business and we went on to open a shop in Rawtenstall in the Rossendale valley, then another in Burnley.

I did try to forge a link with a Southern-based group called Harlequin, which had acquired our computer stock- control system. But they wound up being bought by Our Price, which was quite small then. Again, I think we missed out because we were were not in London where everything was going on.

The industry was in its infancy in the Sixties and Seventies, so being based in the North-west was less of a problem. We kept growing until 1982, when we did a deal with Richard Branson, who was looking for deals with smaller, well-managed retailers to build a larger chain quickly.

We became part of the Virgin group, trading under the Virgin name, and I used to travel to London a couple of times a month.

The next big change came in 1988, when Richard decided to sell his smaller shops to Our Price - this basically meant us, plus 30 smaller Virgin stores. Richard offered me a very good position within Virgin, looking after global retail operations - which would have meant travelling everywhere from Paris to Japan. But I felt it would have meant moving to the South, so I resisted the offer. Who knows what would have happened had I accepted?

Instead, I made a proposal to Richard to buy the 20 concessions within Debenhams that Our Price had not wanted. He agreed and we did the deal for around pounds 1m.

I don't regret deciding to stay up here, but it has been a mistake. But you have to balance things out. It's very pretty up here and I like it despite what it may have cost me.

(Photograph omitted)