My Biggest Mistake

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The Independent Online
Sir Terence Conran, 61, is a designer, retailer and restaurateur. After attending London's Central School of Arts and Crafts, he worked as a designer and furniture-maker. In 1964, he launched Habitat, the furniture store group that later merged with Mothercare and British Home Stores to become Storehouse. Sir Terence retired from the company in 1990, but stayed in retail through the Conran Shops in London and Paris. He is also involved in five restaurants, is chairman of the trustees of the Design Museum and author of several design and cookery books.

THIS IS difficult for me because I do not want it to sound like a personal attack, but at the same time I want to warn anybody thinking of appointing somebody to an important post in their business to make sure that they share their philosophy.

The biggest mistake of my life was, of course, to appoint Michael Julien to be chief executive of Storehouse. He is a good, decent and clever man and I don't want to harm him, but he just didn't turn out to be the person I thought he'd be and that was my mistake.

I thought he would work in parallel with me. I thought he had some of the qualities and talents that I didn't possess. Therefore, I thought he would be a good running- mate. What I hadn't reckoned on was that he would take the role of chief executive very literally; I had always made it clear that I was an executive chairman.

In the early days, I felt that he wanted to leave to me those areas that were my strengths - design, in product terms and the philosophy of the business, and marketing. He concentrated on the financial and logistic side.

I had met him as a director of Littlewoods when Habitat/Mothercare had been looking at a merger with that company. I got very good references for him. He had done some remarkable jobs - at Midland, where he had cleared up the Crocker mess, and at Guinness. But I didn't realise how passionate he would be about being chief executive.

Perhaps if I had been cleverer I would have seen this coming. He didn't try to hide it. It really became him or me. We had gone through the right channels and procedures before appointing him, but it was my biggest mistake because his appointment was my suggestion. So I left after appointing Ian Hay Davison, the chairman, as a safe pair of hands.

It comes back to my previous mistake, which was speaking the truth to the press. I had been rung up by a reporter and asked what I considered to be the appropriate way of treating an offer for the business. My answer - that it should be considered by the board and then, if appropriate, put to the shareholders - was interpreted to mean that Storehouse was waiting for a bid. So, of course, they flowed in.

I felt vulnerable. I had been tarnished by the difficulties with the merger with BhS and by criticism in the press; I had never been able to persuade them of the importance of Mothercare to Jacadi, of Habitat to Heal's, of the links between Mothercare and BhS. I was also within two years of retirement.

I think it was partly the mischievousness of people inside and outside the business that persuaded Michael that the business could do without me. But he and Goldman Sachs (the company's financial advisers) had done a good job of persuading the institutions that he was going to bring Storehouse back to life. So I was convinced that it was me who had to leave, as I could no longer play a constructive and useful role.

Now I run a small business with a turnover of about pounds 50m. It has restaurants, the Conran Shops and an architectural and design practice. Life is very pleasant and extremely relaxed.

I'm working with people who are my friends and share my philosophy and enthusiasm.

(Photograph omitted)