Twenty Questions

Click to follow
The Independent Online

1You've been described as a former hippie. Did you inhale?

1You've been described as a former hippie. Did you inhale?

Absolutely. What's the point in smoking if you're not going to inhale? The Sixties were a great time because it was the beginning of young people feeling free. I was in the retail business making loons, which were flared trousers we made out of curtain material. We had them made up in backstreet sewing-rooms and put them up for sale the next morning. Things were fast and delivered quickly in the Sixties, which made it fun.

2What's been the biggest change in retail since?

Everything is slower, despite information technology speeding everything up. There are fewer entre- preneurs, in the true meaning of the word, than there were 40 years ago. Back then, probably a good 20 per cent of sales in England were entrepreneurial because we were all fighting to earn a living and therefore being far more creative.

Today, you couldn't have a small shop and half-a-dozen machinists in a room somewhere because it wouldn't comply with the Factory Act. Business has to be so much bigger these days, but years ago small was beautiful. I still happen to believe small is beautiful. And I don't inhale these days.

3A newspaper article claimed that you had "contributed to the downfall of the British shirt industry". Do you believe that was true?

In 1973, I started importing shirts and blouses from the Far East in a serious way. At the time, the UK shirt industry was running down because the cost of labour was rising, yet the cost of importing was still good. The article said I had 6 per cent of the whole of the European marketplace in shirts and I was putting British workers out of jobs and closing down factories. If you've only got 6 per cent of the market you're not really a threat, but it certainly made a great headline.

4What were your best, and worst, investments?

My best was setting up a business in Vietnam. I was getting cloth from China and Taiwan and shipping it to Saigon where the labour force were really nimble with their fingers and had a fantastic work ethic. It was a marvellous place to be, with bright intelligent people who delivered wonderful products. It became a substantial business in a short time, then someone clicked their fingers and the Americans pulled out.

It turned into my worst investment because it cost me everything. I hadn't thought it was a gamble because the Americans had poured billions into the country and said publicly that they were going to fight the war until the end.

The government gave us $1 for every $1 we put in and said they lost as much as the investors. That didn't help us: it was like meeting a man with one leg when you've only got one leg.

5What's the best dealyou've done?

Founding Freeport, because it's growth has been startling. I'm constantly amazed at what the business has achieved in such a short time. It would be very easy to become egotistical about it and say: "God, aren't I good, I can walk on water." In reality, it's not just me, it's the whole team around me.

6What's your greatestpersonal indulgence?

I've just built a restaurant three miles from my home in the Lune Valley which is on the edge of the Lake District.

We used to take 40 minutes to drive to the nearest restaurant, so I bought a nearby hotel and had it refurbished with new kitchens. I insist they buy only the best food from around the world and I dine in there a couple of times a week.

I'm pleased to say a lot of other people have discovered it too. It goes to show if you do things for the right reasons everybody appreciates it.

7Why were you opposedto venture capital whenyou wanted to expand Freeport in 1994?

Venture capital, or vulture capital as I call it, has lost its way. It was originally conceived as an affordable funding source for small businesses to get themselves a meaningful place in life. Today's VCs are looking for a 30 per cent return, which is extraordinary. They also want a controlling stake in your business so if you don't run it how they want, they take the company over and kick you out. Their agreements specify so many onerous conditions that one has to question why anyone would want to sign one.

8How did you manage to get a full listing within six months of starting up your company, Freeport?

I had good advisers and I was known in the City. The ones who didn't know me thought I was a believable chap because I'd already built one centre in Hornsea and I was prepared to put my own money down.

The Stock Exchange asked me why I was going this route and I told them I didn't want the debt because I was trying to build a business. To list a company on the Stock Exchange, you have to have five years of audited accounts. When they asked me for my five years of history, I showed them six months of it and told them I'd spent four and a half years thinking about the business. We eventually found a way around the problem by re-creating historical accounts.

9How can you sell genuine designer-branded clothes30 per cent cheaper than high street shops and still manage to make money?

Years ago, a famous brand would produce one collection a year, then two a year, then four and now they deliver a new collection every six weeks, which means they have redundant stock every six weeks. We give the brands the opportunity to turn their "old" stock into cash.

When I was a retailer I used to get property developers saying: "Have we got a centre for you." It hadn't been built, yet they wanted to get a pre-let to raise money. They also wanted me to sign 25-year leases with five-year upwardly rent reviews. Whatever was happening in the real world didn't matter, the rent was also going north. It was an unfair system, which is why I give my tenants a turnover rent. The more money they take, the more rent they pay. If they don't take any money one week, they don't pay rent.

10 How do you stopcounterfeits being delivered and sold?

We have our own police force, which takes sample purchases from all the shops. They check with the licence-holders of those labels and they can tell by the barcode numbers whether the articles are genuine.

As soon as we find anything counterfeit - and that isn't very often - we have the authority to close down the shop.

11What's the best advice anyone has given you?

One of my former chairmen told me to "hurry forward slowly". In other words, don't expand too quickly because that's how you make mistakes.

12 If you didn't run Freeport, which company would you most like to run?

I'm torn between two. The first one is pure emotion. It would be the company that makes Princess motor yachts. They're not the best in the world, but they have a certain magic.

The other company is Marks & Spencer. It's had tremendous glory in its time and even though it's having difficulties now, a bad year at M&S means you still make £500m. I know I'll never be given the opportunity, but it would be great.

13What's the first lesson you learnt in business?

That you have got to make a profit, and you have to work hard. If you don't work hard, you can show as much profit as you like as a calculation but you'll make none of it.

14Are you easy to work for and what makes you lose your temper?

I seek perfection in what I do and what everyone else does around me so maybe I'm not easy to work for.

If I go to a site and see dirty window glass I go ballistic. My managers only have to look at me and things happen without me saying a word.

15Which single task do you hate doing the most?

Mucking out my daughter's three horses, which I have to do from time to time.

16In terms of personal wealth, how much do you think is enough?

I certainly have more than I need. It's the hunger to succeed, not the hunger to make money that drives me on.

If your whole purpose in life is to make a bigger and bigger pile, then, ultimately, you're so fixated on that you don't take care of the real things which deliver the profitability.

You really have to get total fulfilment out of a business to make it a successful one.

17Who do you most respect in business?

There are loads of seriously good people, but I that think Richard Branson has done pretty well.

He's managed to create a brand, license the whole thing off, receive an income, have a stake in these various businesses, not run them, then sell off his stakes. Virgin is a very clever business.

18Are you pro-Europe and the single currency?

I'm British, so sterling is a fairly emotional currency to me. From a business perspective, one currency might make life easier.

What I detest is the idea of one set of rules. I don't want the European Parliament telling me in England how everything should be run, because we are one of the oldest nations on God's earth.

19Do you ever thinkabout retiring?

I retired eight years ago, and four months into it, my accountant told me that Hornsea Pottery was up for sale and I should think about turning the site into a shopping development. I promised my wife that I'd do only one and sell it.

20Where do you want to be five years from now?

I'd like to be floating around on a yacht somewhere.

Comments