'A suit and shirt is a sign of respect'

Steve Robinson is the new chief executive officer of MandMdirect.com, the online discount fashion and sports retailer. He was formerly finance director of Argos and chief executive officer of Tesco Direct

What did you want to be as a child?

First an architect and then, at 14, a nuclear physicist. When I told my dad he said, "Don't be stupid, you'll be an accountant, how many nuclear physicists do you know?"

What did you realistically think you'd end up doing?

Well my dad said people would always have money....

Did you go to university and was it worth it?

I did accountancy at the University of East Anglia; it was a modern course with a computing element that was very relevant. It was the making of me.

What was your first job?

I took a year out and worked on a building site, then used the money to travel. At 22 I joined Ernst & Young and realised to get on I would have to knuckle down.

How did you work your way up?

I've always been a commercial person and I brought this into auditing jobs. Everywhere I go I can understand how a business makes money and how to make it more money. After becoming a chartered accountant I went into the City, and then joined Superdrug as an analyst. I was recruited by Kingfisher which owned Superdrug, and promoted rapidly.

You then joined Argos. Why?

I was 30 and thought I had nothing to lose. I knew it would be a risk for Kingfisher if I was offered a finance director role by another company. It's a real bugbear with me; businesses are prepared to gamble on people from outside but won't take a punt on an insider. I went to see Kate Swann, then MD of Argos, who subjected me to a real grilling. The first year was the hardest of my career.

How did you survive?

Resilience. I'm a humble person but I'm good at what I do and I don't want to fail.

Do you consider yourself successful?

I'm not good at sitting back and saying I've done well; I'm always looking for a challenge and for the respect of people in my business.

So when will you know you're a success?

I don't know if I ever will. Perhaps if in 20 years' time I win retailer of the year...

Your interview tips?

Don't turn up casually dressed, a suit and shirt is a sign of respect, and I want to know why someone has done something rather than what they have done. A CV should show experience and achievement.

Who are your heroes?

Kate Swann, chief executive of W H Smith, is bright and challenging and not afraid to make decisions. She has sold off chunks of Smiths, which has made her job smaller. That's admirable. Most people want to acquire and make their job bigger.

What's the best perk of your job?

I go to the odd football or rugby match. We don't do long lunches, chauffeurs, and big offices; that went out 10 years ago.