Without his mum pushing him, he might never have taken it. “It was not exactly a Boys’ Own dream job,” says Neil Old, CEO of Jessops.
But he had his GCSE in “Understanding Industrial Society” in his pocket and had completed his college course in business and management and he was trying to work out whether he should join the RAF like his uncle or follow his godfather into the City. In other words, he was floundering around, aged 19. Then he saw an advert for a job in a Granada TV and video shop in Bedford. Retail. “My mum made me apply. She thought it would be good for me. She was right. I loved it. The thing I loved most was the immediacy. You were talking to people and forecasting demand. You’d come up with a promotion and see the effect by Saturday.”
At 46, Old looks young and fit. He runs 15 to 20km a week. And recently he climbed Mount Fuji (3,776m). He says you have to be in good shape for retail. “It’s a contact sport,” he says.
In the Nineties, Old had a hand in revamping Comet, ushering in home computing. “I was basically tea boy to a bunch of consultants. This was my PhD in retail. I wouldn’t have stuck it out in a classroom. I have to be on the ground.”
Old has also upgraded airport shopping. As trading director of Dixons Stores Group, he took the Dixons Tax Free brand and transformed it into the much classier Dixons Traveller. “It used to have a post-box red, 1980s feel. I wanted to get away from glass cabinets and guys behind counters.” Shopping, he argues, was once perceived as “a necessary evil”. Now it is – or should be – “a feel-good experience”.
“You can’t end up in a grubby shop where everything is stacked high. Look at Tiger. Or Paul Smith in Floral Street [Covent Garden]. It feels almost like a gallery.” He is wearing an open-necked shirt from Paul Smith and a midnight blue suit of a slim Italian cut from Hackett.
He speaks of the “bella figura” that you need – ideally – to work face-to-face. His mother is Italian, from the Piedmont region in the north of the country, and he spent three formative years after 2000 working in Milan for PC City (the European version of PC World). He was seduced by Italian fashion and style and service. “When I arrived there I looked like the work experience kid. These guys looked cool and they carried themselves well.”
His mother was delighted when he got the job in her home country. His father, a keen Arsenal fan, went over when the Gunners (in the era of Thierry Henry) were playing Inter Milan at the San Siro stadium. “Suddenly we had a house full of relatives,” Old recalls. (Now that Wenger has stepped down as manager, Old says, “I now feel almost nostalgic about the good times that Arsène gave us, particularly as most of those memories were made sat in the stands with my Dad, uncles, and cousins.”)
Old says shopping in Italy is not unlike a good restaurant experience. “It’s relaxed. There’s a convivial environment. And you feel great about what you are doing. You go and buy a suit in Italy, you feel like a prince. You’re served coffee, martini. You end up buying a shirt and a pair of shoes as well. They make you feel important and your heart takes over.” Old has tried to bring back some of this Italian-inflected sense of ease and pleasure and sophistication to England.
In 2013, after a few years with Carphone Warehouse, Old received a call from an “unknown” number but, he says mysteriously: “It was a very distinctive number, so I had to take it. I answered with trepidation.” It turned out to be Peter Jones, of Dragons’ Den fame. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Not a lot,” Old replied. “I’ve just bought a business,” said Jones. “Do you want to put it back on its feet?”
Jessops, having gone into administration, was re-born on Good Friday 2013. There are now 58 stores on the high street, including 11 located in Sainsbury’s supermarkets. Old sees no incompatibility between the camera and the age of the smartphone, any more than there is between the e-reader and books or music streaming and vinyl. “The smartphone is not the death-knell of photography,” he says. The key is knowing who their core customer is. “This is someone whose first love is photography. And our staff are the same. I’d rather employ a serious photographer and give them sales skills than someone who is good at retail but just bluffing when it comes to cameras.”
Jessops aims to build a community. In their new Bromley store, I discovered that, if I want to get serious about photography, I can join an “academy” and go on dedicated courses, including “Scotland Outdoors”, “Landscape”, “British wildlife”, and even – more adventurous and far-flung – a photographic safari in Namibia. “What I love about Jessops,” says Old, “is it’s a mix of science and art – it encourages people to be creative.”
With the slogan “set your photos free”, Jessops will print your photos and frame them for you. You can rent out an expensive camera for a week or two, you don’t have to buy. And they even do a “legacy service” for your old VHS videos and old photos which will be returned to you in glorious digital.
When he went on holiday to Dubai recently with his wife and eight-year-old daughter, Old took three cameras with him. An Olympus Tough TG5 digital for water shots; a high-end Minolta for landscape, and a smartphone for fun. “I used all three. The phone is a gateway device.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies