Category Archives: Blog

We need a cunning plan…but sadly that’s not what we’ve got!


As we get closer to the Brexit precipice, I am more and more inclined to believe that it is perhaps worth losing the battle now, to go on to win it another time.  By that, I mean perhaps we should step away from stubborness, personal political agenda, saving face and the current political pain we are all experiencing, on all sides, and stay in to influence from the inside.  Currently it feels like Blackadder, Baldrick and Captain Darling going over the top in the last episode of the series…and that seemed all too pointless as well.

Why are we here?  Because Cameron and Co threw us under a bus by holding the Referendum in the first place, and we must also hold the EU accountable too.  They did not budge an inch on any of Cameron’s negotiations on control of the borders etc, and thus left him and the Tory party with no leverage or incentive to persuade those already wavering on the EU fence to come back over to their side.  Now, having cancelled the meaningful vote because of a blatant lack of confidence in it, Theresa May is also off to Brussels with cap in hand again. Perhaps she will also come back with as worthless rewards as Cameron; 3 christmas baubles, 2 unhelpful changes and a partridge in a pear tree, or even worse, as it looks, a painful Baldrick shiner.

Clearly, this deal will end in tears. We won’t be able to agree terms and the Northern Ireland challenge is a BIG problem.  If we keep pushing this deal up the never-ending hill, gathering moss and more obstacles as it goes, we will be looking at decades of uncertainty and pain for business, the political system in the UK, the good people of our country and a likely impact on EU trade too.  We need stability, and this deal is a million miles from it. Theresa May could do with one of Baldrick’s cunning plans….a giant ‘political’ turnip that, for him, would save the day. At this point, I’m not sure anyone has planted it, let alone found it !

We are at a crossroads, and we must make robust decisions.  In my world, if the conditions change, I make a different plan, I don’t just carry on blindly saying this is the plan, when it is no longer fit for purpose and will drag us all into the wasteland. Things change and you make the crucial decisions based on those changes.  To now wait for a vote to happen before the 21st January is to continue the farce. The EU has said that there is no room whatsoever for renegotiation…so what is going to change by that point? It is bordering on criminal to delay the vote to so near the Brexit deadline that MPs have no choice other than May’s terrible deal or ‘armageddon’, due to a lack of plan B.  This is reckless and is almost a criminal act against democracy !

Have remainers made it so difficult for us to negotiate anything meaningful, have the Brexiteers stirred the pot so much that many have been blind-sided, has the EU been so intent on making us the example of the naughty child that they have given us no leverage, is the Northern Ireland issue insurmountable and are we flogging a dead horse?  Perhaps the answer to all of these is sadly yes. There is much wrong with the EU, and I still believe it plays a part in the very fabric of our future, but to leave at any cost because Theresa May won’t see the wood for the trees doesn’t cut it. Even a cunning plan from Baldrick can’t save this one. We need to put our best fighting trousers on, and realise that maybe everyone has found this too hard, the timing isn’t right and rather than sticking two pencils up our nose and being done with it, we need to hold our hands up and say right sentiment, wrong timing.

Cameron didn’t have a plan B when he called the election, and he must take responsibility for his part in this satire.  The lack of plan B for Cameron didn’t end well and created the playground of discontent that our politicians, and sadly the rest of us, are now playing in.  Theresa May also doesn’t have a plan B. Did we learn nothing? In business, you have to have a back-up plan when external influences create difference. To not have a back-up is reckless, and leaves us the laughing stock of Europe.  

The decision to leave was not necessarily a bad decision, but as in anything, the execution is the measure of it and the politicians were unfortunately not up to the job.  I don’t want to hear any more nonsense about the people have made a decision, we can’t go back on it. Politicians aren’t playing by those rules and Theresa May has constantly flip flopped over decisions.  ‘No election’…announces an election a few days later, ‘we are definitely going ahead with the meaningful vote’…announces vote deferred minutes later, ‘the Cabinet are united’….resignations. Democracy is all about people being able to change their mind, especially when the facts and conditions have changed and weren’t what was voted for in the first place.  

With no consensus in parliament, nor the likelihood of one, perhaps a second referendum is our only option now, with just two binary questions; May’s deal or withdraw Article 50 and stay in.  Our future rests on a knife edge. We should live to fight another day; a worthier battle with meaning. It now feels to me that the only sensible option we have been left with is to rescind Article 50 – the antidote to the ailing May Chequers Deal – and escape the tarnished handcuffs that it would leave us in; strangled by an everlasting Backstop.  In business, if the deal isn’t a good deal, you step away from it and that’s what we need to do here. One step back to be able to step forward in the future or risk terminal failure.

Theo Paphitis on 125 years of Ryman

In 1995 when I was looking at buying Ryman, and approaching private equity businesses and banks to raise the money, I was told it was a dog of a business; that I was absolutely mad to even look at it, let alone consider investing in it. Why? Because the paperless office was the future and no one was buying stationery anymore.  I knew they were wrong then, and that’s why nearly 25 years on since I bought the business out of administration, Ryman is now marking its 125th year of business and doing well. Not a mean feat in the shifting plates of the current retail marketplace and a credit to the teams in store and across the business.

In 1893 there was the panic on the New York stock exchange, Beatrix Potter created Peter Rabbit and Henry Ford designed the first gasoline fuelled engine.  It was also the year that Ryman opened on London’s Great Portland Street in October, an iconic road it still resides on today, even after a number of relocations throughout the years!

Ryman has grown and we’ve acquired some friends along the way.  In 2001 we bought 86 Partners the Stationers stores and in 2007, 61 more via Stationery Box.  This created the portfolio we know now, of over 200 Ryman stores across the UK. Our latest acquisition was the iconic arts supplier brand London Graphic Centre in 2016…all helping people tackle that ‘paperless’ office head on!

At Ryman we recognise and value the heritage of the brand and that we are the custodians of it.  After Henry J Ryman, I am the business’s longest owner, and have a responsibility to its history as well as our colleagues.  

It will inevitably be survival of the fittest, through hard work and relevance.  Brands that don’t rely on just one aspect of their businesses, but instead ensure that the technology supports the stores, that the product and the price points are right, and most importantly that customer service really is excellent.  When your store colleagues care enough to make your customers feel special, an experience in itself, and want to return to buy, you can hand on heart recognise why there is life in the old dog yet.

As business owners we must understand why we exist.  Ryman used to sell fax rolls, and now it sells plain paper for printers.  It used to sell typewriter ribbon and now it’s ink cartridges. We now help our B2B customers in a more bespoke way and have introduced services for increased convenience for our customers and to meet demand.  Ultimately, we must give our customers what they want and need now, not what we’ve always given them – or someone else will.

The high street is under pressure, but hard work, investment and relevance are what will ensure that retailers, like Ryman, stay on our high streets for the foreseeable future; important to the economy and people’s livelihoods.

To ensure the high street remains right in the heart of our communities the Government must help the whole industry through retail-friendly policy.  They must address the Business Rates elephant in the room; the unfair taxation of the shrinking physical retail cake as opposed to the rising digital cake.  The future of retail depends upon it.

 

 

The future of retail

Can we afford to lose nearly 1 million retail jobs by 2025, as predicted by the British Retail?  The government clearly thinks so by putting its hands over its ears and shouting la la la.

What have they done so far?  The last business rates review by Sajid Javid was a shambles and in his words was deemed “too difficult” for this government to deal with.  This historic rates tax was created in the 1500s as a poor tax, and must surely come with a health warning to the Chancellor: Collect tax in this world, not the old one! The Conservatives might not be in power when the chickens come home to roost, but the country will regret irreversibly damaging consumer confidence by kicking the issue  into the long grass once too often! Not much of a Tory legacy.

I applaud the creation of the Retail Sector Council but if it is merely shuffling papers just so you can stand up in the House of Commons and say ‘we’re dealing with it’ it’s not enough! Actions speak louder than words.

The government must recognise that to tax online and physical stores differently is reckless.  They are taxing the diminishing cake, the high street, but not the rising cake, digital retail. It is deluded.  How difficult is it to realise that? Even the big boys like M&S are closing stores, not because the rents are too high, but the rates are too high!  You can negotiate with your landlord, but not on rates.

I am for a transactional tax at the point of purchase for both online and physical retail. The solution is not difficult – collect from the online giants, who currently pay very little taxation in this country. They can’t get away with it anymore. We can get rid of rates altogether, and raise extra funds for the Chancellor’s coffers, allowing him to find the cash that the NHS so desperately needs.

Also what about the environment?  Inactivity will just lead to more and more vans chugging out fumes, to deliver millions of products, often of low value. MPs will happily campaign against wood burners, but not prioritise this pollution catastrophe already happening. They need to act now and tax accordingly!

So, the high street is like an orbiting satellite looking to land in its new incarnation. The government has the power to create its soft landing, and with it protect the future of millions of retail workers.  To do nothing is negligent and they owe retail and the people of this country more.

 

The Statistics Gap…

The Statistics Gap…

I’m sure that you would have heard me say in the Den, ‘Your numbers don’t stack up and for that reason, I’m out!’ Business has lot to do with numbers, however, it is not entirely about numbers. It is also important to understand the essence of a business and ultimately what drives those numbers. When it comes to statistics, I’m sure you’ve heard the saying ‘Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics’.

Organisations with over 250 employees recently published their Gender Pay Gap ‘numbers’. One of my businesses Boux Avenue has one of the widest ‘gaps’. The essence of this business is that it has a strong female workforce and sells intimate products, lingerie, to females. 98% of the employees are female, and since reporting the top two executives are female. Out of 606 employees, only 12 are men. Our most senior and highest paid executive is female and every single one of our stores is run and operated by females. Every single product sold at Boux Avenue was sourced by a female and sold by a female to mainly female customers in our stores. You get the gist; Boux Avenue is dominated by females for females.

So why is there such a wide reported Gender Pay Gap at Boux Avenue – a business that gives so much opportunity to females? A company that I am proud of and as a Group we celebrate for giving relatively more females the opportunity to work at all levels of the business.  The answer is that the statistics are one dimensional and skewed. They are skewed by an average calculated, without regard to so many factors that should be considered, to ensure that the important issues we are all interested in are properly addressed.

The Gender Pay Gap at Boux Avenue is skewed by the significant majority of females employed by us or in other words having so few males. There are no males working in our stores, which is where most of our colleagues work. The twelve males we employ are all on salaried roles in Head Office. Our stores have full and part timers. The number of females on salaried roles in Head Office outnumber the men by 6 to 1. The number of directors or managers in the business is also heavily in the favour of females at 4 to 1. There are not enough males to have a statistically meaningful average, to compare to the average, for females based on a much bigger and wider sample.

Also since reporting we have built a new warehouse facility for Boux Avenue to meet our growth plans for the business, commissioned in October last year. Jobs in warehouses have traditionally been dominated by males. With Boux Avenue, not even this is the case, where 81% of colleagues at this facility are females.

I am proud of the opportunities offered to females at Boux Avenue and my other group companies (whose Gender Pay Gap calculations are significantly better than the national and retail average). We continue to work at ensuring that any opportunity for recruitment or development is based on factors that are not discriminatory in any way. Looking around my business, I believe we are doing a good job, and with Boux Avenue a great job, when it comes to careers and pay for females. The bare statistics in this instance don’t reflect this.

So, despite that the Boux Avenue Gender Pay Gap calculations for me don’t stack up and require more context, I’m very much IN to ensure that our business thrives for all of our colleagues and customers. Boux Avenue by its nature will be influenced by the intimate nature of the products it sells and the service required to ensure our customers get a comfortable fit. But the statistics on their own are misleading.

Despite its shortcomings, I still believe it to be the right thing to do, as it has to start somewhere, and if you don’t try you’ll never get anywhere.  So, in spite of the statistics gap, I do very much support the report…rant over!