Chris Dawson - The Management Today Interview

Chris at the Top of His GameEditor Michael Ribbeck from South West Business chats to one of the region’s best known businessmen and larger than life characters

It is the unlikeliest setting for the headquarters of one of the fastest growing retail empires in the West Country and the UK. The nondescript building on a trading estate on the outskirts of Plymouth gives little hint to the success of the business empire it houses.

Even the name on the outside of the building is out of date and has nothing to do with what goes on inside. The only clue to the success of the operation is the collection of shiny Mercedes and BMWs lined up in the car park.

The cramped reception area is filled with boxes and the receptionist – who never stops answering the constantly ringing phone – has to compete against the noise from the toilet to make herself heard.

And that totally sums up the way Chris Dawson runs his hugely successful CDS International – better known on the high street as The Range group. The firm is rough and ready but there is a sense of energy and entrepreneurship mixed with more than a healthy dose of devilment.

The 57-year-old revels in his image of barrow-boy made good and openly admits that he still struggles with reading and writing. Meeting Chris is always an experience and the larger than life cliché fits him like a glove.

The inside of the building matches the outside and it is fair to say that not a lot of money has been spent on décor. The walls are covered in 1970s wood panelling and there are cardboard boxes stacked everywhere.

But appearances can be deceptive and any retail outfit which boasts a 12 per cent increase in sales in the current climate must be doing something right. At the heart of the company is Chris and beneath the bluff exterior and carefully constructed Del-Boy image is a razor sharp business brain which is in a perpetual state of whirlwind motion. Chris is master of all he surveys and his grip of detail is truly astonishing. Not one single detail gets past one of the West Country’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Chris is dressed in a pin-striped suit but he is hardly what you would describe as the slick city type. The shirt is open to reveal a bear like chest while the handshake is as firm as they come.

However, as soon as you meet him you realise he is going to be a handful. He literally bounds down the corridors of his headquarters at high speed.

When we sit down for a chat he speaks at the same speed he walks and there is a relentless energy to the man. A lot of what he says is unprintable – at one stage he even quotes Hitler to make his point. It is a struggle to keep up with his words of wisdom and it is clear he knows how to play the publicity game.

He might struggle with the written word but the self-made man is a genius with numbers and can read a balance sheet at lightning speed. He also knows his stuff when it comes to the retail sector.

He said: “I can walk into any shop and tell you straight away whether they are having a good day or not and what they are doing right and what they doing wrong. At the end of the day it is all about pounds per square feet, every part of the shop should earn its keep.

“I guess you can call it instinct, but to have instinct is priceless the rest is just sheer hard work.”

When I ask about the lack of signs or corporate polish outside his headquarters the reply is short and sweet.

“Why would I bother,” Chris said. “Its not going to bring in any money and the people who come out here to see us are trying to sell us stuff anyway – why should we want to impress them.”

As we speak a plane taking off from the nearby Plymouth Airport thunders overhead and Chris grins at me and with the familiar glint in his eye he explains why the noise is not a nuisance.

“When I realised how close we were to the airport I thought great, there’s some more money we can get off the business rates. Sometimes the planes come so close over the building it makes everything rattle.”

And that just about sums up the philosophy of the place. Hard work is rewarded but there is no time for slacking and everyone has to earn their keep. The staff are obviously fond of their boss and address him on first name terms but you get the feeling that if people fail to perform they won’t last long.

The very first Range store opened back in 1980 and there are now over 40 of them – with eight more planned in the UK for the coming year. There are also three factory outlets and at the last count CDS employed 3,000 staff and has a turnover of just over £200 million a year. The company also runs a massive distribution centre near Gloucester which covers half a million square feet.

The Range stores – which are mostly on out of town retail parks – sell everything from Christmas trees to candles. Basically anything Chris and his dedicated team of buyers can get his hands on for what they consider a decent price.

Over the last 18 months other retailers in the same market including MFI and Woolworths have gone to the wall but there is no danger of that happening to CDS any time soon. In fact CDS has prospered from the gaps in the market and in a deal that was done in the space of hours Chris snapped up the stock left following the undignified collapse of MFI.

the death of mfi He followed up that by fighting of competition from across Europe to complete the deal to buy the collapsed Empire Direct’s 28 nation-wide stores and millions of pounds worth of stock.

As part of the deal he bought “thousands” of “top of the range” electrical items including flat screen televisions, cinema surround systems, fridges, freezers, washing machines, iPods and cameras. They were then shifted at high speed through a specially set up call centre.

He said: “It is a shame that firms like Woolworths have disappeared but it has meant that there is more market share for us and we have taken advantage of that. Business should always be about giving your customers what they want and Woolworths were not doing that.

“The company had lost its way and I know it sounds harsh but in the end it got what it deserved and nothing more.”

Chris, whose wife and two kids both work for the firm, is one of those tireless men who never seems to sit still. You get the feeling that work is everything but he also enjoys the fruits of his labour.

He describes his holidays in Bermuda, his Bentley and his home in the South of France as his prizes – his just rewards for working around the clock to build an incredibly successful empire.

There have been plenty of shrewd investments along the way and Chris is currently 525 on the Sunday Times Rich List with a reported personal fortune of £155million. In short he is one of the most successful businessmen to come out of the South West.

He has also become something of a celebrity in his home town and is regularly stopped by customers and strangers in the street. There is an undeniable charm even though his language is never less than colourful. But you also suspect there is a rough edge and you cross the man at your own peril.

But he is also a creature of habit and has the same breakfast every day at the same greasy spoon café and has no intention of moving away from his home town even though his firm has grown into a nationwide enterprise.

Full of quotes Chris spent the first part of his working life selling on the markets. Asked what would of done if the business world had not beckoned he said: “I guess you could say I am born actor, I love performing and if I didn’t do this I suppose I could have been a pantomime dame.”

He said: “I never forget if someone doesn’t pay me what they owe me, if someone tries to cheat me then there is no chance I would let them get away with it. We are not criminals but a lot of the time we do skate on thin ice.

“I don’t like being cheated and I will never forget it if someone tries to not settle their debts.”

No-one can spend a penny in the self-styled Pirate of Plymouth’s empire without him knowing. A multi-million pound computer system tracks every transaction in every store and his accounts department scrutinises every invoice in triplicate for accuracy.

“If we’re overcharged 30p, I’ll have it,” he says. “We make sure we always claim back what is ours, you would be amazed at how much money the big companies let slip through their fingers because of bad accounting.”

Neatly bulldog-clipped sheaves of accounts are checked and marked with a fluorescent highlighter where suppliers have over-charged or under-supplied. Nothing gets past his accounts team.

ChrisBut when you press Chris for details about his business he is willing to divulge very little. He keeps his secrets close to his chest but The Range is all about moving fast and doing deals at the right price.

He said: “Anyone who tells you they saw the recession coming is a liar, none of us did but what we aim to do is stay ahead of the curve. Things are not going to get better for a at least a year but we are already preparing for when things improve.”

Indeed, despite having no personal computer or e-mail address, the boss is virtually omnipresent. He clinched the deal with MFI’s administrators while on holiday in Barbados and thinks nothing of beginning a 24-hour circuit of his business empire at the drop of a hat.

“The recession is tough for everyone, including us,” says Chris. “The difference is, I’ve always run my businesses as though we are in recession. People ought to take heed and do the same.”

And with that this incredible ball of energy is off again bounding down a corridor leaving me trailing in his wake flirting with his dedicated and loyal staff on the way.

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