Interview: Steve Robinson; What Brought you To Herefordshire?

PUBLISHED: 20:52 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013

Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson

Corinne Westacott went to meet Steve Robinson, chief executive of the astonishingly successful Leominster-based company, M and M Direct, to find out what brought him to Herefordshire.

Corinne Westacott went to meet Steve Robinson, chief executive of the astonishingly successful Leominster-based company, M and M Direct, to find out what brought him to Herefordshire.



Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Steve Robinson, (Male. Single. Thirty-something. Successful. Good Sense of Humour. Bachelor pad in London) went on a blind date. The tryst was set up by TA Associates, an American private equity firm. Steve was a bit wary. After all, this involved a liaison in a far-away, unknown town in Herefordshire. What alliance, however richly blessed, would be worth the perilous journey up the M40, through the thorny forest of the M5 and across the dragon-blasted kingdom of the A44? But faint heart never won fair lady and Steve ventured west. It was love at first sight: and he tied the knot 18 months ago, becoming Chief Executive Officer of M and M Direct, the fast-growing internet clothing company based in Leominster.



Steve laughs at the blind date metaphor. "It was exactly that!" he says. "I've had quite a few blind dates in my time, not on the job front, and some of them have gone badly and some of them have gone spectacularly wrong. You do as much homework as you can on a business before you join but you don't really know what it'll be like. But I've been delighted. Absolutely delighted."



M and M is delighted too. Steve must be one of the most successful young business executives in Britain today. After training in accountancy he worked in retail at Superdrug, eventually ending up in the head office where he came to the attention of the top brass, including the then Chief Executive of the Kingfisher Group, Sir Geoff Mulcahy. "He quite liked me because I've always been a bit cheeky and I call it as I see it. I had a cracking couple of years there." Then came that waft of fairy dust which often helps to charm careers. "I got offered the job of Finance Director at Argos," explains Steve. "To this day I still don't know how I got offered the job. I was only 30 at the time which is just ridiculous."



It was a steep learning curve but Steve reckons his resilience served him well in his first difficult year at Argos until he finally "got motoring." Motoring enough to move three years later to Tesco. "I set up Tesco Direct for them," says Steve in the same casual tone I would use if I was telling someone I'd done my mum's shopping. Tesco Direct is of course, the online shopping arm of the retail giant which, after just two years, has annual sales of around 280 million.



He soon realised that he wasn't a Tesco "lifer" and started looking at other things to do. It was then that TA Associates came knocking and offered him the job at M and M Direct. "It's a privately owned company so it's a different set of rules," says Steve. "I love creating things and helping things grow and accelerating them and all the challenges that come with that. And I had got a lot of experience so I thought, 'It's riskier because it can go wrong but I'll go and I'll do it' - and I've just had the most amazing year."



M and M was set up about 20 years ago when two local businessmen started selling surplus sports gear by putting ads in newspapers. This grew into a catalogue business and started to build a loyal customer following. Rapid growth led to a management buyout in 2004 and they expanded to include fashion retail and internet selling. More growth meant that the business was sold on again in 2007 and Steve was brought in.




"It's a business which deals with suppliers' problems," explains Steve. "There are always overstocks in the market so suppliers always want to sell that stock somewhere. And they have to do that in a sensitive way because they are still trying to sell stock at full price to retailers in the High Street." M and M takes the surplus stock from labels like Timberland, Miss Sixty, Ben Sherman and Helly Hansen and sells it with substantial discount in what Steve describes as a "discreet" way, via their mail order catalogue and their website, www.mandmdirect.com.



"Last year we had sales of 74 million and a healthy profit. We grew over 30 percent in a year, and had our first million pound day in terms of sales at Christmas." All this has been done without advertising. It's a bit of a paradox; a successful business which hasn't shouted its name from the TV screen or the advertising hoarding but has thrived through word of mouth recommendation. And it's doing it all, not in London, but from the market town of Leominster. Steve calls it "a fantastic secret business in a fantastic secret county".



This CEO goes against the stereotypes that we are often fed by our TV screens: the hard-nosed bosses who like to point the finger and growl "You're fired!" and the company managers who think lunch is for wimps. His is a rather unassuming style. You will always find him in jeans, whether in Leominster or in meetings in the City. "I don't have a work Me and another Me," he says. "All the meetings we have are pretty relaxed because it's hard enough making big decisions and having weeks when you're not trading as well as you'd like to without going round shouting at people and making their life harder."



He says his values come from being born into a working class family in Southampton and going to an "ordinary comprehensive" which has kept him grounded in the real world. He worked on a building site for a year after university and his sister now works in a call centre just like the one they have at M and M. "Everyone in this building is exactly the same as my family with the same challenges facing them. I know what they're going through because I've been there."



He thinks that M and M has a definite Herefordshire identity and seems genuinely proud of a workforce that numbers, depending on the season, between 400 and 800 (split between the Leominster site and the huge new warehouse at Moreton-on-Lugg): "It's the close-knit family type of thing and an 'up for it' culture. In London you always feel like you're on show and there's an agenda somewhere and because there are so many other businesses you move from job to job. Here it's a lot more settled and relaxed and it's not dog eat dog. There's a real camaraderie. Every single challenge that this business has had thrown at it, they just get on and fix it."



He has an immediate challenge on his plate. He wants to continue to grow the company in a deep recession. "Anyone in the current climate would be foolish to expect this year to be a bumper year but, in the back of my head, I've got a little thing saying that this could be M and M's year over and above all the other brilliant years because there's no better time to have a discount clothing internet business than now."



He has a goal in mind. "I've talked about this being a 200 million business. I absolutely don't think that we won't ever get bigger than 200 million but it's a nice number to aim for in the medium term. We've never really set a target on it but I know we'll get there and we'll get there within five years."



He also has his sights on Europe. "We are going to do some stuff in Europe this year to make it easier for European customers to buy from us. And that will be from here. The internet allows you to reach the world. From Leominster you can sell fashion to Paris or Frankfurt or wherever."



All this must augur well for the area and Steve is determined that the business should stay in the county. "I was at Argos when they bought Homebase and moved people out. It broke up the culture and I thought it was wrong. I wouldn't want that disruption for the business. There is such a lovely culture here." It is a business which has embedded itself in the community through its sponsorship of the Bulls and its support of local and national charities including the Teenage Cancer Trust, for which it has raised nearly half a million pounds.



Of course, whilst internet businesses like M and M Direct are flying high, city centres, like our own in Hereford, are struggling. Given his high-flying retail experience, I asked Steve what would be his strategy to revitalise a town which has over 50 empty retail units? "Well, first of all to get people to come to you, you can't start by making it painful. I go into Hereford a lot and it is painful. So they need to get something sorted out about traffic, public transport and parking."



He is also all for the Edgar Street redevelopment. "It will be the bigger businesses that will come in as a result of having new retail space which will help the rest of the town centre survive." He cites the example of Norwich, a market town and a cathedral city within a farming community which, he says, has developed its centre to about twice the size of Hereford's without losing its unique identity. Its colourful open-air market is still at the heart of the town.



He acknowledges that it will become tougher for shops but thinks they have to play on their ability to give a good personal niche service. They have to know and make capital out of their point of difference. "Take the Map Centre in Church Street. I got a map printed off there which centres on the farmhouse where I live. You don't get W. H. Smith doing that because it's not what they are good at. And I think there are plenty of shops in Hereford still which have got that something unique about them. "



Steve still spends part of his week in London meeting bankers and people in the City so he has kept a flat in Kings Cross. But he has taken to country living and currently rents part of a farmhouse in Tillington. "My commute is a ten-minute drive. When I was at Tesco I had to fight my way through an hour's worth of traffic to get to work. You know what? I get up in the morning and look out of the window and I can see the Lugg valley and it's great."



He is addicted to Herefordshire steaks, has joined Holmer Park gym and is smitten by his landlord's lurchers. It's only, he says, his rather unsuitable sporty car which is finding country life a struggle.



More leisure time in the area is something Steve would relish but gently reminds me about the pressures of running a private equity business. "You have to be pretty focussed and we do have a lot going on here," he says in something of an under-statement. But he has faith in people at all levels of the business with their willingness to get the job done. "You know what the great thing is? You can have the brainiest person or the most technically brilliant person but you can't make people have that temperament or that attitude; so just to have it naturally is a cracking thing. Then the world's your oyster."

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