In a rare interview, Gordon Black, the Yorkshire retail guru who brought us the Nutribullet, Adidas sports bags and The Original Factory Shop speaks to JLife about the need for business to embrace change to survive in a global retail landscape.
At its height, Gordon Black’s family business, Peter Black Holdings had become one of Marks and Spencer’s largest suppliers, boasting an annual turnover of £300 million and a 3,000-strong workforce. Following a £48 million sell-out to Chinese trading firm Li & Fung in 2007 after 30 years at the helm, Gordon went on to pioneer High Street TV, one of the UK’s largest multi-channel retailers before selling-up to head Black Family Investments, the venture capitalist firm he now runs alongside his brother in Keighley.
Despite his considerable achievements, Gordon is quick to stress the fine line between success and failure: “I made more good decisions than I did bad, but only just. Given my family’s background, we were too insecure to be complacent.”
Gordon’s parents hailed from the families of wealthy textile traders and cigar manufacturers in their native Hamburg, but in 1935, were forced to start over again as they fled the Nazi regime for the safety of the UK. Arriving penniless to a one-room basement flat in London, the Blacks embarked on a journey of reinvention – the family name, Swartzschild being the first element to adapt to new climes as it took on its English translation, Black Shield. “The Black Shields came from the same street in Frankfurt as the Red Shields, who became known as the Rothschilds. They went into banking and we went into footwear.”
The Black Shield name was split, Gordon’s father, Peter taking the first half, his uncle taking the latter, however one thing the family refused to cast off was its Jewish identity: “We’re Sephardic Jews by blood and have always remained immensely proud of our racial heritage.”
Peter Black Holdings began its 60 year success story in 1947, manufacturing shopping bags from army webbing in a small production unit in Keighley. Securing big retailers including Marks and Spencer and Boots, the company was able to branch out, seizing on new global manufacturing technologies to be the first to produce the corduroy slipper. Soon it was supplying 20 million pairs to leading retailers, laying the foundations for a global footwear business.
“Our boat shoe which we manufactured on behalf of Marks and Spencer made millions because it was a truly global product. We designed it in Italy, bought the leather in the US, the sole in Korea and manufactured it in Thailand.”
In what he refers to as a “race to the bottom” when it comes to consumer pricing, Gordon admits we can’t hope to compete with low-cost manufacturing nations and believes the company achieved far more for British jobs by creating a workforce of designers, administrators and logisticians that arose from its import trade: “Manufacturing products with a high labour content just isn’t viable. If we’d have sourced British we’d have gone bust!”
He has little time for those who deny the global economy, believing reinvention is the key to survival: “Change is inevitable and we should look at the opportunity those changes create rather than wasting energy complaining about things wecan’t have any effect on. The little Englanders out there must realise that as some doors close, others will open.”
A Cambridge History graduate, Gordon has always subscribed to the inevitable rise and fall of civilisations and believes this notion extends to the waning fortunes of the high street.
“They’re blaming Amazon for the collapse of the high street and that’s not right. Amazon is the manifestation of the digital revolution and no-one has the divine right for everything to continue indefinitely.”
“Pendulums often over-swing. It’s not the end of the high street; there will always be an element of good destination shopping centres, like Harrogate and Ilkley.”
The decline of the high street has always had the potential to prove catastrophic for Peter Black Holdings. As customers moved away from shopping locally, the call for shopping bags dwindled as chain supermarkets handed out free polythene bags. Facing stagnation, the company diversified into cosmetic bags, sports bags and handbags, which led to its eventual acquisition of the rights to sell Adidas holdalls into the UK market.
“You’ve got to accept the digital revolution and change your act accordingly. We didn’t lament the invention of the inside loo for its role in killing off slippers, we accepted the world was changing, the economy was global and seeing our glass half full, we got out there and went for it.”
At 76, Gordon still has a spring in his step, which he puts down to his eternal optimism. A self-professed Americanophile, he believes we Brits would do well to adopt a similarly optimistic outlook when it comes to wealth creation and the social boons that accompany it.
“Over there, if the boss drives into work in a new Cadillac, the workers think ‘I’ll have a Cadillac one day’ but here, if the boss pulls up in a Bentley, they think ‘what a b******!’”
Writing his book, ‘From Bags to Blenders’, which charts his journey from the humble shopping bag to the Nutribullet, Gordon professes to be on a mission to spread the word that good behaviour is good business: “It’s short sighted to try and make a quick buck and not worry about the community around you – you can’t sustain that.”
A model of benign capitalism, Gordon’s father prided himself on giving back through building local infrastructure and running an enlightened workplace.
“I’m appalled by the likes of Philip Green – especially so because he’s Jewish. Marks and Spencer was the best company in the world because it looked after its staff, suppliers and customers better than anyone else.”
As part of a work mentoring scheme at Peter Black Holdings, Gordon asked his mentee what he would do with half a million pounds, to the reply: “The first thing I’d do is stuff this job!”
Asked the same question, but this time involving a hypothetical sum of £50,000, Gordon replies: “I would use half of it to travel to America to see if I could discover a product or a business which hasn’t arrived in the UK. We saw factory outlets in America and opened The Original Factory Shop, the first of its kind in the UK.
“For me to invest in a company now, it has to have a good value product with an international dimension. Value will always out: if you have a compelling offer the public will find it.”
But Gordon emphasises that price is only one component of value, with quality and service holding equal importance: “Marks and Spencer’s was never the cheapest, but it was always the best value. In the words of Mr Gucci: ‘price is forgotten long after quality is remembered.’”
Asked for a word of advice for entrepreneurs looking to succeed in today’s competitive retail environment, Gordon recites the simple mantra that goes a long way to explaining how a family of penniless immigrants came to build a global retail empire: “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”
‘From Bags to Blenders’ by Gordon Black is available now, published by Icon Books.