The chief executive of Pets at Home, the UK’s largest pet store chain, has increased sales in spite of the recession. The chain was bought in 2005 for £230m by Bridgepoint, the private equity group. Now, it hopes to treble its outlay with a private sale or flotation
The best thing about being chief executive of a fast-growing retailer is the variety. I try to spend two days a week in stores talking to colleagues and customers. However, the process of the company’s sale means I have less time to do this; currently I am only managing about one day in the shops.
We have 252 stores from Wick in Scotland down to Cornwall in the south-west of England, so that means a lot of time on the road. The car is the best way of showing up at a store unannounced. Not even my assistant knows where I am heading. You can only do one unannounced store visit on a day and then the jungle drums beat and word gets round that you are on the patch.
We recently reopened our store in New Malden, south London, after a £1m ($1.6m, €1.1m) refit. It is the first store to stock live chickens and has a park area where children can learn how to look after animals, and grown-ups can come for dog training classes. It is about creating somewhere people want to come – for advice, in-store theatre and shopping.
I will also often look at potential new sites. This year we will open more than 20 new stores and I like to see them all. We have a five-year plan to open another 100 stores.
I am spending a lot more time in London, meeting with advisers and our private equity owners, Bridgepoint. I can get by train from Manchester (I am based in Cheshire) to Euston in London in less than two hours and I often then walk to Bridgepoint’s offices behind Regent Street. It is a great way to clear my head before the day kicks off.
All my colleagues know my tolerance for long meetings is low, so we keep them as brief as possible. Recently, this has been trickier as there has been a lot to get through.
If I am in our office in Cheshire, Archie, our labrador, often comes in with me. He has struck it lucky with me running a chain of pet shops.
On a typical day in the office there can be half a dozen dogs. Someone even brought in a cat recently. We have a simple rule: all well-behaved pets are welcome.
We are getting a new puppy in a couple of weeks, and my family is trying to come up with a name. My five-year-old daughter favours Nemo, which I am resisting. Current favourites are Bear or Mole, suggested by a friend.
This Christmas has been a great time for pets. We reckon 70 per cent of the UK’s pets will have had a present waiting for them under the tree. We even sold 12,000 doggy Christmas puddings this year.
Our employees are animal lovers – over 90 per cent across our stores own a pet – and part of their job is to ensure a pet is a considered purchase and fits with the customer’s lifestyle, especially at Christmas when people have sometimes made the wrong decision.
Stores sometimes have to deal with complaints from customers who we are not comfortable selling a pet to, for one reason or another.
At weekends, I try to get to the Lake District with my family. I could spend weeks walking, eating, drinking and soaking up the scenery. It is great to see the kids playing with their friends and often multiple dogs.
The turmoil of the past two years has made me focus on the important things. Family, friends and – dare I say it – a pet at the heart of the home is what it all comes down to.
I do not particularly try to switch off at weekends. I hate the terminology “work/life balance”. My work is part of my life and I do not try to separate the two.