The End of a Long and Winding Road…

Today, I worked my last day at Robinsons.  As a family, we’ve chosen to sell our remaining stake in the business.  I’d like to say more about why that is but, legally, I can’t.

Robinsons is a name I’ve been involved with for as long as I can remember; as long as it’s even possible for someone to have an association.  When I say it’s been a significant part of my life since birth, it’s not just a hollow cliché, it’s a statement of fact – my birthday (October 5th) almost always falls in the middle of the Horse of the Year Show and during the 1973 show, my Dad drove back to Wigan from Wembley for my birth…and then back down to Wembley for the sake of the business.

In the forty-odd years since then, I’ve been involved at times tangentially, intrinsically, unknowingly, unwillingly, enthusiastically and almost every other adverb you can come up with.  Thanks to Robinsons, I’ve done some jobs that most people wouldn’t do, acquired skills to perform tasks that many people couldn’t do and been I’ve been required to do some things that, these days, it’s commonly held that you really shouldn’t do.  Throughout that time, it’s enabled me to fly around Manhattan by helicopter, see Hong Kong from the Peak and enjoy a night’s entertainment at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich.  I’ve mixed with celebrity, royalty and, occasionally, criminality and in the space of one particular fortnight, I experienced both Kipling’s imposters: the disaster of a store destroyed by fire and then the triumph of my own wedding, itself borne of a workplace relationship.  Whether I’ve liked it or not, whether it was primarily work or pleasure, Robinsons has always been a present factor, an immovable object in my life.

There aren’t many pictures of me on horseback. This one from the late 1970s shows that, even at home, ‘work’ was never far away…

The earliest Robinsons (…Saddlery, in those days) memories I have are of sitting with my Grandad in the back room of the almost comically small shop we had at Wallgate, Wigan (by North Western Station) in the late 1970s, ‘helping’ him as he turned his hand to saddlery repairs.  I just about remember going on Friday buying trips to Walsall with my Dad and Grandma as we filled our trusty Granada estate car with whatever stock we could fit in – or more probably, whatever we could afford, back then.  I even remember going on delivery runs to customers in and around Burscough, Ormskirk and Southport.

More than anything, though, in those days, I remember the shows.  Hazily, I can still recall being awoken by the early morning missions from RAF Valley on the Anglesey showground, the rather eventful route we always took to the Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate, collecting conkers and the odd birthday present at our pitch virtually underneath Wembley Way and getting home at half-past three in the morning after driving back from the Royal Welsh Show at Builth Wells.  I remember claiming to ‘drive’ our 40-foot show unit on the motorway while my school friends were still mastering riding a bike.  Okay, it only amounted to sitting on my Dad’s knee, holding the wheel as he would tell me to make minor corrections left and right but it was a proper HGV, it was at motorways speeds and, to any six year-old, that constituted full control of the vehicle.  Even now, the smell of cut grass, sun-warmed canvas and frying bacon whisks me back through the decades to Shepton Mallet, Peterborough or any of a number of other exotic-sounding places that no-one else I knew had ever heard of.

As I grew older, my awareness and my level of responsibility grew and I found my first taste of true independence on the various showgrounds.  Like any young boy, the opportunity to spend whole days wandering unrestricted around acres and acres of agricultural machinery on display was one not to be missed.  I soon became acquainted with Beecroft’s Toys and by the age of eight, my specialist subject was undoubtedly ‘Tractors’.

Arena North Show Stand
The Robinsons Saddlery stand at the Arena North showground, Lancashire, circa 1979.

While the show circuit gave me all these experiences and many more besides (like watching the 1982 World Cup Final on a grainy black-and-white television in a caravan in Harrogate), more often than not, it would represent absence – spending half of each summer in a one-parent family environment.  There was often a present for us when we were all re-united (if we were lucky, a Britain’s toy from Beecroft’s) but my birthdays were almost always a Dad-free zone until I was about 13 – although I did once see him on TV, leaning on a hoarding by the collecting ring while David Vine was introducing the next to go in some class or other.  Kids tend to hate being ‘different’ and in that respect, we were different from our ‘normal’-job-breadwinner friends but in retrospect, it wasn’t that much of a hardship when you consider what many kids contend with.

While Martin and I were making the most of this seemingly idyllic, Blytonesque lifestyle, changes were afoot.  Growth was on the agenda and time was waiting for neither of us.  First, we moved house, expecting to relocate the shop to our new address and then, with the addition of a business partner, we moved the shop – to an old lorry showroom in a place down the road called Ashton-in-Makerfield.  To us, it just seemed a continuation of the same adventure, even though it was obvious that its much bigger scale brought with it bigger pressures.  In the way that family businesses do, we all mucked in when we had to: I remember one Easter Sale when I was given a canister of compressed air and about two hundred yellow balloons – I don’t think I had any skin left on my fingertips at the end of that day!

During another Sale day, I remember being positioned at the store entrance with a box of clear plastic bags, specifically to invite ladies to put their handbags in one “for security” while not entirely understanding why.  That only a handful of the hundreds of customers I spoke to took exception to this seems mildly surprising these days.  That a ‘supermarket’-type store was entrusting this ‘security’ task to an eleven year-old whom, as I recall, was also unpaid may perhaps raise the eyebrows slightly higher.  It was a more innocent time and the need to address the greater good was more pressing than any sense of inappropriateness that seems to stalk every decision we face these days.

The expansion also meant understanding what it meant to have staff.  We’d always had ‘a helper’ or ‘an assistant’ at Wallgate or at the shows but this was retail on a much bigger scale.  Now there was a range of new people to get to know – bringing forth a rather broad variety of characters, let’s say.  To grown-up eyes, it’s obvious what the joke is when colleagues have a whip-round to pay for a kiss-o-gram to turn up at work to mark the birthday of the ‘quiet lad’.  All I remember is my own cartoonish eyes-on-stalks amazement when my ten year-old eyes feasted on a red satin-and-fishnet-clad girl who looked like she’d arrived out of a Benny Hill sketch one evening, after closing time, to great cheers while she embarrassed the life out of the poor guy!  I’m also pretty sure that with us kids present, she would have had my Mum hoping against hope that this was an ‘o-gram’ of the ‘kiss’ and not the ‘strip’ variety!

Staff brought another new dynamic: the question of how to respond, at the age of ten, to a sudden influx of unsolicited flattery from adults.  Being “the bosses’ son” was both an accolade and a bit of an embarrassment, if I’m honest.  Maybe I’m too much of an egalitarian at heart or maybe I have a low threshold for overtly creepy behaviour but I was never too comfortable when strange adults were too nice to me for no apparent reason – after all, that’s not what kids are given to expect from grown-ups.  I’m afraid that even now, any form of unexpected sugary affirmation may set off such defences, honed on years of “one day this will all be yours and you’ll be my boss”.  I apologise to anyone who’s ever been sincerely this nice to me if I’ve ever returned your sentiments with an aloofness ill-befitting of the occasion.  Perhaps it’s a form of autism on my part (many experts claim that we’re all somewhere on the spectrum) or maybe it’s my inner ten year-old still struggling to discern false flattery from genuine geniality.  I would hope that there are other kids of business owners with similar enough experiences to at least allow the conclusion that I’m not that weird about the whole subject.

As childhood gave way to adolescence, the shop became a means to an end other than mere entertainment.  I was desperate to go on the 1989 school skiing trip to Austria, at a cost of about £300 and managed to negotiate a Saturday job in the feedstore for the whole of autumn and winter in order to fund it.  As a father now, I understand that I was never really expected to pay it all – it was an opportunity to test my mettle and show me the value of hard work.  At £10 a day (out of petty cash), there certainly weren’t enough weeks in the interim to get me to my overall target – but my contribution was being matched at home.  Having accepted my discomfort with everyone working there knowing who I was, I was now able to relish in the value of customers not knowing who I was – I certainly enjoyed it the day I was brazenly asked by a feed customer “why don’t I put three in the boot and you just write down I put two in?” which allowed me to reply “I’ll need to ask my Dad about that – it’s his company”.  To this day, I’d still prefer to be anonymous and under-estimated than known and have my thoughts presumed by others – but there are good sides to being known as well and you can’t have it all ways.

As I’d hoped, the eventual holiday was great fun and the source of lots of happy memories but I also found that those formative weeks working in the feedstore were just as memorable and are now just as fondly recalled – unavoidably so, whenever I hear “Need You Tonight” by INXS or “Dignity” by Deacon Blue.

Once again, change was in the air: we’d dabbled in printed brochures at showgrounds and found it a far easier way to win sales and keep customers than the labour-intensive show circuit.  The late eighties had seen Robinsons give up the shows and venture into the brave new world of mail order.  This meant photo-shoots at home, restricting our movements around the garden, in case we appeared in shot (bad) but on the other hand, it meant having the odd model about the place (good, if not quite as good as a kiss-o-gram)!  In reality, it was, almost without exception, a largely dull process made worse by the tetchiness that everyone seemed to exhibit, a state I’ve come to appreciate at first hand in the years since then.

1984 Bulletin 1
Modelling: seems like a great idea at the time, tends to be something you’ll regret thereafter…

On top of all that, much of the photography we did was of boring, static things like shavings forks and hook-on door mangers.  When it came to the clothing, I always drew the line at modelling anything (bizarrely, Martin didn’t, which is equally uncharacteristic) but even then I couldn’t escape the odd assignment to put my hand in a glove or my foot in a welly-sock or something equally unglamorous.  Today, you’ll hear people on chat shows sorrowfully claiming that “life on set is nowhere near as exciting as you’d think, you know” or some other such plaintive cry.  While I still bristle at the faux modesty of it all – and it’s not like they’re working down the pit, either – the basic point is one that I’ve well understood to be unremittingly true since my early teens.

And so in 1990, with GCSEs taken and weeks to fill before starting sixth-form college, I returned for a summer job, just in time for a major refurbishment in the store.  By now, at almost seventeen, I was more comfortable in my role – and it helped that for the first time, I was actually doing work that I knew I could do as well as (if not better than) anyone who worked there: labouring and fixture-building.  I was happy to swap banter with the tradesmen and I soon found I had become something of an expert in building shop fixtures.  In addition, the lunch-time conversation was more grown-up, the esteem I attracted seemed more genuine and any falseness I perceived seemed to dissipate, as I was proving my worth.  It was a great time and I only have to hear ‘Sacrifice’ by Elton John, ‘Can’t Touch This’ by MC Hammer or, inevitably for that summer, ‘Nessun Dorma’ by Luciano Pavarotti to transport myself back to that wonderful, heady time.

Two summers later with A-Levels done, I was back in demand as a labourer, as we decided to move our now burgeoning mail order department to a separate warehouse a few miles away.  Having passed my driving test in early 1991, I quickly added the skill of driving with a trailer – which would be put to good use as we moved load after load from one building to another.  Again, I benefitted from the advantage of proficiency: being able to reverse a sixteen-foot trailer into a tight space tended to remove any sense that people were being unnecessarily gushing with me.  As long as I was doing things I felt that others knew they couldn’t, there was no need for false flattery.  It was another rite-of-passage summer and, as you’ve asked, I’ll add that its soundtrack seemed to be dominated by ‘Living On My Own’ by Freddie Mercury and ‘Dreams’ by Gabrielle.

It was also the first time that I found myself occasionally frustrated with the inability of others to see what I required of them when working together, which was something that, at the time, took me by surprise.  I now realise this was my first taste of managerial experience but back then, I couldn’t believe that it was possible for me to just turn up at the start of the summer holidays, fresh into a job and somehow know what to do far quicker than someone who’d been doing such work for years.

During my university years, I often found that the holiday work I was doing acted as a perfect antidote to my term-time studies – and vice-versa.  Delivery jobs, painting fixtures, building mezzanine floors were all menial yin to my academic yang.  The principle also extended to the people I was working with: days after discussing quantum theory with my Physicist mates on campus, I found myself explaining to girl in our packing room one day that I was only working there for a few weeks before returning to study for a degree in Marketing.  She looked utterly perplexed.  “What’s that, then?  Like, selling fruit and veg, is it?”  The world is made up of very different people and it was a valuable reminder that it’s a skill in itself to be able to relate equally well to everyone.

It was around this time that I attended my first ever trade fair – the Denver Western/English Apparel & Equipment Market (which happened to be followed by some skiing in the Rockies) and then a Gift Fair in New York.  I was half-way through my second year and in order to be able to miss two weeks of lectures and tutorials, I needed the agreement of the university.  I made a point of directing my request via an American lecturer, hoping she would more fully agree that the experience was of benefit to my course.  I have no idea whether or not the tactic made any difference but I got the permission I needed.  I certainly learned that the Trade Fair was another avenue for unsolicited flattery, just as soon as it was clear that the would-be supplier could tell what the company name on your badge said.

Upon graduation, I threw myself into the ‘Milk Round’ of graduate careers guidance, fully expecting not to go back to the family firm.  Between applications and telephone interviews for this blue-chip company and that, we ended up having a conversation about the fact that for the first time in years, Robinsons was just reaching the point where its Marketing functions needed to be made more sophisticated and I decided to help out ‘for the time being’.  The standing joke I still have with my mates from Uni is that I agreed to join on a temporary basis.  “How’s that temporary job?” they would ask, almost twenty years later.  Well, it came to an end like I told you it would – nothing’s forever!

With Helen, presenting the rosettes after an evening round of the Prince Phillip Cup at the Horse of the Year Show, NEC Arena, 2003.

Since September 1995, when I became an official employee, I’ve spent millions of pounds of marketing budget, taken on (and finished) dozens of people, been involved in countless office moves, seminars, awards ceremonies and meetings.  I’ve flown to three continents and become acquainted with several European airports along the way and appeared in the press and on the radio more times than I can say.

Via my 13-year involvement with BETA, the trade association, I’ve sat on committees and councils, delivered speeches, spoken at the Royal Society in London and met HRH The Princess Royal – who was very complimentary about Robinsons, by the way.   I’ve collected awards for ‘Best Mail Order Company’ and presented awards in the main arena at The Horse of the Year Show, when we sponsored the Prince Phillip Cup.  I’ve even blagged my way into the Press Tent at Badminton Horse Trials, which is no mean feat, I can tell you.  Every job has its perks and it’s fair to say I’ve had my share of them.

I’ve also done the shitty jobs, the weird jobs and the jobs that are almost impossible to delegate, like painting our logo on the road into a local riding centre when we were sponsoring a horse trials, one year.  Spending the night in a caravan in Scotland in December, with the temperature well below freezing wasn’t much fun and neither was being on ‘alarm cover’; getting a call at 2:30 in the morning to go and reset a blaring alarm, wondering if this time there really was an attacker in the dark, or if it was yet another case of clothing in slippery plastic packaging finally slithering apart twelve hours after being stacked too high.   Thanks to Health & Safety, that was one job that we could eventually contract out.  I think it’s also a universal constant that if you consider yourself a showground exhibitor, you must at some stage require assistance with a puncture on a lorry at 1am on a motorway hard shoulder, somewhere.

Another time, when promoting a boot for horses that was billed as an alternative to conventional shoeing, we’d arranged a live demonstration of the product, at Burghley Horse Trials, with a horse in a pen.  In front of an audience of hundreds, wearing a head-mic, I set about extolling the virtues of this amazing new product and noticed I was getting lots of questions from a group of guys congregated at one corner of the pen.  I kept answering their questions but noticed they were getting increasingly technical in nature, with respect to the physiology of the horse’s hoof.  When they started to argue with some of my answers, I realised they were in fact a bunch of farriers who were all incredibly threatened by this product which was, after all, claiming to consign them to history.  That was one day when I felt I’d gone above and beyond the call of duty!

Charred flag
Inspecting the damage, hours after our original Ashton store was destroyed by fire, September 2002. Eight days after this photo was taken, it was my wedding day.

And then there’s the stuff that came out of the blue: like the morning when, after an employee had failed to arrive for work, I took a call from the police telling me he was ‘helping them with their enquiries’ and could they come and take a look at his computer for evidence – if I’d said ‘no’, they would have impounded it!  Anyone who remembers 9/11 will know where they were during those couple of hours.  I was driving from Taunton Dean Services towards Wadebridge the day before the Royal Cornwall Show.  When we arrived, you’ve never seen two people unhitch a caravan, set up the electrics and get the television tuned in so quickly!

Anyone the least bit familiar with the Robinsons story will assume that our Annus Horribilis was 2002/3, the period between the fire at our original Ashton store and the opening on the same site of its larger replacement.  While it’s true to say I’ve had many better evenings than the one I spent standing on Warrington Road watching the flames claim the building which had once housed the entire business, it’s also true that, with the benefit of our robust insurance, we quickly turned it into a process of opportunity and experience-gathering.  For better or worse, we certainly did that!  Working with insurers, contractors, sub-contractors, media, utility companies and with the huge efforts made by all our staff, we took just over a year to re-open and found the whole process overwhelmingly positive.  It was only when we re-opened, unadvertised, on a Sunday (6-hour trading limit, not a good idea) that we realised the power of word-of-mouth.  That day, I spent at least three hours standing on the same Warrington Road, directing traffic (including the Merseyside Mounted Police horsebox) through the double-parked cars as upwards of three thousand people flocked back to see the new store.  We later learned that the traffic was so bad, it had backed up onto the M6 exit slip at Junction 23, at which point, the police mobilised their helicopter to see what was causing all the congestion!

Over the last decade, I’ve been at first beguiled by, then suspicious of and then accepting of the vagaries of the internet as a means to win and retain custom.  We can’t deny the importance of the algorithm as we put our virtual shop window on display but neither can we forget that it is merely a gateway to a secondary decision engine, locked in a separate piece of hardware – something we used to refer to as a ‘person’.  I hope that doesn’t sound too old-fashioned a notion in years to come.  Another unexpected side effect of all this digitality is that it acts as a demonstrable disincentive to do anything else to contact the market.  That’ not to say we should deliberately ignore the channel that is clearly the most responsive, least risky way to return on investment but it has often made the process of Marketing a far more anodyne, far less colourful world than the one we used to inhabit when we didn’t have the benefit of the Internet and we accepted there was a cost of stimulating customer interest.

In recent years, I’ve glimpsed the future of the market we serve – for better or worse, as progress almost always is.  In many ways, the equestrian industry’s greatest weakness was always its greatest charm: that it wasn’t mainstream, that the ‘normal rules’ did not necessarily apply.  Inexorably, we, and many others, have spent most of the last thirty years promising riders that they could expect the same level of choice, service and responsiveness from our little industry that they demand of the High Street.  Jointly, we have managed to close the gap of perception that too often saw those who ride and own horses being treated as almost a separate species to the rest of the human race.  I’ve genuinely heard sentences like “horse people won’t buy on the internet” being uttered by actual, grown-up people in meetings and, at times, despaired.  Now it seems all the pioneering has been done and those battles have been won, inevitably, the prizes on offer for those in the race are more about the destination and less about the journey.

Finally, I’d like to spend a moment paying tribute to all the people I’ve come into contact with, over the years.  All the staff (good and bad but mostly good) I’ve ever worked with have at some point taught me about the human condition.  I’ve learned that, despite the fact that many will disappoint you, most will not and many more than you expect will remind you that, generally, people are a largely positive, reassuringly straightforward collective.  I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly honest, noble and diligent people who care about doing a good job to the best of their ability.  As long as you spend most of your time in an environment where you can continue to make that claim, you’ll have a happy, productive workforce – although you do have to accept that you will also have to put up with the odd dickhead along the way and make sure to move them along as and when they appear.

Even then, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s happy and motivated all the time or that you’re always in perfect harmony with those who work for you – since when has anyone ever told you you’re offering them too much of a pay rise? – but it’s not always the obvious things that make the biggest difference.  Loyalty and respect are two qualities that too many employers can bemoan a shortage of from their staff, without realising that they’re both a two-way street.  I’ve always found that offering loyalty and respect to a workforce is, in the end, the greatest determinant of team spirit than almost anything else.  As our niche market continues in its transition from being a ‘Harry Potter’-like secret world to becoming part of the ‘high street’, I sincerely hope that those qualities don’t also become a quaint, ‘otherworldly’ relic of the old ways.

RCL Let It Be
Useful advice when a band puts out its final offering…

And so, If I may be so bold, I’d like to torture one more analogy: the curtain has fallen on this particular band’s latest tour, with no follow-up planned.  We had more than our fair share of hits, we had the Christmas Number 1 spot for a few years, and, yes, we’ve put out the odd ‘difficult’ album.  Over the years, I’d say we’ve been seen variously as the fresh new sound, the hottest live act and, I’m sure, dinosaurs playing ‘Dad music’ and like any proper band, we’ve relied heavily on a fantastic crew to keep the show on the Long and Winding Road.

We may spread our Wings and start our own individual side projects, we may consider a comeback under a different guise or we might just go and buy a farm on the Mull of Kintyre or meditate in India.  It’s too early to say.  We really have loved being here and you really were such a lovely audience.  Thank you….and goodnight!