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For Julian Richer, poorer is better

by
05 June 2020

Julian Richer talks to Huw Spanner about business methods and his baptism

Jaconelli Gerardo

Julian Richer

Julian Richer

JULIAN RICHER is a successful (and, accordingly, wealthy) capitalist who believes that the way to improve society is to do as you would be done by.

He came to public attention last year when he announced his intention of handing more than 60 per cent of his business, the hi-fi and TV retailer Richer Sounds, to a trust owned by his 530-odd employees. He also celebrated turning 60 by giving each of them £1000 for every year that they had worked for the company.

A flurry of profiles in the national press identified him as “a committed Christian”, but in fact the genesis of his attitude to business long predates his baptism at St Michael le Belfrey, in York, in 2006. The obvious model for his latest move, as he points out, is the founder of the John Lewis Partnership, Spedan Lewis, who famously declared that his aim was “solely to make the world happier and a bit more decent”.

Mr Richer was born in London in 1959, the elder of two children of Percy and Ursula Richer. His father, “a frustrated businessman, but academically very bright”, was the grandson of refugees from the pogroms in Eastern Europe. His mother had grown up in Hamburg, but, in 1934, had emigrated to Palestine (where she briefly married a Major in the British army). Both of them now worked as trainee managers for Marks & Spencer, and young Julian was regaled with stories of visits from its chairman, Lord Marks, who always made a point of checking that the staff lavatories were clean and that the staff canteen served hot meals.

Although it was not from his parents that he acquired what he likes to call his “compassion gene”, Mr Richer says that they were “good people”, who gave him “a wonderful upbringing”. “They taught me right and wrong, and respect and self-discipline, and eating your greens before you have your pudding. They were law-abiding — that was very important. My mum particularly was quite strict.”

The seminal influence in his life was Ernest Polack, his housemaster at Clifton College, the boarding school in Bristol to which (thanks to a bequest from a grandfather) he was sent at the age of 13. He recalls Mr Polack as “a wonderful, wonderful man. He would spend the holidays in South Africa demonstrating against apartheid and getting beaten black and blue, and then he would come back and show us his war wounds. It brings tears to my eyes even now.”

In those days, he himself, he says, was primarily interested in making money. “I was the Artful Dodger with a cheeky grin. I had a chip on my shoulder, and I was very driven. At school, I would watch out of the window all these Bentleys arriving at the weekend and I’d make my dad park his beaten-up Renault round the back.”

During the miners’ strike in 1974, he bought a large case of candles for £3 and got his father to sell them for him through Exchange & Mart for £15. Couldn’t that be described as profiteering? “I admit it,” he says, “and I’m mortified by it now.”

He had already discovered that there was a market among his fellow pupils for recycled hi-fi separates. The previous year, he had picked up a second-hand Bang & Olufsen turntable for £10, cleaned it up and “made it look nice”, and sold it for £22. By the time he was 17, his study was full of stock, and he had three other lads working for him on commission.

 

WHEN I meet him, the coronavirus is still no more than a small cloud on the horizon. We sit in a booth in a café in Mayfair and drink expensive tea. He seems to be full of nervous energy — it is hard to get even half a question out before he is answering it — and, when I remark that I hear he does 100 press-ups a day, he says: “One hundred and fifty this morning. Not all in one go.” He shows me his to-do list for the day: an A4 sheet of paper close-covered with handwritten instructions to himself.

He opened his first shop, on tiny premises next to London Bridge Station, at the age of 19. “At first, we dribbled along. Then we had a good year when we started buying end-of-line products — our turnover went from something like £120,000 to £600,000. It took three or four years before we really got going. We opened a shop in Stockport, and it went crazy. Then we opened one in Birmingham, and then Leeds, then Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Liverpool.”

When he was 23, he bought himself a second-hand Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow — which he gave to his dad a year later after treating himself to a slightly larger second-hand Silver Spirit.

It was in 1982 that the example of goodness which Mr Polack had set him was reinforced when he read In Search of Excellence, a bestseller by two American management consultants who had looked for the secret of certain businesses’ success. The book sets out eight key principles, but the lesson that Mr Richer drew from it was the overriding importance of treating both his customers and his employees well.

It is hard to differentiate between altruism and self-interest, kind heart, and shrewd head, in the business practices that he has developed since. Early on, for example, he decided that he would buy a holiday home for the use of his staff (whom he prefers to call “colleagues”). “When I went to my bank manager to ask for a mortgage, he said: ‘You don’t need to do this.’ I told him: ‘That’s exactly why I’m doing it.’” Today, the company has a dozen such homes, including apartments in Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, and Venice. “Every year, more than 70 per cent of our staff use at least one of them for a free holiday.”

Over 40 years in business, he says, he has learnt that “what you get out of people depends on how you treat them. Is that exploitation? At least we’re all benefiting together. I go the extra mile, and it is a win-win. I’m in a cut-throat world of business, and I want to be better than the competition. I want staff to stay with me and not go elsewhere. I want them to put themselves out for customers. I don’t want them to steal from me: some will, if they’re desperate, but we have phenomenally low levels of theft.”

Every week, he receives a “colleague care report” that updates him on staff morale at each of his 53 stores, and lists every employee who has a physical or mental-health issue or has suffered a bereavement, “with their mobile number, so I can call them. And I do. Not every person every week, but I’m keeping track, and I think that’s terribly powerful. I do it because I care; but, of course, the business benefits also.”

 

IN HIS own 1995 how-to book, The Richer Way, he acknowledges the “unswerving support” of his wife, Rosie, “without which my modest success would not have been possible”. They bought a Georgian house near York in 1986, and, in time, she decided to attend St Michael le Belfrey, where she had been confirmed as a girl. He started to go with her, “as a passenger”.

“I felt a bit of a fraud, but I enjoyed it. I would sit quietly while she took communion and it was therapeutic after a busy week. Then, one day, the Vicar kind of jumped on me. Someone had tipped him off, I think, that I might have a few bob, and he asked me to host [in my home] an Alpha course he was setting up for businesspeople.

“Everyone rather enjoyed it; so we did it a second time. And, after about 18 months, I just felt I was ready to be baptised. It wasn’t a single, Damascene moment: it was more of a gradual thing.”

He recalls the day of his baptism as “a really, really special day”. The following year, he was confirmed by the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, in his private chapel in Bishopthorpe Palace.

Today, he describes himself as “Christian-lite”. “We have a weekly Bible-study group in our house whose mission statement is ‘to enrich the lives of others through the message of Jesus’. For me, Christianity is about loving God and loving your neighbour. You know, Jesus was about fairness. Really, he reinforced everything I’d learnt before: from my socialist Jewish housemaster, and from In Search of Excellence. His message broke it down into simple language.”

His drive to succeed is undiminished, but it long ago ceased to be about making money. “We don’t have flash cars any more. We used to have a couple of helicopters and a jet, but — as the Daily Mirror put it — I now take the bus.”

He and Rosie still have far more than they need, he says — last year, The Sunday Times Rich List estimated his net worth at £160 million — and they do not have any children; so his focus has shifted to philanthropy.

His goal in life now, he says, is “to leave a legacy”. “I can try to improve society and leave the world a better place. I’m at an age when I’ve got a lot of experience, I have available time, I have resources that I can put into doing good. And that is my real satisfaction and joy.”

 

HE HAS set up numerous not-for-profit initiatives. Acts 435, launched ten years ago by Dr Sentamu, took its name from the Bible verse that relates that the early Christians sold property “and put [the proceeds] at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need”.

The concept is simple: through church volunteers, it connects people who are struggling financially with others who want to help them directly. The minimum donation is £10, but every penny goes to someone in need, as the modest overheads are more than covered by Gift Aid receipts.

It took several years to get anyone in the Church of England interested in the idea, but, today, Mr Richer says, with obvious pride, more than 400 congregations are involved in a scheme that has helped more than 20,000 people.

In 2018 — the year when his second book, The Ethical Capitalist, came out — he set up the think tank Taxwatch to investigate and expose aggressive tax avoidance, which, he believes, denies the public purse at least £50 billion a year. “If you think that the entire prison service, which is bursting at the seams, costs only £3 billion a year to run, can you imagine how much good could be done if we collected that money?

“The criminal justice system, likewise, is starved of cash: lots of people can’t get legal aid now, and many bankrupt themselves proving their innocence. The whole benefits system is terribly hostile. I’ve written a paper on social housing, I feel so strongly about that. In all of these things, the poorest and the weakest in our society are treated very badly.”

He speaks with even greater passion about his new campaign against imposed zero-hours contracts. “Maybe a million people are on zero-hours contracts that they don’t want. Never mind the poverty it causes: just think of the daily misery of not knowing if you’re going to have enough money for food or rent. And women being sent home early — ‘We don’t need you today, love, it’s quiet’ — and they still have to pay for the child care they’ve arranged. It absolutely burns me up with anger.”

In February, with support from the CBI and the TUC, he launched the Good Business Charter, an accreditation scheme that requires businesses to make a commitment to ten specific pledges: a real living wage; fairer hours and contracts; employee well-being; employee representation; diversity and inclusion; environmental responsibility; paying fair tax; commitment to customers; ethical sourcing; and prompt payment.

Common to all of these concerns is fairness, he says, and he intends also, when the coronavirus allows, to set up a fairness foundation. “I want the greatest thinkers and writers of the day to contribute to a debate about how we can improve our society, and hopefully start a groundswell of public opinion.”

In the past, he has made donations to the Conservatives, but he is “absolutely determined now” to be non-party-political. “Everyone has got good in them, and I’d rather look for that. I’d rather find areas of commonality where we can work together and bring different sides together. Let’s not be tribal: let’s just try to make the world a better place.”

 

acts435.org.uk

taxwatchuk.org

zerohoursjustice.org

goodbusinesscharter.com

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