David Parkin on an uninspiring encounter, a Next giant and a resolution too far

CAN I be the last person of 2020 to wish you a Happy New Year.

If, like me, you’ve only come back to work this week after the extended festive break, I’m sure you are looking for a bit of focus, some motivation, perhaps a little inspiration?

If so then can I caution you about where you look for it.

Think carefully if you are going into a university.

It’s not that these places are barren of inspiration and motivation for business people, it is just that it can be a bit thin on the ground.

I wrote last year how I had a difference of opinion with a senior figure from York University who wanted to know why more businesses weren’t engaging with academics.

My view was that businesses don’t know how to navigate the complex corridors of our academic institutions and those in academia often talk a different language to the rest of us.

He wouldn’t have any of it and said it wasn’t a university’s job to go out and engage with businesses, it needed to be the other way around.

That prompted an email from an old contact, David Dickson the long-serving former senior partner at York accountants Garbutt & Elliott.

David is deputy chair of the York and North Yorkshire LEP and has just stepped down as treasurer at the University of York after 12 years in the role.

He read what I had said about my encounter with the chap from the university and suggested I meet the new vice chancellor of the University of York, Charlie Jeffery, who joined last year from Edinburgh.

We arranged a meeting and I drove over to York on Tuesday morning this week, parking my car in the courtyard of the impressive red brick Heslington Hall.

I was shown into Charlie’s office, overlooking a lake and gardens that included topiary in the shape of a giant chess set, now a little overgrown.

We sat down and I explained the context behind our meeting, including my encounter with one of his colleagues.

He dismissed the incident as not representative of the university – fair enough.

I asked a few general questions about his focus in his relatively new role and noticed after a while that there were no questions coming back in the opposite direction.

It was clear there was little interest from Charlie in having a two-way conversation.

I got the impression that one of his board had suggested he met me and so he was going through the motions.

It was clear he had little enthusiasm for our encounter and so, after less than 25 minutes I did something I rarely do.

I brought the meeting to a close, thanked him and left.

He clearly must be more engaging with those he deems more important or influential.

I left thinking he was the kind of bloke my grandmother used to call “cocksure”.

I remember Magnus Pike using the word in a Flotex TV advert years ago.

Remember him?

OK fine never mind.

Do you remember Flotex then? 

I do.

And I’ve still got the carpet burns to prove it.


FAREWELL then Sir David Jones.

Few people have done more to transform the British high street than the former chief executive of Next, who died last month at the age of 76.

I first met him in 2004 when he was named the Yorkshire Post Business Leader of the Year.

Which was pretty good going for a former accountant from Worcestershire, given that I had once seen a successful CEO of a Yorkshire company who had been born in Scotland, rejected as winner of the award because one of judges objected.

“You can’t have a bloody Jock winning that award, what would people think the world had come to?” he spluttered over his chocolate biscuit during the judging panel’s deliberations.

For all his success in the world of retail, it was David Jones’ phenomenal fortitude in dealing with Parkinon’s Disease that was most impressive.

He was diagnosed with it at the early age of 38 when he was chief executive of the Grattan catalogue business in Bradford and decided not to reveal the diagnosis to anyone.

He didn’t even tell his wife for two years.

But as he came to terms with his illness, he changed his approach.

He decided to tackle it head on.

When we met at his home at Ben Rhydding outside Ilkley, he told me: “I’m on a one-man crusade to talk as much as possible about PD. If somebody walks into the room with one arm and one leg there is always a feeling of sympathy. If somebody walks in and they are shaking, people walk away.

“Talking about it helps me and hopefully it helps other people as well.

“I sometimes feel very lousy and have a bad day, but it doesn’t happen very often.

“The worst thing is in the mornings, it takes a while to get my body moving. I get a pack of cards and play patience.”

Jones successfully controlled his shakes with tablets but admitted they could return at any time, as they did when he went up on stage at the Queens Hotel to collect his award as Yorkshire Business Leader of the Year.

I remember, he apologised to the audience, explained about the disease and told them about his own charity which raises money into research for PD.

“It’s called Movers and Shakers, for obvious reasons!”

That brought a standing ovation.

A year later he published his autobiography called Next to Me and I was asked to compere one of the launch events at Bertie’s banqueting rooms in Elland.

There was a foreword by his friend Phillip Green and supportive words from fellow Parkinson’s sufferer, the Hollywood actor Michael J Fox.

David Jones didn’t do things by halves.

When he wanted to raise money for his charity he organised a ball for 1,600 people in London’s Battersea Park which celebrated England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph.

Guests included 15 of the victorious squad, including captain Martin Johnson and the event featured a performance from Lionel Richie.

The manuscript for his book was bought for £50,000 while retail baron Philip Green paid £100,000 for a Noble sportscar which had been donated by Jones, who owned the Leicestershire-based company. The whole event raised £750,000.

I liked David Jones because I could relate to him.

Unlike a lot of top entrepreneurs and executives, he didn’t try and create a mystique around himself, he wasn’t arrogant and kept his ego under wraps.

He said his attention span was about 15 seconds, which I could definitely relate to.

He was chairman of one of the biggest fashion chains in Britain – but admitted he knew very little about clothes.

He owned a company which made sports cars – but said he didn’t like driving fast motors.

He was renowned for his skills as an innovative leader and motivator – but had never been on a management course or read a management book in his life.

What a refreshing individual!

He spoke a lot of common sense and his approach to business was simple and uncomplicated.

“The most important part of a chief executive’s job is to make certain that the strategy of the company is defined and communicated and have people in key jobs and to motivate those people if needed,” he told me.

He said his management style was “informal, Christian names, somebody once said I treated the cleaner the same as a director”.

He told me the “swing door rule” is a good rule of thumb for judging a manager.

“If someone walks through a swing door and lets it swing back on the person behind, a good manager will apologise, a bad manager will not bother and a devious manager will see who it is that the door hit!”

Jones said you are born with the ability to be a good manager.

“Put people at ease and they will go and conquer the earth for you. I don’t panic and I rarely lose my temper. If I’m faced with a difficult problem I very often say, ‘Let’s sleep on it, it’ll look less bad in the morning’.”

Simple but very wise words.

Sir David, who was born in Malvern, started his career as a 17-year-old junior at local catalogue firm Kays of Worcester with three very average A levels behind him.

It was when he was running Grattan that it was taken over by Next, the retailer run by George Davies.

In 1988 he was deputy chief executive and Next was struggling during the recession.

He and Davies clashed over the way forward and after a bitter boardroom battle, the shareholders backed Jones.

After he took the helm, the value of the company plummeted to £25m with shares trading a just a few pence each.

Jones calmly recommended to his staff that they buy shares in Next and later joked how he had the wealthiest secretary and driver in Britain.

It took him two years to sort things out and then Next started to grow, becoming a £4bn retail giant that was breathing down the neck of the then undisputed high street king, Marks & Spencer.

He groomed his successor, Simon Wolfson to take over as chief executive and he still runs next, the longest serving CEO of a FTSE-100 company.

After stepping up to become chairman of Next Jones was appointed one of the first two non-executive directors at supermarket group Morrisons  after he wrote to Sir Ken Morrison putting himself forward for the job.

It ranks as an achievement because Sir Ken once said he would rather have two extra check-out girls than one non-executive director.

But the two later clashed and Sir David retired from the board.

He was credited with helping to save JJB Sports from collapse in 2009, but was subsequently accused of forging bank statements to disguise personal loans from JJB founder Dave Whelan and from Mike Ashley, the founder of rival Sports Direct.

It was a strange case which raised many questions but never came to a conclusion because the court case against him was dropped due to his poor health.

Outside work, Jones played golf at Ilkley, was on the board of Leicester Tigers rugby club and loved the music of Roy Orbison.

He backed businesses started by young people including a South African mortgage business, an Otley recruitment firm, owned the Grove restaurant in Ilkley and managed pop singer Alastair Griffin, runner-up on the BBC’s Fame Academy.

And he was associate producer of a British film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival called These Foolish Things.

 It starred Lauren Bacall, Angelica Huston, Julie Christie and Terence Stamp.

David Jones will be remembered for what he achieved with Next and for how he lived with Parkinson’s Disease and how he raised both awareness of the disease and funds for his charity.

He was a good man operating in the gladiatorial arena that is British retailing.

And for a former post-room clerk from Worcestershire, he probably achieved the ultimate accolade most Yorkshiremen can only dream about.

He was made president of Yorkshire County Cricket Club.


HAVE you made a New Year resolution?

If you have, then please don’t bother telling me.

I’m sick of reading social media updates on what people want to achieve in 2020, or even worse, looking back at what they “achieved” in 2019 – complete with photographs to illustrate the point.

It is all done with a rather pathetic false humility that has had my gag reflex going 19 to the dozen since New Year’s Eve.

For what it’s worth, my resolution this year is not to accept Linkedin invitations from business coaches, mentors and gurus who can grow the value of your company.

Because more often than not these people have never actually built up a company themselves, but believe they are qualified to help other people develop their businesses.

If you are that good at growing a business, why aren’t you growing your own?

Have a great weekend.


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