Chris Dawson: 'How I made my first billion'

Chris Dawson Chris Dawson's Rolls Royce has a personalised number plate named after the Only Fools and Horses character

Businessman Chris Dawson has made his first billion, moving up 80 places in the Sunday Times Rich List. The former Plymouth market trader is now worth £1.28bn, up £695m from 2013, after expanding his The Range homeware stores.

But what were the crucial steps to his rise in the ranks of the rich?

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Step One: Jumble sale dealer

Chris Dawson Chris Dawson selling from the back of a truck at Tavistock in the late 1980s

Mr Dawson was quick to spot an opportunity when he was still at junior school - selling items given to him from jumble sales.

"I went to Hooe church jumble sale, but I didn't have any money so I asked them if I could have what's left," he said.

CHRIS DAWSON

  • Age: 62
  • Lives: Plymouth, Devon
  • Married: Sarah
  • Children: Lisa and Chris
  • Started as market trader
  • Personal Wealth: £1.28bn
  • Number 77 on Sunday Times Rich List 2014

"They let me have all the stuff and I went and cleaned the plimsolls and painted them and sold them outside the school gates.

"I was flogging them merrily, until I got caught and got caned.

"Where the average person would think it was a risk, I saw it as an opportunity.

"But when I got home my mum marched me down the jumble sale and made me give every penny back.

"She said you should not be taking money off the church. But my brain knew even then that I had to have a low cost base.

"And I needed to change the offer - I had to make the plimsolls nice and shiny - and get in front of an audience where I stood out."

Chris Dawson Mr Dawson with his son Chris during his days as a market trader
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Step Two: Scrap metal dealer

Corporate psychologist Dr Adrian Atkinson's assessment

An entrepreneur is driven, extremely hard working and totally focused on the business they are developing.

They do not enjoy holidays. Chris Dawson recently went on holiday to Bermuda and commented "by day two I was like a bloodhound looking for someone to do a deal with. I find it hard to stop".

An entrepreneur goes it alone and makes decisions intuitively.

They dislike or ignore business plans. They are determined and resilient.

They do not accept that they have ever failed, yet they start on average five businesses before they make it big.

And they start young.

Mr Dawson made his mark early in business, collecting discarded materials from school metal classes - and selling them to a scrap dealer.

"At school I was in charge of the scrap metal in the metalwork class," he said.

"I took it home and sold it. The teacher asked me what I was up to and I told him.

"He said 'You'll end up in prison or very rich', and thank goodness it's the latter.

"I bought a motorcycle with the money I got, for half a crown less than the asking price.

"I realised I had a special way of saying something."

After he left school at the age of 15, without any qualifications, he became a scrap metal dealer.

He admits that even now he is virtually illiterate and can't read the sat nav on his Rolls Royce

"Even now I'll stop the Roller and pick up a battery from the side of the road. I still love it."

Chris Dawson Chris Dawson meets Prime Minister David Cameron at a reception for business leaders in 2011
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Step 3: Street trading

After school he traded on the streets and on beaches, but not all his deals went down well with customers.

"I was down the beaches and got girlfriends to sell suntan lotion, sunglasses and beads.

Rise of The Range

  • 1989: Opened first Range superstore at Sugar Mill Business Park, in Plymouth
  • 2009: Bought £68m of MFI stock from administrators for less than £3m
  • 2013: Bought Sugar Mill out of administration and renamed it Dawson's Mill
  • Now has 88 stores nationwide
  • Employs 5,500 people

"In 1976 we went into a cash and carry which was closing down and we got hold of some liniment.

"It was for animals, but it made your skin turn brown. We thought 'That'll do' and bought the lot.

"But everyone was coming out in blotches. We ran up to the top, like a Del Boy sketch.

"I was also going round the clock street trading.

"I was selling perfumes, watches, lighters, socks and then I'd be in the pub with another line and then I'd be in a nightclub.

"We were on roll, my friend Steve and I were taking very big money."

Chris Dawson Chris Dawson at the opening of his new store in Glasgow in 2013
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Step 4: First shops

The good times were rolling and at the age of 38, Mr Dawson had raised enough capital to open his first Plymouth store.

"I opened shops in Newton Abbot, Plymouth and Exeter, but after a couple of years I sold them and went back on the market.

"It wasn't the same, so I had the idea of putting a market inside and tidy it up a bit.

"My vision was to build a chain of stores."

In 1989, he opened his first out-of-town store at Sugar Mill in Plymouth, trading under the brand The Range.

"I just believed that I could make a discount department store work.

"It was being done by Woolworths and Trago, but I thought I could do it better."

Range
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Step 5: Takeovers

Analysis

The discrepancy between Chris Dawson's background and his attainment is extraordinary.

He came up, wheeling and dealing, through market trading.

You can easily find him in the morning at one of his favourite greasy spoons in Plymouth, a local boy made good.

The truth may be that high achievers like him are born and not made in classrooms.

As he has often said, if you want to succeed in business, then business must be the thing that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning.

Which is presumably one of those things they can't teach you at Harvard Business School.

The store was a remarkable success and soon Mr Dawson was expanding his empire.

"Sugar Mill never stopped booming, it was amazing, and we bought more stores," he said.

"It is self belief. I just believed I could do all this.

"I couldn't display a shelf if you put a gun to my head but I know what it's going to look like.

"We didn't have enough outlets to sell everything."

In 2009, Mr Dawson purchased stock worth £98m from MFI and bankrupt electrical retailer Empire Direct.

He also bought assets and stock from the collapse of Focus DIY and TJ Hughes and took over some of the vacant stores.

The MFI stock was worth £68m but Mr Dawson bought it from administrators for less than £3m.

He told a BBC Two documentary in 2013: "We told the press at the time that we had amazing competition [for the stock].

"There wasn't. We got the press out first. The names I think we made up. The press, bless 'em, printed it."

Mr Dawson said the move ensured there was "no competition" for the stock and meant The Range was the sole bidder.

"There were about 100 trucks of stuff," he said.

"It made millions, a big slug of money. You have got to smell the opportunity, a drop of blood and I'm there.

"There's no Mr Nice Guy, it's a predatory instinct. You cannot buy instinct."

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