George Davies, the man who transformed fashion on the high street, founded Next in 1982, George for Asda in 1989, and Per Una for Marks & Spencer in 2000, where he was involved until four years ago. Now 71, he has an 80-store childrenswear and womenswear chain in Saudi Arabia – because he loves the business. "I launched it in February last year, I spent three months out there," he told The Herald. "What else would I do? I don't want to go and sit on some bloody beach."
The retail legend's theme at Heriot-Watt, where he has been involved for the past few years, was "learning from adversity", and his stories went back to school days, at Bootle Grammar on Merseyside. "There were sons of dockers and doctors, every walk of life... it prepared me for everybody you meet."
A young football star, he scored two winning goals for England schoolboys against Scotland and next day found Bill Shankly at his front door. Then came never-forgotten adversity, when he lost his best friend, who had a place at Cambridge, to leukaemia at 17, an event which steeled him for the future. "I was probably keen to do something in the soccer world but I had a place at Birmingham University to do dentistry: mothers in those days wanted you to be architects or doctors and my mother was a really strong woman.
"I enjoyed university life but dentistry wasn't for me, and I left. Funnily enough, a few years ago they gave me an honorary doctorate – not in dentistry. I was quite happy being a bum, but my mother said you had better get a job... and I found it a great pleasure, I loved it."
The young George went to work for Littlewoods, sourcing clothing from Lancashire, Yorkshire and Scotland, where he got to know the night train to Central station and the mills of Glasgow, Irvine and Arbroath. "I was quite a young boy and I saw an opportunity – I launched a business."
He had spotted that school reforms had sparked a new demand for stylish grammar school uniforms, and in 1972 managed to raise £100,000 from a bank for his first venture. Then adversity struck, when Northern Commercial Trust went under in the 1974 secondary banking crisis, but he resurfaced to run another kidswear and fashion business where he fought a battle with the chairman and 30% shareholder.
That attracted the attention of a blue-chip bank, which invited him to energise high street tailor Hepworths.
It was the start of the George Davies revolution, which saw the old Hepworths and Kendalls clothing emporia become Next, beginning in 1982 with 70 stores. Outlets rejected for the conversion scheme – including "one-man stores which used to close at lunchtime" – were offered to their managers. He says: "One thing I was pleased about was I never had to make people redundant, because I am a creator, I am about people and I have been brought up like that."
The Next six years are the ones which built the Davies legend, before he was ousted in a boardroom coup. "They got me," he says. "Probably I didn't have a lot of time for the main board, but I was the one who came up with the ideas and I had a great team... I started smelling a rat a week or two beforehand, and deputy chief executive David Jones managed to oust me overnight, at one in the morning."
He insists: "I had done nothing at all that was wrong."
Next shares under Davies had gone from 40p to 350p, but in 1990 they crashed to 7p as expansion collided with recession. (Shares are now near all-time highs of 3600p, valuing Next at almost £6bn). "That was massive adversity," Mr Davies says. "I was going to do a deal with Sainsbury's for out-of-town, when Next got me. But within six months I had done a deal with Asda, and it was my business." He says: "When I run a business, I have to run it all. I love designing stores and I love doing products with my team – I never think the two are separate."
He created George as the first out-of-town fashion opportunity for women. It generated £600m a year of sales for Asda, and now under Walmart ownership it is, he says, probably "the biggest clothing brand in the world". He stayed on for five years after selling out to Asda in 1995 "for a massive sum" at the age of 59.
He recalls: "I bought myself a sailing boat and I thought 'that's it', I already had my own aircraft, and I have got seven kids. I set sail from Gibraltar, I was hit by a storm, and spent three weeks in port. Then I got a phone call – and when you are a workaholic... within a month the deal was done to do Per Una."
Mr Davies was paid £10m upfront, and sold the brand to M&S under new broom Stuart Rose four years later for £125m, but stayed hands-on till 2008. The more recent travails of the Per Una brand are, he notes, "nothing to do with me".
The overlooked Davies innovation is e-commerce, beginning with the Next Directory 25 years ago. He argued that a four-week delivery wouldn't do, and pioneered a 48-hour service. "That is what sustained Next, nobody at that level gives their service, because they have been doing it since 1987."
The latest Davies high street venture GIVe hit turbulence only a year after its 2009 launch with £20m of his own cash, and last year it morphed into FG4, his Middle Eastern business.
Undaunted, he says: "It's been a challenge, when all the women are walking round in abayas. But I love the business."
l Born in Liverpool in 1941
l Attended Birmingham University (no degree)
l Started first business 1972
l Joined Hepworths 1982, converted to Next
l Founded George 1989
l Created Per Una 2000
l Launched GIVe 2009 l Launched FG4 in 2011