Chris Dawson could sell ice to an eskimo. In fact, he probably has – after all, Dawson’s business, The Range, a chain of home and garden superstores he started in the late 1980s, sells everything from sofas and garden gnomes to novelty cupcakes and fishtanks. In fact, there probably isn’t that much separating the organised chaos of the market stalls, where he perfected his sales patter, from the stores he runs today. Except, of course, the scale. The Range is forecasted to turn over a whopping £400m this year – nothing bargain basement about that.
Trading is in Dawson’s DNA. His father before him was a market trader, taking Dawson junior along to fairs and shows from the age of eight. But he also had a gift of the gab that wasn’t necessarily just down to his genes, he says. “I love trading. I was born to trade. I just trade in big numbers these days; when I’m buying or selling property now, it’s the same antics,” he says, in his broad West Country accent.
Dawson did have plenty of opportunity to hone any inherent skill, though. He would bunk off from school to lend his dad a helping hand. “I would go with him because it was better than going to school,” he recalls. To say Dawson struggled at school would be an understatement. There has often been a link made between dyslexia and entrepreneurialism, but, to this day, the entrepreneur insists he cannot write – and he didn’t learn to read until the age of 27.
“They’d call me a dunce. I was in a dunce class because I didn’t have the ability to understand what people were saying to me. It was all fuzzy in my head,” he says. “It became awkward for me because I couldn’t learn, I couldn’t pay attention and nor did I want to. It was a question of ‘I can’t and I won’t.’”
The challenges extended to Dawson’s home life, too. Perhaps he gets his work ethic from his mother, who worked an 18-hour day when he was young. “She’d go and work on the post at 4 o’clock in the morning. My older brother would help me get ready for school, and then disappear on his motorbike and I’d have to finish getting ready myself. At five or six it was a bit awkward because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he laughs. “After school I’d sit on the step and wait for Mum to get home.”
Asked how his father was occupying his time, Dawson says, “He was pissed most of the time.” He explains that this wasn’t considered unusual behaviour. “In those days, people used to go on the piss all the time. You can make this sound like an Oliver Twist story, but that’s how it bloody well was in those days.”
When he did attend school, Dawson was set special tasks and projects as he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the class academically. One time, his PE teacher, Mr Ellis (Dawson has an incredible memory for details) asked him to linseed oil all of the cricket equipment. “I said, ‘What needs to be done with the old rubbishy ones?’ and he said, ‘We’ll throw them away.’ So I took them home and sold them.”
He ran a similar scam in his metalwork class. He’d been bestowed the unlikely honour of being in charge of the scrap metal, so he encouraged his peers to make mistakes and chuck their metal rejects in the bin. He’d then pick it all up and flog it. On the last day of school one of his teachers asked him about his enterprising approach to school and told Dawson he was a “bloody genius”.
“I can hear him now,” he laughs. “‘You’ll end up in prison or very rich,’ he said. And thank Christ it was the latter.”
After leaving school at 15, Dawson turned his hand to anything that would make him a quick buck. He may not have flourished in the classroom, but he was streetwise and had drive and determination. Not long after leaving his education behind, he went picking sloe berries. Unwilling to be beaten by other pickers, he took a somewhat novel approach to the exercise. “I thought, ‘I’ll have you, you bastards,’ and I sawed the tree down. I was all over that, filling up these duffel bags and sacks. I did about 14 trips backwards and forwards on my pushbike, like an onion salesman.”
But, Dawson saved the true magic for the punters. “I can naturally sell,” he says. For Dawson’s self-assured nature often gets mistaken for arrogance. But he has to be seen to be believed: the man is a showman. “The world’s a stage. I love the chemistry between myself, the public and stock. There’s an ignition there. It just goes ‘BOOM’ and I come to life.”
Still aged 15, he started street trading out of suitcases. “I was doing watches, perfumes, lighters and things like that,” he recalls. His silver tongue wasn’t always enough to get him out of scrapes, though. “I was showing this girl these lighters – I was a bit of a Jack the lad, and I didn’t look too bad, either. But, still, she told me to get stuffed and turned her back. In the meantime, I’d clicked the lighter, a flame had shot out the size of the bloody roof, went up through her mohair jumper and then caught her hair lacquer. Jesus Christ, we shut the suitcase, ran out of the bloody pub, up the pavement and away we went.”
But he did sometimes have better luck with the ladies. He met his wife Sarah selling her a watch outside a pub. “I’d got chucked off a fair and I said, ‘I ain’t going to waste a bloody day,’ so parked my big auction wagon up and got my suitcase out. This gorgeous, stunning blonde girl walked past, and I thought ‘Christ!’ Dawson managed to persuade Sarah to part with £5 for the watch on the basis that she’d owe him a further £2.99 the next time they met. “I still haven’t had it to this bloody day, 33 years later,” he jokes.
As things looked up in his personal life, they weren’t too shabby in his professional life either. An extraordinarily successful market trader, he became a tourist attraction in his home town of Plymouth – which meant he had to become increasingly inventive with his sales patter. “Being a bloody tourist attraction wasn’t necessarily a good thing because coaches would pull up, they’d pull out deckchairs, open a bloody flask and sit there for two or three hours. You need the crowd to refresh so you can regurgitate,” he explains.
Dawson was blowing the competition out of the water. It’s difficult to get a gauge of how much money he was earning at this point; he told one reporter it was around £10,000, but in a recent Peter Jones documentary it was estimated to be a whopping £38,000. “Careful, the Inland Revenue will be reading,” he jokes. “Let’s just say it was a hell of a lot.”
That sounds true enough. Dawson tells wonderful stories of his daughter Lisa, then a toddler, playing with the money he’d earned as a trader that day. “I remember coming home with carrier bags of money and my daughter running through it, kicking it all over the show. I’m trying to count the bloody money and she thinks it’s really funny to be kicking it around, and then this tenner lands in her custard.”
Dawson paints a picture of a rather hedonistic household, with money fluttering from every surface, but he says it was important for him that his children (he also has a son, Christopher) learned the value of money. “They’re very grounded, extremely so. When they were kids, even though they were at private school, if they wanted anything, they grafted Saturdays in the store. They moaned a bit, yes, but they knew there was no point trying to negotiate with me.”
For Dawson’s star was truly on the ascent. Taking the profits he’d earned as a trader, he’d bought two stores, one in Exeter and one in Newton Abbot. Within three years, he had nearly trebled the turnover from the previous owner and sold one of the stores for a huge profit. He now only had one store, but was entirely debt-free. This was a pattern he was set to continue. “My mentality is all about being debt-free,” he says. “We’re debt-free today.” That certainly seems to be the case: The Range has never taken a penny of investment and while short-term loans or extensions on overdrafts may be a necessary measure when Dawson is buying property, it is always paid off in full in a “couple of months”. He may not be able to write, but Dawson is fastididious about the numbers.
The Range officially launched at the end of 1989, Dawson says. He also claims turnover hit £1m in four months, and that the business turned a profit of £250,000 in its first year. It continued to grow astronomically fast – albeit “only the speed the cash would allow”, Dawson points out. The Range will have 90 stores trading by Christmas, and Dawson predicts a further 25 or 30 in 2014. “We’ll have 8,000 staff by the end of this year,” he says.
Part of the reason for his success has been an instinct for picking exactly the right products to sell. “Perhaps I did learn some of it, but 80% of it was instinct. It was just natural. Some people can sing from day one. Some people are brilliant artists, or football players and so on. I’m really not being arrogant, but this is what came naturally to me.” These days, of course, he has a team of buyers around him – including his daughter Lisa. His wife, Sarah, also works within the business, as does their son, Christopher, who is part of the refitting team.
What’s more, his sheer appetite for a good deal has to be credited somewhere in this rags to riches tale. It has been well documented over recent years that Dawson has taken stock from many of the retailers that have gone to the wall. And the most shocking – not to mention awe-inspiring – deal that Dawson has done in recent times is when MFI hit the runners in 2009. He claims to have bought stock worth almost £70m for less than £3m.
All of these kinds of antics have stood Dawson in great stead, in both business and his personal life. He’s certainly not short of a penny or two: he was this year ranked 153 on The Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated personal wealth of £585m. It would perhaps be natural to assume that running and owning a hugely profitable business, working alongside his nearest and dearest, owning a villa in Cannes and travelling around in his convertible Bentley or helicopter would be enough for Dawson. But no, he wants more, he says. “I’m greedy for success,” he says, honestly.
Asked about his day-to-day role, it’s difficult to put a finger on what he actually does. As well as also running a property business and a carpet cleaning business, it is clear that it is Dawson’s drive and vision that propel The Range forwards.
“Am I the chief executive? I don’t even know what that means,” he exclaims. “I am very hands on in terms of day-to-day management, but I’m not stupid. If I got run over by a bus there are people in each segment of this business who can run it. It’d still run without me. Maybe not so fast. Maybe not so entrepreneurial. Maybe not so cheeky. But you know what, I can’t stay on this planet forever. But Jesus Christ, I’ll make sure the business is shipshape before I leave.”
Dawson’s way of doing it
You’ve got to have focus. And that focus is so strong, it’s like a beam. It would burn through a wall.
Personal strength. You need to have it to get you through the personal shit that happens in your life. We’ve all been there.
What motivates you? Some people call it drive, ambition and so on. I like to call it greed – greed for success. If I’m successful I get paid.
Talent is so important. You can’t put in what God left out, can you? There are different levels of talent. If you work with Paul McCartney, you’ll be a better singer/songwriter but you aren’t going to be Paul McCartney. It’s the same with entrepreneurs: I think they’re born.