We expanded rapidly in 1999 and overstretched ourselves. My best decision at that time was to increase our costs rather than make cutbacks. In the short term, it meant that our results were much worse, but long-term we are now in a stronger position than we would have been.
The Pier was set up in 1989 and by 1999 it had started making a profit. Because of this, we expanded our store portfolio by 50%, growing from 10 stores to 15. It turned out that we weren't robust enough to deal with that sort of expansion, and we fell back into loss. Life got incredibly difficult. The typical entrepreneurial decision would have been to cut back on everything, but I kept all the stores open and retained all the staff.
It was a brave decision, and it paid off. Today we have 30 stores and about 700 staff. The company was profitable last year and will be even more so this year. I learned that you need to think things through very carefully rather than have a knee-jerk reaction.
MY WORST ...
Opening a store in Watford was an unmitigated disaster. The costs were too high and sales were too low. We opened the shop in 1992 and were forced to close it in 1996. We kept it going that long to see whether it would take off. But it didn't, so we eventually bit the bullet and got rid of it.
It was only the fourth store we opened, so it nearly broke us. Maybe the timing had been wrong, although our other outlets were all doing fine. If you looked at the demographics of Watford, there was no reason why it shouldn't have worked. And the next stores that we opened also did OK.
The final closure of the Watford store cost us £250,000, on top of the shop's losses of £250,000. The worst thing about it is that it was inexplicable, so I can't learn any lessons from it. I think about it a lot, but I have never come to any firm conclusions about why it happened. It haunts me to this day. I'd take a lot of convincing to open a store in Watford now!