I was born into a fairground family in Saltburn-by-the-Sea. When I look back now it looks like an unusual life but when you’re born into it you don’t know any different. It’s not the best way to get an education because for six months of the year you’re moving around the country. With the fairground world you’re practically born to work, if that doesn’t sound too harsh. My father was my mentor. The lesson was always there’s no free meal ticket – you’re only going to get what you work for.
In the fairground community, nearly everyone marries within the business. I decided to marry somebody else, so my dad’s advice was that I should stick to the markets, where we worked in the winters. I started on Wakefield Market aged 18 and left it when I was 30. I also opened a couple of stores, called Bargain Centre.
I switched focus from shops to nightclubs after I went to Las Vegas on holiday in 1982. I found an advert in the Yorkshire Post for a nightclub for sale in Halifax, which I bought. I opened the Carousel in 1983. I had eight at one point but I’m down to two. Today they can only survive if they’ve got a niche. The niche I’ve got at The Birdcage in Manchester is drag entertainment. And the other one, Space in Leeds, is all students.
In the meantime, I worked on Bargain Centre and we had about 12 shops. By this point Poundland had started and I thought that way might be easier than doing multi-price. So we turned half of our shops into Everything’s £1, which later became Poundworld.
Things turned a corner when I was approached by a friend who introduced us to importing from the Far East, which helped us make a bigger profit margin. In Canton, 20 years ago, you couldn’t move for bicycles. There were a few cars but just bangers. Now the roads are full of Rolls-Royces and BMWs.
My son left school to join the family business 17 years ago and it’s no coincidence they’ve been our most successful 17 years. We were slowly and surely opening shops and then the recession came in. It didn’t make more people shop in our stores but other retailers were going down ten a penny, so opportunities on the high street became available. Now we’ve got more than 300 shops.
We sold a majority stake last year for £150m. It was a difficult decision, but when you’re a one-man band and you’ve got 6,000 people to pay every week it can become precarious. I was worried that if we were hit by the perfect storm, I might not have the financial clout to get out of trouble.
To this day, I’m still being challenged by that decision – so much so that my departure from this business is imminent. Now I think we’re going to start again – we’ve looked at a couple of business opportunities but I can’t talk about it yet. This time, instead of starting the way we did originally with empty pockets, at least we’ve got some money behind us.
In for a Pound by Chris Edwards is out now, published by John Blake Publishing, £16.99