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Farewell to the barrow; Philip Lewis battled adversity, asthma and a failed business to build a pounds 12m giftware chain. JEZ DAVISON discovered how...

AS A teenager Philip Lewis was the envy of his classmates.

The retail entrepreneur's chronic asthma was a passport to a three-day school week, with the other two filled with outdoor activities to help open his airwaves.

But the chairman of the pounds 12m-plus Collectables giftware chain - which recently expanded its presence on Teesside - didn't let breathing difficulties choke off his entrepreneurial ambition.

At 13 he was capitalising on his unorthodox schooling to grow lettuce on Preston allotments and sell them to local greengrocers.

"In those days you got hundreds of seedlings in a packet," he recalls. "All of these lettuces were ready at the same time and we had about six hot weekends in a row - ideal for salads."

His talent for turning greens into gold - one week he made the-then princely sum of pounds 15 -pointed to a future building two off-licence chains and a network of newsagents before hitting the jackpot with Collectables.

Since beginning life on a Metrocentre barrow in 1986, it has expanded into a 12-store operation that includes the flagship Portrack Lane store, which accounts for one third of group revenues and recently opened a new beauty division. The company is one of the region's biggest employers with up to 350 staff, around 50 on Teesside.

Philip has not ruled out further expansion after taking over the Mandale Fine Furniture store on Portrack Lane earlier this year.

"We are a North-east company. If opportunities were there we would have to look at them - but the plan is not to operate outside of the North-east."

He admits the company has been hit by the recession like everyone else - group revenues are broadly similar to those in 2007 - but remains convinced that diversification will sustain the business through its third decade.

To appeal to a younger audience, Collectables has added contemporary furniture and quirky jewellery to its glassware and cookware ranges, as well as introducing a restaurant at the Stockton site.

Meanwhile, the beauty division offers henna tattooing, nail treatments and the ancient art of eyebrow threading to fashionistas tempted by higher-end handbags and accessories from Radley, DKNY and Fiorelli.

With repeat business accounting for 60% of custom - nearly three-quarters of them women - Philip has developed a balanced formula.

"When one part of the business has a dip, it can be offset by good performance elsewhere. In a recession you need more drive lines," he says.

His strategic vision has enabled Collectables to flourish as a host of big names disappear from the high street.

In 2004 he added a pounds 4m wholesale division, Xystos, to the mix, which has allowed Collectables to introduce 45 new lines and sell to retail multiples all over the UK.

He has also reacted well to market trends, increasing the proportion of goods imported from 25% to 80% to capitalise on low-cost manufacturing in Asia and Eastern Europe.

He's learned a lot from past mistakes.

His newsagent venture in the 1960s could have grown even faster had it not been for his "fear of bringing in other people".

And he's had his fair share of misfortune. In 1994, his first foray into out-of-town retailing - "where footfall conversion to sales is higher than in town centres" - almost brought disaster when the Stockton site was hit by fire just months after opening.

But Philip, who reopened the store within six months, is used to overcoming adversity.

Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, he threw himself enthusiastically into market trading before buying a newsagent's shop in Leyland, near his home town of Preston.

In 1971 he sold that shop and two more to a large multiple and set about creating an off-licence network to cash in on the growing trend for drinking at home.

"I modernised a concept that was a little bit in the dark ages."

Lewis' Wine Stores was a 26-strong, pounds 300,000 chain employing more than 150 staff by the time he sold up to Liverpool textiles firm Lonrow.

Then he set out to replicate the model in the North-east.

By the mid-1980s, Lewis Vintner's had 80 stores across the UK - the majority in the North-east - but then the business ran into financial difficulties and closed.

With little capital and "no help from the banks", Philip went back to his barrow boy roots, invested pounds 100 in a pitch in Gateshead's MetroCentre, and set about selling value games and toys bought from a local wholesaler.

He moved into a prime retail unit in the centre and eventually opened other stores on the back of growing demand for branded goods, which now account for 90% of Collectables' portfolio.

He claims the 2.5% VAT reduction has helped retail trade, while the Government's controversial stance on empty property rates "has kept people focused on doing something with the units".

Now his son David is heading up the Collectables business, the cash tills are still ringing and it's unlikely Philip will have to roll out the barrow again.

Inside Story Age: 69.

Other house: A second home in Lanzarote. Other business: Letting villas in Lanzarote. Strengths: Ability to manage, engage and motivate people.

Born: Preston. Star sign: Taurus. Family life: Lives in Newcastle with wife Barbara. His son, 39-year-old David, is MD of Collectables. Limitations: He leaves day-to-day operations to others.

Business advice: Learn from others' success and mistakes.


SUCCESS: Philip Lewis in the Portrack store of Collectables which he has grown into a pounds 12m business
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Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Date:Sep 29, 2009
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