Bernard Ginns on billionaires, shopping bags and PE-backed socialists

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DOING some research into the background of Dame Mary Perkins ahead of an interview with the founder of Specsavers, I came across the headline, ‘Britain’s first female self-made billionaire’.

Quizzing people about their wealth always generates noteworthy responses, even if it generates outrage at perceived impudence.

I do take care not to open interviews with questions about money unless I’m planning a very short exchange.

Dame Mary was in Yorkshire last Wednesday to open her new store in Bradford, the partnership’s largest in Yorkshire.

She was open, talkative and game for the interview. Ten minutes into our discussion, I raised her reported title in a wider question asked about the secret of her success. She replied: “I love my job, I was an optometrist anyway so I knew the business inside out, which is a huge help.”

Dame Mary then carefully dealt with the billionaire tag, dismissing it as purely notional as it is based on the supposed value of the business.

“But it’s not for sale and in a way it’s almost unsaleable because I have all these partners in all these stores and I’m sure they would say no,” she said.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you if I had a billion to my name. I would be in the South of France somewhere.”

Dame Mary added: “I have still got one house. It is the same house I had four years before Specsavers started.

“I think that probably speaks for myself. I have no holiday home. I have no boat. I have had the same car for five years. I cycle to work sometimes if it’s not raining. People who know me laugh at that headline.”

Billionaire or not, I had to admire that candour.

* Last Thursday I was at Leeds University for the unveiling of a new sculpture to celebrate the partnership between Marks & Spencer and Groundwork.

The retailer supported the environmental charity’s programme to improve green living spaces around the country with a £5.2m donation raised from the introduction a 5p food carrier bag charge.

Robert Swannell, the chairman of M&S, was there to cut the ribbon. I asked him if sustainability is a distraction in a tough retail environment.

“Absolutely not,” said Mr Swannell. “When times got hard in 2008 we didn’t take our foot off the pedal.

“On the contrary we felt it was more relevant than ever. In fact, we found that a good sustainable business is sound business sense as well.”

Mr Swannell, who was raised in North Yorkshire, added: “I think society is recognising that, whatever view you have on climate change or any of the other factors affecting us, that using the world’s resources sensibly is a sensible way of running a business.”

He added that consumers are more concerned than ever before about the responsible sourcing of products. He didn’t mention the Bangladesh factory collapse or the horsemeat scandal, but he didn’t need to.

He has got a point, consumers are becoming more conscious about supply chains.

But I wonder whether the City will be as understanding when the group updates on trading next week. The pressure is mounting on the board, which has overseen has seen 10 straight quarters of declining underlying sales in its general merchandise division.

* Reader Charles Metcalf took issue with my column last week about Christopher Columbus and his crew on the Santa Maria being an early example of private equity-backed enterprise on their journey to the New World.

“I have always regarded Columbus as being the first ever socialist, on the grounds that he set off not knowing where he was going, when he got there he didn’t know where he was, on his return he didn’t know where he had been, and he did it all on borrowed money,” he said. A PE-backed socialist anyone?