Entrepreneur Zak Patel loves retail and loves the customer and he won’t take a back office role. He tells Business Reporter Ismail Mulla why.
A move into the fashion industry may seem unusual for an entrepreneur who has made his mark selling mobile phones, but that is exactly what Zak Patel has done.
The Dewsbury-born entrepreneur has made a name for himself with the rapid growth of his TalkDirect business – which, as a franchisee, has 14 O2 stores across the region.
But a closer examination of his career shows that his talents are far from limited to just the mobile phone sector.
“I’m a retailer,” proclaims Mr Patel as he brews a Buscaglione coffee at the Denham store in Leeds city centre.
In fact by opening the first UK high street branch of the fashion brand Denham, Mr Patel has come full circle.
“I initially started in face-to-face retailing when I worked in Leeds Market every Saturday from the age of 13 until the age of 16. I was selling leather jackets for a local businessman and that’s how I basically started off,” says Mr Patel.
Founded in Amsterdam by Englishman Jason Denham, the fashion brand is looking to establish a presence in the UK and has chosen Zak Patel to lead the charge through a franchise agreement.
Mr Patel said: “They absolutely loved the fact that I wasn’t from the fashion industry. Somebody coming from a different angle, from a different perspective wanting the same thing – to be successful in retail.”
The different angle includes having a private wardrobe above the store in Leeds that customers can book out at no extra cost. The private wardrobe is littered with quaint nautical flotsam and jetsam.
A mirror and tables from old ships. Aged luggage cases belonging to passengers who had sailed on the Queen Elizabeth II. There’s no seafaring significance to Denham but it just makes the private wardrobe environment unique says Mr Patel.
The coffee does hold significance though as Mr Denham is a huge fan of the stuff according to Zak Patel.
As a retailer Mr Patel added that it’s all about giving customers a good shopping experience.
“You have to bend over backwards for the customer,” he says.
Adding: “These days you have to be very different hence the private wardrobe.”
After selling jackets in Leeds Market, Mr Patel went to work for his auntie’s newsagents in Lancashire and from there he went on to running his own newsagents along with his brother and sister.
It was here that he had a watershed moment. Mr Patel said: “I can remember it very, very clearly – that particular day when the free promotion of the mobile phone dropped into the shop.
“It was a Motorola. It came brand new in the box and we decided put it up for sale. We got this mobile phone free for buying x amount of top up cards and we sold it straight away.
“We thought wow, this is so much more profitable than running a convenience store and selling Mars Bars.
“It made me realise that this is something that maybe I need to build on, so we built a designated corner and one thing led to another and it became very successful.”
This then led to the birth of TalkDirect, which in 2012 saw what Mr Patel describes as a “massive” expansion – going from four stores to 12 to eventually 14 across the region.
The group now has over 150 employees.
“It was a very, very quick expansion,” says Mr Patel.
Fast forward to 2015 and he is not only responsible for helping an Englishman launch his brand from Amsterdam, or his existing chain of O2 franchise stores, he has also just announced a deal with California-based upmarket frozen yoghurt firm Pinkberry.
“We’ve got exclusivity for the whole of the North,” says Mr Patel, explaining the Pinkberry deal.
Pinkberry Ventures will be run separately from TalkDirect and Denham UK. Mr Patel says he has already begun scouting out potential sites.
“As an entrepreneur, as a businessman you’re always looking for the next thing. Business is about opportunities,” says Mr Patel.
But the retail entrepreneur adds that the key to his success so far has been the strong team that he has assembled around himself.
He said: “My forte, what I absolutely love is interaction with customers on the shop floor and that’s what I do. I’m on the shopfloor.
“I do not work in the office, I have an amazing back office team, who look after the finance, the marketing, the operations, the HR. We have everybody in place to look after everything else and I just concentrate on what I do best which is retailing.”
Although he describes the mobile phone market as “very competitive” with continual technological changes, Mr Patel says there is scope for expansion at TalkDirect as well.
Recently, Telefonica agreed to sell O2 to Hutchinson Whampoa and Mr Patel said that that may result in changes to the way they operate.
He said: “It’s a known fact that O2 has been sold to Hutchinson Whompoa and maybe that in itself will bring changes to the way we operate.
“I personally think that’s only going to create more opportunities for us.”
He sees the relationship between TalkDirect and O2 continuing under the new owners.
The one thing that Mr Patel does admit to finding difficult is switching off his inner retail instincts when out shopping with his family.
“My wife realises what’s going on – he’s gone into his retail mode now. I think she’s coping well with it.
“We’ve been married now for eight/nine years. I think she’s become a retailer herself.”
To any young entrepreneurs looking to emulate him he has two pieces of advice: “Work hard and be honest.”
Zak Patel factfile
Title: Managing director at TalkDirect
Date of birth: Leap year!
First Job: Selling jackets in Leeds market
Favourite Holiday: Anywhere with a beach, somewhere tropical
Last Book Read: To Kill a Mockingbird
Favourite Film: Godfather II
Car Driven: Range Rover
Thing most proud of: My family, they support me and they absolutely trust me.
Education: Birkdale High School