Business rates should be scrapped to help high street survive, says Ramsdens' CEO

Business rates should be scrapped to help the high street survive, says Peter Kenyon, CEO of AIM-listed business Ramsdens. Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright reports.

Peter Kenyon, CEO of AIM-listed business Ramsdens
Peter Kenyon, CEO of AIM-listed business Ramsdens

SMALL changes can add a dash of polish to any famous brand.

When Peter Kenyon took charge of Ramsdens, which is probably best known for its pawnbroking services, he wanted to take the business away from the world of Mr Micawber.

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“When I started in the pawnbroking sector it had a slightly Dickensian image,’’ he said. “The blinds were closed in the stores. One of the first things I did was open the blinds and make the shops bright and airy. They are now in the centre of the high street and not in the back street.”

He wants pawnbroking to remain out of the shadows as we prepare for the post-Covid 19 world. Mr Kenyon believes the sector provides an essential financial service, which is particularly valuable during periods of upheaval.

“Two per cent of the population use pawnbrokers,’’ he said. “If you use a pawnbroker you don’t need to be worried about debt and it doesn’t affect your credit rating.

“It is a very simple, transparent face to face service,’’ he added. “Most people pay their loans back. We can help while people are facing gaps in employment or short term problems with cash flow.

“We help to put food on the table. It gets customers through to pay day.”

As the CEO of AIM-listed business Ramsdens, Mr Kenyon employs 85 staff in 26 stores in Yorkshire.

Over the last financial year, Ramsdens served more than 930,000 customers and demand for its services is expected to grow as the world slowly returns to something approaching normality.

To Ramsdens, pawnbroking is very much a considered borrowing decision because the customer has to either post their goods or call in at a store. The firm offers new jewellery – gold, silver and diamonds - and has a premium watch offering including Rolex, Breitling and Omega.

Ramsdens’ empire also encompasses foreign currency exchange, which generates the majority of revenues.

At the start of the year, Ramsdens’ expansion strategy was steaming ahead into apparently untroubled seas.

“At the beginning of February, our trading was looking good going forward and we were planning to open 12 stores a year,’’ Mr Kenyon said. “Within five weeks we were closing 160 stores due to the pandemic. Now 151 stores are open.”

But how has the pandemic affected consumers’ behaviour?

“From a pawnbroking perspective, more people have repaid their loans,’’ he said. “The customer base hasn’t been spending money so they have more cash in their pockets.

“Retail has been positive. People still value and want to buy gold and premium watches. The biggest downturn has been in foreign currency; if people aren’t travelling we can’t sell foreign currency.”

The foreign currency element of the business will probably keep on suffering from turbulence until the global pandemic eases.

Mr Kenyon said: “There had been an upward trajectory until they quarantined Spain. It will step up as people travel more. You have got to be patient and be ready for when customers need the service.

“Altogether 690 out of our 750 staff were initially furloughed at the peak of the pandemic. Over 150 are still furloughed. The Government support for job retention has been really helpful. We paid all our staff in full from March to the end of July.”

Mr Kenyon is no stranger to troubled economic times. He became CEO of Ramsdens in 2008, as the world plunged into the chaos linked to the financial crisis.

He had joined Ramsdens seven years earlier, as operations director, after a 17-year career at Yorkshire Bank, where he participated in the bank’s management development programme.

He still values the knowledge gleaned at the bank, which allowed him to gain an insight into the workings of a wide range of businesses.

“Yorkshire Bank provided me with great experience,’’ he said. “Banking is a great background because it tells you about the cash flow of different businesses.”

Apart from making his shops feel less stuffy and secluded, Mr Kenyon also places the emphasis on discretion.

He added: “Another area that had to be addressed, in my opinion, was ensuring customers had more privacy.

“I didn’t want the type of counters where customers are cheek to cheek. I wanted to give them more privacy and that decision now also helps with social distancing.”

He is concerned about the long term viability of sections of the high street.

“High streets which have community centres will survive and thrive,’’ he said. “Places like the Moor in Sheffield are better occupied around the markets. Other places away from the centre are suffering from oversupply.

"To deal with these problems, I would do away with business rates. It would take a fixed cost away from any independent retailer looking to open a store.

“You could have a higher rate of corporation tax or a sales tax and you could have differential rates of a sales tax to level the playing field between online and the high street,” he said.

“We are taking a pause with the store openings until we get back to a new normality."

"We have to be in the nucleus part of a town. At a branch level the jobs are varied, you get great conversations with customers. You get to see them year in year out and that personal service is quite rewarding for staff.”

The pawnbroker of the 21st century has a spring in its step as it leaves the dark Dickensian stereotype behind.

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