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Thursday, 2 February 2017


In February 1977 (gasp, 40 years ago) I moved from British Home Stores, Manchester to BHS, Romford, Essex. I had been in Manchester for a year and enjoyed it, once the homesickness faded. Now it was onward as a department manager to another store. In BHS folklore, the manager at Romford, Frank Robinson, was billed as a bit of an old school tyrant, a no nonsense my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. After time with a more reasonable manager up north, I was very apprehensive.

On the first morning, I was welcomed to the store by Mr Robinson (no first names in those disciplined days) who introduced me to the assembled audience of other managers and staff. I got a round of applause, followed by a tour of the building. Everyone was very nice. Then, I was assigned my department - menswear.

It was a team of young managers and we all got on very well. In those days, stores opened at 9.00am and closed at 5.30pm, none of your late night or 24/7 nonsense. By about a quarter to six, most evenings we would be in the pub having a few beers, enjoying great banter and exchanging scary stories of the day about Mr Robinson - who was bollocked or made to feel like a naughty child? The camaraderie was the best I have experienced in my working life, after the team work and great spirit I remember from the Belfast store.

Mr Robinson was a stickler for standards and almost always carried himself with a stern facial expression. You could sense his presence before you saw him. On a number of occasions, when I was engrossed in some merchandising job or other, I could feel a chill and, on looking up, there he would be, staring or beckoning me with his wagging finger.

He kept cleaning materials in a cupboard in his office. When any of us wanted a new duster, we would go through the ritual of taking the old duster to his office. We would knock the door. Silence. We would knock again. Silence. Mind games. We would knock a third time. "Come". In we would go, rather nervously. "Well?" "I need a new duster, Mr Robinson." "Let me see the old one." We would hand it over. He studied it rather theatrically. "Hmmm. There's a few more cleans in that one, son." He threw it back and pointed to the door. "Thank you" we would say although we never really knew why.

Even though he was an old sod, or pretended to be an old sod, over the years I kinda missed his clear-cut management style. He was exactly as you expected him to be, the same every day, not moody or too mercurial, not unpredictable once you got the hang of him but he taught me and others a lot about retail management, about morning and evening inspections of our departments to check details and fix any problems. He instilled in us the importance of employee (of whatever stripe) appearance, dress standards, impeccable manners in customer service, etc. Lord knows what he would make of today's acceptance of lank hair, tattoos, face jewellery and the 'whatever' attitude of far too many retail employees.

I have no idea what happened to Frank Robinson, whether or not he is still with us. But, apprehensive at first, I and others moved a little more towards affection at the end of our Romford stints. We understood what he was doing and why, and we were all the better for it.

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