“One shouldn’t become too besotted with success”, I was instructed by David Lewis CBE three years ago. He had kindly agreed to let me, a lowly-journalist wannabe interview him for a magazine journalism course that was going to ‘shape my career’. (I never ended up attending; a job offer got in the way and led me down the far more sensible path of online editing).
David Lewis died this week aged 87, after he was diagnosed with cancer last year. The founder of high street retailer River Island, Isrotel Hotels and the Lewis Trust Group, and with a rags-to-riches story as good as they come, David was also married to my second cousin Ruth, my (middle) namesake – a deeply warm and profoundly deaf woman whose husband’s adoration of her was his most humbling attribute.
After attending his funeral this afternoon (bizarrely in the same cemetery that I wrote about just a couple of weeks ago in regards to Amy Winehouse and my beloved Grandpa), I would like to publish the transcript of our interview.
I will always remember him to be mischievous, savvy, adventurous and tirelessly driven. I can only hope to emulate such success – without becoming besotted with it, naturally.
Why did you decide to set up a family-run business?
My father died at the age of 20. We were a family with a mother who was a young widower and I had three you brothers. In April 1945, myself and one of my brothers joined the Air Force. We were a close family without any income or money and as the eldest of the four brothers, it was natural that our responsibilities fell on me.
What was the attraction of setting up a business in London’s East End?
We were a family of immigrants. My grandparents came to this country over a hundred years ago in the 1890s – my father’s side coming from what is now Ukraine, and my mother’s side from Romania. My grandparents on both sides went through the usual difficulties faced by immigrants. My father’s family settled near Spitalfields Market and I suppose that it was natural that when my father came out of the army after the First World War, he would become a fruiterer. A lot of families went into the clothing trade. My mother’s side of the family were very hard hit because my mother’s mother was left as a widow with six young children in the early 1930s, her husband having died in 1919. They had a shop in the Docks area selling workmen’s dungarees and when the road to the Docks on which the shop was situated was closed, their business failed. They must have been very, very hard up as there was no social security back then. My mother was the eldest child and got married, I think, at 16. In my general family background there was a great shortage of money.
Did you face any hostility as a Jewish business?
I grew up during the 30s, which was still the Hitler period. I was 15 when the last war broke out and I do remember anti-Semitism. Nazism was in the air and seemed to have blown across the Channel. I remember it at school on the part of the other children; some from teachers and some otherwise. I think it disappeared largely during the war when the fully horror of what anti-Semitism led to became apparent. It was more than prejudice – it was genocide. Even the people who were inclined to be prejudice recoiled.
I think that there is a tradition in the Jewish people which puts a greater emphasis on family relationships and the various things that go with it: aspects such as mutual help and education of the younger generations have always been important in Jewish communities. You could say that they had their own social security network years before the phrase was even thought of. With their history of segregation, this becomes natural. This is no disrespect to other communities – I’ve come across these values within Catholic countries like Spain and Italy especially.
How did Lewis Separates grow to Chelsea Girl, then to River Island and what was the catalyst for expansion?
If you’ve suffered poverty in your childhood and youth, I think you develop the neurotic drive necessary to persuade people to set up a successful business. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. I remember right at the beginning, we sold our family car and bought it back on higher purchase in order to raise money. Our family business has been going now for some 60 years and of course in that period there have been lots of economic ups and downs, changes in environment and conditions etc. I think that we’ve been fortunate.
How did the company expand into property and hotels?
Our original business was fashion. We called it Lewis Separates because separate garments were in vogue at the time. We’ve had to reinvent ourselves several times and run the risk that it will be a flop, but we’ve been fortunate. The fashion business is volatile and there’s a high casualty rate. As the brother in the family who was most concerned with policy and finance, I have tried when we made profits to invest elsewhere. Today, we have a second generation active in the company and I’ve taken a back seat. I’m pleased to be able to say that the group carries out property development and investment both in the UK, the States and actually now in Poland. We have diversified into hotels and for several decades built up a group of hotels in Spain and Israel, as well as engaging in portfolio management.
By and large, it’s probably better for the cobbler to stick to his last – but if you’re in the fashion business and every season has risks of failure, then the insurance aspect of being involved in something less volatile has great appeal. There’s always a risk that if you get involved in too many things it’s less beneficial, but I’m aware of that risk. In principle, we’re involved in a limited number of things: retail, property investment and development, hotels, and perhaps counting investment as the fourth. But every group has to have some interest in different things.
To what do you accredit your success?
I think that good fortune is first and last. Second would be that ‘neurotic drive’! If you suffer poverty as a child, you work pretty hard to get away from it to ensure that your children and even your grandchildren don’t have to suffer that. Third is the ability to work as a member of a team, which encompasses a lot of skills such as communication, the ability to understand and get on with other people and the ability to share mutual objectives. Also perseverance – to select an objective, stick to it and pursue through thick and thin. The ups and downs tend to average out in the end. Finally, I come back to my first point – good fortune!
How has the credit crunch affected your business and where to next year?
We’ve always pursued a somewhat conservative policy. We’ve tried not to get over-borrowed or over-geared; we’ve been ready to take chances, risks of loss and failure, but never risks we could not afford to take. We thought the financial conditions of the last several years were ridiculous and unsustainable. Companies were being sold and mergers arranged at prices double or more the prices of two or three years earlier. We did not join in that frenzy. Instead, we sold a few things at top of the market prices – including our Spanish group of 10 hotels, some property in the UK and the US, and accordingly 2007 found us quite liquid and under-geared. We see the present crisis as perfectly normal; it has all happened before, many times, and is a necessary correction to the excesses of the last several years. The fault was that too much money at too low interest rates was created by the central banks led by Mr Greenspan in the States, and followed by Gordon Brown in the UK, with the development of sophisticated packaging of mortgage securities. This in effect created the additional supply of money to the mortgage market, and the result was what we have seen. A correction will be paid for, but it will all be back to normal in a few years time, and as an optimist, I believe that prosperity will resume its onward march.
However, the trends already evident in the last few years will continue and perhaps intensify. The industrialisation of the emerging economies will continue. There will be a substantial transfer of wealth from the developed economies to countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia. Oil will get progressively more expensive and effectively shortages will begin to be experienced – in food, agricultural land, energy and even water. The developed economies and middle classes in new economies will enjoy the prosperity; the poor in the underdeveloped world will not and will fall even further behind. But taken as a whole, the global economy will resume its onward march.
Why do you tend to shun publicity?
It’s a natural instinct. I prefer to keep a low profile. Due to the nature of my business I’m known in certain circles in the UK, but on the whole I’m much better known in Israel. I’ve not kept a low profile there. I give interviews to help my Israeli hotel company; this is not relevant in the UK.
What do you think are the most important ethics to have in business?
Being honest is important – not only as a matter of ethics, but also as a matter of inspiring confidence in the people you work with. By this I mean intellectual honesty; be sure not to encourage false expectations. In my case, I’ve been lucky in that the people I’ve dealt with have respected my opinions. This isn’t to say I’ve always been right, but they’ve been confident that I’ve given the subject thorough thought. I try not to be flip, and this generates respect from other people as to the opinions I have. I would recommend these ethics to others!
What advice would you give to other family-run businesses?
The first thing I would say is that there is no single formula for success. There’s no one right way. If you look at people who have been successful, there is such a variety. Some are talented, some are not. Some are hard working, some are not! Choose something that fits your talents, personality, and choose something that you enjoy. Secondly, you need to be able to adapt – we can’t all be famous actors or the Prime Minister. Having chosen your field, be ready to adapt to what is demanded of you and what the opportunities are. Thirdly, one shouldn’t be too besotted with the need to be greatly successful – it shouldn’t make you miserable. Be diligent, make decisions and with a bit of luck, success (and perhaps success beyond your expectations) will come…if not now, then later.
If you have any free time, what do you enjoy doing?
I work hard – including on weekends- I count this interview as a form of relaxation! I love to ski and I love the mountains. I learned to ski in the early 30s – I’m now 84 years old. I’m still skiing and will continue to do so as long as I can! I like the clean air and the ruggedness of the mountains.
I count myself lucky in that I discovered the sea very young. I’ve always had boats – I started off with a catamaran and now I own a 36 metre yacht. I enjoy cruising around the Isle of Wight and the West Country, but now I’ve reached a certain age I like warmer waters. I frequent the Mediterranean and spent many weeks this summer cruising around Turkey.
Any other stories or anecdotes?
I volunteered for the air crew in the last war. It was a dangerous job; something like 45% of all bomb crews were lost and when I look back now at my age, I’m really amazed we did it. There was practically no shirking – we all felt it was a just war against an evil empire. I was posted to a New Zealand squadron and most of my crew were New Zealanders. In 1944, I got posted to an operational unit. My ‘tour of duty’ comprised 30 operations. The rate of loss fluctuated, and although there was a 5% risk, over 30 operations the chances of survival were actually odds against. But there was a great spirit – many people went back for a second or even a third tour of duty.
I had to leave suddenly because my father died. While I was away, my squadron was posted to the Pacific (the war against Japan was still raging) and I lost touch with the crew. We’d had no contact for 49 years! In the 49th year, I received a letter from my former wireless operator asking if I was the David Lewis who served in the 75th New Zealand Squadron, and if the above means nothing then to throw the letter away. But, if I was the David Lewis they’d hoped to find, then they’d been looking for me for the past 10 years. I always intended to go to New Zealand when I retired and look them up. That year, however, I was discovered to have extensive cancer and wasn’t expected to survive. When I received the letter, my intention to visit was brought forward. I went to New Zealand and met with them – there were 4 survivors (me plus 3 others) out of a crew of 7. I persuaded the New Zealanders to come to the UK the next year as it was the 50th anniversary of the War’s end. When they came we had a great celebration. We went to the squadron reunion, I took them to the RAF yacht club, and most importantly, I set up a simulated war mission. We flew over the same places in Europe that we had during the war and made it a fun and rather more safe experience! I took them to Spain, Czechoslovakia, Prague and Israel.
One of our last missions was dropping food onto a football pitch over starving Rotterdam. There were large crowds cheering and waving at us. In Eilat, Israel, whilst holding a dinner for the three men, a man came up to us and said he had been in the crowd when we dropped the food! I also arranged a dinner with three Israeli pilots who had bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor and we compared different bombing techniques. Another incident during the reunion with the old crew happened when we stayed at one of my hotels in Spain. The manager had put up a headline banner: ‘Hotel … welcomes RAF veterans 75 New Zealand Squadron’. The next day, the banner had been taken down and when I asked the manager about it, he said that some German guests staying at the hotel had objected!
I’ve been flying for 36 years. I learnt to fly in the early 70s, acquired a plane and am still flying today. I used to travel frequently to select sites to visit some of our retail branches. Flying is one of my great loves.