The downturn in Western economies could help developing nations, an influential businessman told a Birmingham audience.
Former head of Woolworths Trevor Bish-Jones told the Midlands Retail dinner that financial troubles wreaking havoc on developed nations could serve to actually boost the fortunes of less economically developed countries, by diverting funds towards their fledgling industries.
In a wide-ranging speech, the retailer suggested that as money flows away from the highly-advanced economic superpowers, it was streaming into manufacturing industries in less developed nations.
“If you talk to most private equity people, they will complain that they are spending too long travelling abroad - because when the money does free up, that is where it is headed,” he said.
And Mr Bish-Jones claimed that the financial losses suffered by Western nations during the economic collapse may never be recovered - while developing countries with growing, manufacturing-driven economies benefitted.
“To my mind, the numbers just don’t stack up,” he said. “In the US and UK the balloon in the property market created a false availability of ‘pseudo house wealth’. We thought we had money, and spent it accordingly, while actually driving up levels of personal debt. It was in fact artificial money - the world never had that much wealth.”
And the 48-year-old retailer told guests that struggling industries should focus on their customers to boost business in difficult times.
“What is needed more than anything else is an absolute focus on the client, to give business the best chance of accessing a decreasing pool of customers.
“I would also contend that in tough times what a business needs is great leadership over management. Recessions provoke commercial wars, and great leadership will win wars while good management won’t.”
Mr Bish-Jones’ comments come at an interesting time for his former company, Woolworths.
In a difficult retail climate, the retailer has suffered particularly heavy losses and is reportedly in negotiations to sell its 800 stores to retail turnaround specialists Hilco for the nominal price of £1.
In September the company announced record losses for the first six months of £90.8 million.
Certainly Woolworths is not the only high street store to be struggling. Marks and Spencers held a one day 20 per cent discount sale yesterday to boost ailing profits, while Debenhams have embarked on a week of slashed prices. The British Retail Consortium have reported that trade confidence is at an all-time low.
However, the financial strife of Woolworths is no longer a direct concern of Mr Bish-Jones, who was ousted from the company in September after six years at the helm.
His tenure had failed to revamp the high street stalwart.
The Brighton-born businessman never intended on a career in retail, however. Mr Bish-Jones initially trained as a pharmacist before moving to work as a research chemist studying oil in Denver, Colorado for US firm Tosco.
He was lured back to the UK by Boots, spending 11 years at the chain beginning in the pharmacy division - which he quickly found uninspiring, and moved onto bigger roles.
“Once I’d counted 100 Mogadon once I didn’t need to do it again,” he explained. “I was more comfortable selling to customers and playing with the merchandise.”
Mr Bish-Jones rose to be a store manager and then a buyer, before transferring to work at Dixons, Currys and phone store The Link.
“I was lucky,” he said, “and everyone needs their lucky moment. I was at The Link when pre-pay kicked off and it was like printing money.”
His time at Woolworths was ultimately not so fortunate, however.
When he took over the chief executive role, Mr Bish-Jones was handed one of the toughest jobs on the high street. Woolworths has long been noted for lacking identity and focus, without any clear direction.
The store in the past decade is a shadow of its former self, when, at its peak in the 1960s, it operated 1,000 stores.
And although it is due to celebrate its centenary in 2009, the future of the store looks increasingly worrying.