Belfast Telegraph

How do we stop someone from voluntarily sleeping in shop front?

The Big Interview: Belfast Chamber of Commerce president Hugh Black recently set up his own operations. He talks to Claire McNeilly about quitting the top job at Victoria Square, the challenges facing businesses today, and tackling the city's homelessness problem.

Q. Your most high-profile role to date has been manager of Victoria Square shopping centre in Belfast. Describe your career path leading up to that.

A. I started working for Dunnes Stores at 18. They were unheard of in Northern Ireland then. I got a job on the spot - to this day I wonder if that was because I was a token Protestant. I started as a trainee manager at their store in Foxrock, Dublin, after I finished my A-levels. Everything just clicked - the work, the job, the retail, the clothing.

Within a year I was promoted to assistant manager, which was quite unheard of because I was so young.

I moved to Dunnes in Ballymena as manager when I was still 19; Dunnes' youngest manager and I don't think that will ever be beaten. I went to Connswater in east Belfast when I was 21.

I stayed with Dunnes for almost 20 years. My final store was Abbey Centre. That year Dunnes introduced a store of the year competition. It was a big thing. Abbey Centre was 16 years old. Most of the team had been there all that time. It was a tired store but I told them we could win - and we did.

We won the Northern Ireland section and ended up winning the overall prize in the UK and Ireland. I thought "that's as good as I get at Dunnes", and within six months I'd left.

That's when I went to the Flagship Centre in Bangor in 1991.

Five years later a headhunting company said they were looking for a manager for Junction One - the first outlet in Ireland. I stayed there for five years. It was a massive success when it opened; a record opening for all the brands there. They'd never seen anything like it. But after the first month it fell off a cliff. And then the really hard work - of building the brand - had to start. It probably took about two years for it to come good.

Q. You got one of the prime retail jobs in Northern Ireland in November 2007. Was it daunting to be in charge of such a vast project during an economic recession?

A. I started five months before Victoria Square opened, with nobody to help me. I was simply told to set it up by property agents Savills.

It opened on March 7, 2008, with a massive bang and everyone came. Then a month later it fell off a cliff. I remember in the middle of May the weekly footfall was 96,000. CastleCourt was easily above 200,000 every week and the retailers were asking me what had gone wrong.

Thanks to my experience at Junction One I was able to reassure them that this was normal and that it would take time.

It opened almost at the time that Lehman Brothers went, but none of us probably realised what lay ahead.

We opened less than 50% full. I think we were all so proud of what Victoria Square was and, deep down, I always knew that it would work. We didn't think of the consequences of the recession we were running into.

Q. What were the major challenges you faced in your role at that time?

A. To build the brand. To build the customer loyalty. In May we had 96,000 people - that's half of what they now get each week. Bringing the retailers with us a was a big challenge and making sure they weren't pulling out or getting nervous and convincing them it was going to grow and get better.

Q. People were surprised that a shopping centre cost £400m. Why was it so expensive?

A. That was the value of it, but the actual cost wasn't far off that. It could have been £100m less. No expense was spared as regards the finish in that scheme. The dome, the viewing gallery, the stonework... if they hadn't have done Victoria Square when it was planned it definitely wouldn't have the same look today. It wouldn't be as grand or awe-inspiring.

Q. Why did you resign from one of the biggest jobs in Northern Ireland retail in April 2013?

A. I was there five years. I always felt I wasn't paid enough for what I did. I probably knew I was leaving a year before I actually did because I was having issues with two individuals at Savills. They were making decisions that I didn't agree with. I was proved right in the end. Like a lot of jobs, there were internal politics at play.

Then, ironically, the headhunter who got me the job at Junction One offered me another job. I knew I wasn't going to win (at Victoria Square), so when another opportunity came along I took it.

Q. Did you feel pushed out?

A. No I didn't. But I didn't feel valued. And when you don't feel valued then it's time to go. I decided that I wasn't going to stay in that environment.

Q. You left to become the commercial director of Age NI. Why there? What did your role entail?

A. I looked at new business ventures for them. One was older people's products with online sales and a catalogue, as well as a discount card for the over-50s.

My job was to look at their whole commercial world because it isn't a charity that gets a lot of donations. I basically rebranded their shops and looked at the whole retail set-up. The shops we opened could have been placed in a shopping centre because they were so modern.

Q. You're president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce right now. What does that entail? Is it a role you enjoy?

A. We've got a great committee that comprises a diverse cross-section of the business community in Belfast, so it's certainly not retail focused. We have solicitors, banks, Translink, Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE), and a sprinkling of other industries as well as the two big shopping centres (Victoria Square and CastleCourt). It's a young, energetic and enthusiastic group - I'm probably the oldest in it!

Q. What is Belfast Chamber's take on the current homelessness issue in the city? Have any shops complained about people sleeping in front of their premises?

A. We are concerned about homelessness and we're being led by the Lord Mayor who has put a working group together. It's the only way the problem is going to be resolved. Realistically, I don't think any business wants to see somebody sleeping in their front door when they come into work in the morning. It's up to all the agencies to prevent that from happening. There are people sleeping rough who actually don't want to go into hostels, where there are beds for them. The problem is how do you stop someone from voluntarily sleeping in a shop front?

Q. Five homeless people have died on Belfast streets recently. Is that befitting of a modern European city?

A. Definitely not, but we must remember that these people have a lot of issues. It's not just sleeping rough that's causing this.

Q. Are you in favour of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)?

A. Very much so. In the city centre we've got a BID approved. It's approximately 900 businesses which are going to contribute to a £1.1m annual pot. It will be fantastic for the area. The money will be used to improve the city centre from a marketing, security and environmental perspective.

Q. What about Brexit - how much of an effect would that have on retail here?

A. I think we're a long way from making a decision. Personally, I would love Prime Minister David Cameron to simplify it a little by actually saying here's what we put into the European Union every year and if we had that money here's what we would do with it ourselves. I still think Europe will trade with us if we're not in the EU.

Q. What are the major issues facing businesses in Northern Ireland at present?

A. The new living wage is a major issue. From April 1 it goes up from £6.80 to £7.20 and that's a big jump in a world where 2-3% increase in businesses is a good result. It will be a challenge for all businesses to take that extra cost on board. For retailers the internet is something that's getting bigger. It's not going to take over but it must be addressed. It's a changing world; younger people will do so much of their work on phones, tablets and computers.

Q. Do you think corporation tax is a game changer?

A. We can see the benefits it has brought to the southern economy. We've a great workforce here and we're seen as one of the best in the world. I think it will bring a lot of inward investment when it comes.

Q. Should charity shops being paying rates or do they deserve special treatment?

A. Charity shops served a great purpose with the economic downturn. We still have 18% vacancy rates in Northern Ireland. Having run charity shops, they're not the success people think.

There are too many of them, and until we actually see the weaker ones go away I don't think charity shops will grow by much more. I think they're at their peak.

If you impose rates on them you will see a lot more go, and it's whether or not we want those empty units in towns.

Q. What's original about Belfast? People say it has the same retail offering as every other UK city.

A. From a tourism perspective we're where Dublin was 15 years ago. The size of the city centre, the compactness of it, the welcome and the warmth of the people give us a unique edge and I think tourism will continue to be our biggest growth area, and that really is the uniqueness.

Q. What about extending Sunday opening hours? Are you in favour?

A. Belfast Chamber would like to look at the city centre as a designated holiday resort. There's a law that says the council can offer holiday resort status to their town for 18 weeks a year if it meets the right criteria.

Newry is a holiday resort because the local council gave them that status. Kilkeel and Portrush as well.

It gives the large stores the opportunity to open longer hours for 18 weeks from April until the end of September and we see that as an opportunity now with the amount of foreign tourists. We're looking at it now and we'd like to talk to the city council about it with a view to having it in place next year.

Q. Has the Christmas Market at City Hall had its day? Footfall is down because people appear to have fallen out of love with it.

A. The Christmas Market is a huge footfall driver for non-local shoppers. They all love it. But it needs to be revisited. It has gone out to tender - that's happening as we speak. That process will give the council an opportunity to change the format of the market in time for this Christmas.

Q. Recently Junction One and The Outlet have been bought over, subject to contracts being exchanged. Is there any future in outlet centres?

A. Yes, but the problem for Northern Ireland is that the planners should never have given planning permission for two. When I was in Junction One we knew that if The Outlet got permission we were done because there are only so many retailers which operate in that type of set-up. There are only around 200 brands in the whole of the UK who do outlet.

The planners are at fault. There should never have been two here, but I think they'll survive.

Q. You're now branching out on your own with Black Marketing and Hugh Black Consulting. Tell us about these new ventures.

A. I was motivated by a statement from Steve Jobs that said: "Your time is limited so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people's thinking - and this is Victoria Square - don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice and most important have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition."

I remember reading that about a year before I left Age NI. I could've stayed. It was a cushy number for anybody who wanted to coast for the rest of their days but it just wasn't me. I'm not that type.

Black Marketing offers a full marketing package to businesses, companies and shopping centres.

I have gone out and sourced self-employed, start-up SMEs who are great at what they do. I'm building up a portfolio at present.

For example a property developer wants to brand a big site he's got so I've gone to one of my designers and we're now working on that brief together.

Hugh Black Consulting is where I will go into businesses and help improve their whole brand. One of the first things on offer is a retail audit. The strap line is: 'The success of the retail is looking at the detail' so it's almost back to my Junction One days when I used to audit 60 businesses. We used to have window competitions, mystery shops, league tables - it's doing that for businesses. It's £299 for a retail audit which will include a mystery shop and a complete audit of the presentation and the marketing of the business. So I'm the new Mary Portas! For that price I'll give them a report on where they're weak and where they need to improve. I'll also offer training and mentoring for companies and individuals.

Q. Tell us about spending the day with Northern Ireland football legend George Best.

A. George opened Dunnes in Connswater. He was seeing Mary Stavin, who was Miss World, at the time. I was looking after George and his manager Bill Murdoch. We'd employed these courtesy girls and one of them was my friend Lynn, a student at Queen's. Around 4pm that afternoon Murdoch told me George was going to open a nightclub and that he'd like Lynn to go with him. He asked me to pass on the invitation but she was going out with an Ulster rugby player and turned him down. To this day I remind her she turned down a guy who's had an airport named after him.

Q. We've heard you always carry £100 in your wallet. Why that specific amount?

A. It's the easy amount to get out of the cash machine and then you know every week how you're going by what's left. The Saturday nights kill me.

Belfast Telegraph