Book - Let it Go by Dame Stephanie Shirley

The book is called Let it Go although I wonder how much Dame Stephanie really has. I only learnt about the lady recently and immediately looked her book up. This covers everything from building a women-led business in the 1960s to becoming an ardent philanthropist.

As a child refugee, she was one of the last and youngest of the 10,000 Jewish children to arrive in the country, along with her older sister. Her German parents put them on a train from Vienna and then parted ways to give the whole family a chance of surviving the nazis. And so this first act of letting it go began a very long train journey followed by a long, high-achieving life.

Most of us cannot imagine being uprooted from our civilised world but they were and their middle-class family lost everything. Later it emerged there was a Nazi in the family who justified his behaviour simply by saying ‘I kept my family fed’. And alive, the author adds with certainty.

The sisters were taken in by a couple in Sutton Coldfield, on the edge of Birmingham and were adored by their new Aunty and Uncle, despite the initial language barrier. Both excelled in the education system and they were pretty sheltered from the war in leafy Birmingham and then rural Shropshire. No doubt being so close to inevitable death and yet getting on that Kindertransport train set up Dame Stephanie’s journey beyond the 2.5 days on that train.

Research is the door to tomorrow

She was good at maths and became besotted for the computing industry starting work at the Post Office Research Centre a Dollis Hill where the above mantra was on the doorway. She was part of the team that worked on ERNIE the computer that selects Premium Bond winners.

Eventually, the sexism (in the world and specifically in the computing sector) got too much and she started her business. Freelance Programmers who did exactly what the name says. To have someone employing just women, working from home with hours to suit in a job they are good at was way ahead of it’s time in 1962. Frankly, we haven’t fully got to grip with it the UK today with the exception of the charity sector. The other thing she was besotted with was that her staff would eventually own at least some of the business and this bit took many years of hard work to realise.

It’s ironic that a business that started purely to give women with dependants chance to still work from home had to change it’s policy when the equal opportunities law kicked in. [Interestingly, Avon call themselves the company for women although of course, any man can work for them]. Freelance Programmers aim was to ensure women who were cast aside when they got married and had children, could still use their niche skills whilst getting paid relatively well. It was also the first software start-up in the days when the software was given away free.

Also ironic, that they did all this without computers as PCs came much later! So really, Stephanie - or Steve as she used to sign her name in order to obtain business from the male-dominated industry - is a person that is all about systems rather than tech. I realise I’m all about systems too. I always thought I was about being productive and organised but really, it’s systems.

I had no idea there were hundreds of women working in computers then. How many were there in the 1980s when I entered the exciting world of work! 

I love the quote from John Speedham Lewis. ‘it is all wrong to have millionaires before you have ceased to have slums’. I do think we need to look after ourselves before we can save others (or put the oxygen mask on yourself first as I often say in my workshops to social entrepreneurs) however, he has a point.

Considering how Stephanie clearly cares about people, it’s interesting to see she didn’t bond with her parents who thankfully survived the war too. They permanently separated soon after it ended and the family was spread throughout the world. It was a huge shock to learn her mum never left anything for her in her will even though she cared for in old age. Instead, her mum’s small estate was split between her older sister who'd lived in  Australia for most of her life and her own son Giles. 

Having been torn between caring for her autistic son at home or in a hospital where she felt he would be safer (back in the 70s when the ideal was for him to be in an institution whiling away his life), they invested his share in a small cottage for him so they could spend time with him there instead of going to the hospital where he resided. This alone is a long and heartbreaking story that warrants a separate book and shaped Stephanie’s philanthropic efforts.

The wealth grew beyond anyone’s wildest dreams after retirement, due in part to being listed on the stock exchange but also due to the ambitious growth plans of the CEO Stephanie hired to replace herself. So she threw every bit of energy and most of her millions into the community, specifically autism charities.  She did things differently to the average big cheque writer and this is what I really admire; rather than just giving money, Stephanie got involved. Either by being on boards or running things, like starting the Priors Court school for autistic kids who have just this week celebrated their 20th anniversary. Sadly her son passed away at just 35 shortly before her dream of a school materialised.

This book was published in 2012 and our language has changed dramatically to acceptance rather than curing the disorder. I understand her thinking though - she did live with it for 35 years and has put her money where her mouth is.

I love Stephanie’s distinction between charity and philanthropy too; I just thought it was another Americanism but now that I have read this, I’d like to work much more with the latter:

Charity - repairs the immediate damage of social ills

Philanthropy - is a more preventative way to make society a better place to live in.

 The book notes that Americans give more generously to causes. However, the cynic in me asks, to which causes? Those that benefit all or just some? Does giving to healthcare mean to pro-life charities or those are pro-choice. Go to those who are for the right to bear arms or against? Churches or schools that only allow a certain type of person to utilise or community schools that benefit all? 

Dame Stephanie is a survivor, a pioneer, an innovator and a feminist. All words that are wrongly used these days that I ordinarily would never utter them. Except in this case.

I finished reading the book on Dame Shirley’s 86th birthday, which means I have a helluva way to go to do a fair bit more for the community and in leaving the world better than I found it.

Book - The Rise and Fall and Rise Again by Gerald Ratner

I think many of us felt a little sorry when Gerald Ratner made that speech that lead to his eventual exit from his own father’s jewellery company. Especially when, as transpired, he’d said the same ‘crap’ joke at many speeches before. But this time, for whatever reason, the press went crazy and it cost him is very well paid job.

One of the reasons I picked this book up, which was recommended on a business list, was to find out why why losing his job caused him to lose his fortune too.

You’d think he’d know enough about money to ensure invested well for all eventualties. Turns out his London property was owned by his company, his own house was mortgaged to the hilt just as the property crash happened and the shares of his company went down due to his comment leading to dive in sales, but he had to sell to stay afloat.

Running Ratners is all he ever thought he would do.

He does, however, know how to build a business. He wanted to make his beloved father’s company the largest jeweller in the world and he almost did that. Most certainly the way I remember it, the four jewellery brands under Ratner did equate them to be the largest jewellery retailer in the UK and they’d already expanded into the US by buying up chains there.

It was interesting to get an idea of his background to learn what drove Ratner Junior to be in awe of his Dad and wanting to take over the business in the first section, The Rise. There were some lows, notably his sisters suicide. This came after the parents insistence that her boyfriend converted to Judaism before they could get married. He was fine with it, but then the rabbi still refused him and eventually couldn’t take the pressure and broke off the engagement.

But in the main, this book means business. For jewellery, it’s all about the window. Did you know that all diamond rings are 42″ from the ground to be at eye level of average height woman 5’4″. I’ve since checked – it’s true! Also it was important for Ratners to keep the same stock for a long time to aid people saving for engagement rings. They also had the exact same window displays in all shops to force items to become best sellers; people buy what they see often.

The world changed in the 80s though with the rising popularity of credit cards and even more since with the want-it-now generation.

Fun fact: my home town of Bedford had the pleasure of being the 5th Ratners shop.

One of the business lows was losing their buyer Terry, who has been given a lot of credit for Ratner’s success. Alarmingly, he’d managed to set up his own retail business while still at Ratners! Of course he had to leave and eventually his small chain of Terry’s stores was bought by Ratners and he was persuaded to come back as part of the deal. Of course by this time, he’d built his fortune and didn’t necessarily need the salary, although there was a tricky divorce taking place.

At this time, Ratners considered the Terry’s model to be the best and they too became a cheap jeweller rather than the stiff one that Gerald’s father and uncle had originally created. They also bought H Samuels and eventually American chain Sterlings. This is when Ratner discovered that firstly, Americans liked boutique brands so large retailers have stores under different names that locals respond to.

Secondly Americans pay their employees far more – their president got paid more than him! I’ve always felt Americans regard their retail employees much more seriously than the UK do, where working in stores is seen as a low-level stop-gap.

Although that speech proved disastrous, we learn some of other times when Ratner used the press to work in his favour, like when he spread the rumour that Ratners should be the ones to save another family jewellery chain who were in danger of going under.

I don’t recall Next – then still run by George Davis – starting a jewellery arm though. It didn’t work because they tried to make it upmarket and Next customers were expecting costume jewellery, as the author explains.

For all his rise and fall and rise again, Ratner does seem big headed even when talking about restarting his online jewellery business in the Noughties. He talks about the time of not needing offices or staff and so bragging about how many shops/staff you manage being a measure of success, became invalid. Several times he states he was Britain’s biggest online jeweller.

I’m all for ambition & yes it’s true, but give it a rest. It’s in the same category as people who feel the need to put they have an OBE on their social media profiles.

Ratner is still rather unlikeable even with the help of a ghost writer. His business theory seems solid but I can’t really feel sorry for someone who was worth £12m but too arrogant to look after his personal wealth & downgraded spectacularly after the press got wind of his crap jokes.

Just because your name is on the door, does not mean you are sheltered from catastrophe.

To complete the stereotype, after the breakdown of his first marriage, he hired a new PA and then married her.

However, for a business story, this book is thoroughly enthralling.