David Hughes sums up his entrepreneurial career to date thus: four spectacular successes and two failures. He founded the sports retailer Allsports and achieved turnover of £180 million before a vicious price war meant decline, administration in 2005 and a sell-off to rival JD Sports.
He also established the high-end residential developer Millennium Estates, which was favoured by Premier League footballers, including Cristiano Ronaldo in his Manchester United days, before it became a victim of the 2008 banking crisis.
Now he has his own book, Dirty Business, laying out the “pure juice” of his ups and downs on the front lines of enterprise. It’s pretty uncompromising in its billing – the jacket reads “If Dragons’ Den was a lad’s mag, it would be FHM – Dirty Business is an unputdownable copy of Razzle”. In essence, the message is you have to play dirty and win ugly if you want to make it as an entrepreneur.
The book draws inspiration from some unusual sources – the 1980 cult comedy Caddyshack, NFL team the New York Giants and several gangster epics (although the film nerd in this correspondent is compelled to point out that “It’s nothing personal, it’s strictly business” actually paraphrases Michael Corleone from The Godfather, not Goodfellas, as Hughes states).
It also has a few choice words for bankers (“the devil incarnate”), the law (“an absolute lottery, not concerned with justice”), consultants (using one is a shameful “abdication of responsibility”) and, gasp!, journalists (“I have never yet met a reporter who would not happily pee all over you to get himself an attractive headline”).
It covers the entrepreneurial spirit (tip one for getting on is “smile and say hello” because first impressions count), the importance of having a “built-in bullshit detector” and the value of “bare knuckle” negotiation.
This last point perhaps illustrates best what Hughes means by playing dirty: get in control, stay in control and exploit any opening.
“Let’s make it clear at the outset that you never, ever know the physical and mental state of the person on the other side of the table,” the book says.
“Do not make the mistake of thinking that you are dealing with a cool, calm, rational person and do not be scared of making low offers in order to catch a company or its negotiator at their most vulnerable when they might just accept your crazy offer!”
But why give up your “dirty” secrets in a book?
Speaking to EN ahead of a seminar organised by chartered accountant Saffery Champness, Hughes explains that training the troops was his “absolute mantra” at Allsports.
There was a training centre, the Allsports Academy, and once a month he organised A Day with David, where managers would get face-to-face time with him for some in-depth discussion. About “eight or nine” of these topics formed the foundations of the book.
Another inspiration was years of coaching his two now grown-up children, who from early ages wanted to go into business.
“From about ten or 12, I’ve been constantly saying, ‘this is what your Dad did, this is how it works, this how you do things’ – and I evolved a few other documents really to teach my kids what I know,” he says.
“That’s where it stemmed from – then people said you should put this into a book, so the idea really evolved.”
“I’ve tried to put coherently into a modest number of pages just about everything I know about how to get a result.”
So just how dirty is dirty?
“You have to be hard to run and own a business,” Hughes explains. “You have to make hard decisions, you sometimes have to play dirty, you sometimes have to hit below the belt – I’m not talking about doing anything illegal – but... in the book it says you have to have the stomach for this, you have to have the stomach to sit in front of people and say I’m sorry, you’re not cutting the mustard, you’re sacked.
“If you haven’t, you’ve worked with the poor bastard for two years and it doesn’t do anybody any good. So you have to be hard to be successful.”
But when does “winning ugly” cross the line? Does Hughes regret, for example, that Allsports was one of ten companies, along with JJB, JD Sports and Manchester United, fined a total of £18.6 million by the Office Fair Trading in 2003 for fixing the price of replica football shirts?
Allsports, which joined JJB in unsuccessfully appealing the decision, had its fine increased from £1.35 million to £1.42 million because of a lack of cooperation – and because Hughes had blacked out sections of his diary pertaining to the case.
He admits he did obliterate passages in his diary, but asserts that their meaning was never properly investigated. He vigorously maintains that the whole affair was a miscarriage of justice – but says that, rather than five minutes, that particular interview would take “three or four hours”.
“If I ever write about a book about that, it’ll be a different story,” he adds.”That’ll be Dirty Business 7!”