In the early 1980s, prior to the border opening for pedestrians, something huge happened in Gibraltar. It caused havoc on the roads and represented a major logistics exercise. But it was worth it: Gibraltar got its first escalator!
Tony Welsh, managing director at the local branch of Marks & Spencer, a franchise run by his family in Gibraltar for over four decades, smiles when he recalls that day.
“It caused mayhem on the roads as we brought it in,” he said. “It was like a military operation to get the thing through the city gates and into the store.”
It was an immediate success, not least for children at the time for whom riding the M&S escalator was a good way to while away an otherwise laborious slog chasing mum round the store.
There was, of course, good business sense behind the investment. The M&S branch was opened by Tony’s father in the late 1960s, just ahead of the border closure. It had proved a successful venture, but with a limited local market. Nearly 20 years later, with the border about to open, it was time to expand and get ready for increased demand.
For Tony Welsh, it was a natural progression. “I was working at this store from the age of 13 for pocket money, so it’s always been in the blood,” he says. “I served my apprenticeship here.”
At the age of eighteen, he had moved to the UK to undertake a business studies course in London and, having completed it, joined Marks and Spencer as a management trainee.
“My first store was in Fulham, where I suddenly met half of La Linea,” he says. “A lot of people had moved there looking for work after the frontier closed.”
Tony also worked at M&S head office, learning invaluable lessons about the company’s internal systems that would serve him well in the years to come.
He confesses that he had no intention of coming back to Gibraltar at that time, finding the Rock somewhat claustrophobic with the border shut. But while working as a merchandiser in head office, he met his future wife, Penny,a buyer for M&S. This was at the time when Spain was poised to enter the EU and Tony, aware that the change in political mood in Spain would lead to the frontier reopening, saw an opportunity and returned home.
“For years I’d been telling my father how to run his business, telling him how to do this or that,” he says. “And he would say, ‘if you want to do it, come back and do it’.”
“So, Penny and I got married and came back, except the frontier didn’t open until a couple of years later.”
This proved to be a mixed bag of fortunes. While the setback was frustrating, it also gave the Welsh’s time to prepare things in anticipation of an increase in business. They expanded into the first floor of Gibraltar Heights and more than doubled the size of the store. They also installed the escalator.
The opening of the border led to a surge in demand for M&S products. During the closed frontier years, the branch had “more or less ticked over” on the custom of local shoppers and the British garrison. The difficulties of resupplying products by sea also added to the complications of this difficult period.
“When the frontier opened, it was boom time, like a roller coaster,” Tony says. “We more than doubled our turnover in the first year and that growth went on for three
or four years.”
“Gibraltar was a Mecca for shopping because there was nothing like it in the
area in terms of variety. It was crazy.”
This was a trend that continued after the opening of the border. In response, M&S continued to grow, moving into new parts of Gibraltar Heights whenever possible and even expanding into other premises nearby on Main Street.
Fast forward to 2010 and the years of consistent growth have begun to ease off. The trend of double-digit growth has levelled out and the business, while still growing year on year, is doing so in single digits.
“Spain has changed dramatically,” Tony says. “Shopping is much more professional over there now, there is choice, and many Spanish brands are market leaders.”
Tony remains bullish about Gibraltar, highlighting the number of major brand names with stores on the Rock, a market that does not fit the normal brand profile in terms of population and size, as evidence of an exceptional retail sector. But as the business climate changes across the border in Spain, so too do the fortunes of commerce on the Rock, where shops rely on cross-border shoppers for growth. Currency movements can also have a dramatic effect on those who source in Euros and Gibraltarian shoppers buying in Spain. That puts an emphasis on change and innovation in order to attract new clientele. With M&S, for example, the Welsh’s stepped up to the challenge by opening a food store.
“Gibraltar does remarkably well, but unless you introduce new lines of business and move away from a static market with the same products, it’s very difficult to sell much more,” he says.
Tony knows his store back to front and likes to keep in close touch with its day to day running. For such an experienced manager, he admits he finds the paperwork a chore. He prefers the hands-on moments.
“I like getting in there, I like getting my hands dirty sometimes just to remind myself of how it’s done,” he says. “You have a good time doing that and the team appreciate it because you’re not just sitting in your ivory tower, albeit they haven’t seen much of me this last year .”
More than a team, the M&S staff is like a family. Husbands and wives have worked there. Husbands have met their future wives there. Mothers, daughters, cousins have all worked on the same floor. As for the store’s longest-serving employee, Anita Copello, she has worked there for 41 years, right from the start.
“She’s resigned twice, retired twice and she’s still here,” Tony says. “About 15% of our people have been with us for over 20 years.”
For this local businessman, growth was not only about M&S. When he came back from the UK, Tony brought with him a notebook with a list of companies that he would talk to with a view to opening up a branch in Gibraltar. The first franchise had a decidedly personalised feel to it. Having shopped for his children in the Early Learning Centre in the UK, he decided open up an outlet here in Gibraltar, a move that has proved over the years to have been a good idea.
“It’s never going to set the world alight, but it’s a nice little business,” Tony says.
“To me it’s my stress buster. I just go in there and watched kids messing around.”
Next was also on the list. Tony opened up a franchise of the popular UK clothing store on a site in Main Street that had first housed the M&S food store. On the side of his core franchise businesses, he is also involved in Sapphire Networks, a local telecommunications business of which he remains a shareholder and director.
But always in search of new opportunities, Tony recently fulfilled a long-time dream of opening an M&S store in Spain. It took many years of talking to M&S but last November, the doors of the new store in La Cañada, Marbella, finally opened for business. The target market is not just expats, a natural focus, but also Spanish shoppers. It is still very early days, the signs are positive despite the difficult trading climate.
“It’s been a very good response, but it’s also very evident that the recession in Spain is really biting,” Tony said.
“It is very, very tough, but if I can’t make it work in La Cañada, I don’t think it’s going to work anywhere.”
For someone who has been intimately involved in setting up so many major business ventures, Tony believes he is conservative in his approach. He describes himself as “a bit of a plodder” when it comes to business.
“I stick to what I know,” he says. “I’ve tried thinking out of the box on a couple of occasions and delved into property and stuff, but I don’t know enough about it so I’ve reined myself in and stuck to what I know.”
“Retailing is something I know quite well.”
So what is the secret to choosing a franchise? On the face of it, it sounds simple.
“You look for the success stories, but you also look at new, up and coming brands,” Tony says. “I’m not going to give my secrets away but there are two or three brands that, if the right opportunity came along, I might consider.”
For newcomers, he has some words of advice.
“You’ve really got to do your research on the business case,” Tony said. “You have to bounce your ideas around other people because you need to find out what the pitfalls are. What works in London may not be viable in a population of 28,000.”
A classic pitfall, he says, is under funding. Even if the product is good, it will take months before the turnover builds up to break even and get into the black.
It is also worth taking advice from people with specialist knowledge. Tony says he would never enter a serious business venture without first speaking to some trusted advisers in business. “It’s very easy to convince yourself that you have a great idea. You need someone to tell you if you’re being stupid,” he says.
It also helps, of course, if you have business in your blood. The Welsh’s are a husband and wife team who work fulltime at their businesses and whose children are following in their footsteps.
Tony himself is treading a well worn path. His father went to Nigeria in the 1930s as a young man and worked there for 15 years as a trader, selling British products from the UK in the Nigerian market.
“He was in his 20s and he saw an opportunity,” Tony says.
After Nigeria and World War II, Tony’s father moved to Morocco and lived in Tangier, where he used his contacts from Nigeria to become a manufacturer’s representative selling goods on commission.
Tony was born in Tangier and lived there until he was six when, with a tide of nationalism building up in Morocco, the family moved to Gibraltar.
“As far as I was concerned, we’d gone on a holiday,” Tony says. “Except we never went back.”