‘I can help at the checkout if I’m in a store and we’re busy’

Interview: Dealz managing director Barry Williams on bargains, expansion and its first Irish distribution centre

Barry Williams, managing director of Dealz: ‘We’ve been around 31 years and that is by doing good deals.’  Photograph: Karl Hussey

Barry Williams, managing director of Dealz: ‘We’ve been around 31 years and that is by doing good deals.’ Photograph: Karl Hussey

 

Barry Williams loves a bargain.

This isn’t too surprising given that he runs the discount retailer Dealz, which has more than 800 stores that are focused on offering good value. But the businessman literally wears his love for a discount on his sleeve.

“I had to buy a new outfit for work the other day. So I picked up jeans, a T-shirt and a sweater from inside the shop for a combined £14 . You can’t say fairer than that, right?” he says.

Indeed, you can’t. On the day I meet Williams, however, he has left his new outfit at home, although he is wearing a Dealz T-shirt with a name badge on it.

Just as his stores might once have looked out of place on shopping streets dominated by more upmarket brands, so does Williams sitting in one of Dublin’s hippest hotels on a cold winter’s morning. He’s at a table in the ultra-cool Dean Hotel looking as though he’s ready to jump on a till or stock some shelves at any moment, should the need arise.

“I’m a regular barrel of laughs,” he says, deadpan, as he complains about the hotel’s coffee cups, whose handles are so small it is impossible to put a finger through. Williams is a scouser by birth – born in Knotty Ash, the suburb of Liverpool most famously associated with the late comedian Ken Dodd – and his accent remains.

He is also someone who, despite rising to the top, hasn’t had the edges knocked off him.

“I left school at 16 with just two O Levels and was lucky enough to start on the bottom of what was a very tall ladder in an industry that is an absolute meritocracy,” he says.

Anyone who saw Dealz’s managing director in the Channel 4 documentary on Poundland, which was broadcast last year, will know he’s the down-to-earth type. He’s funny, dour, straight-talking and a liberal user of swear words. In short, he’s a blessed relief compared to most chief executives, who have been media trained to such a degree that their personalities disappear.

Having started out as a stock control assistant at Kwik Save in Prestatyn, he ended up working in various roles at a number of retailers across the UK including Asda, before landing at Poundland in 2016. Williams even spent four years working for SuperValu owner Musgrave in the mid-2000s as it tried unsuccessfully to gain a foothold in Britain.

“I made some lifelong friends during my days at Musgrave,” he says, speaking fondly of his time at the company.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, Williams admits. “I spent one year at Asda working as marketing director and I was really s**t at it. I mean, seriously, I was probably the worst in the world and still don’t know how I recovered from it,” he adds, chuckling at the memory.

Williams is in Dublin for the announcement that the company is opening its first distribution centre here. It follows news earlier in the year that Dealz has a €20 million fund available to open more stores, with as many as 500 jobs promised over the next few years. Overall the group, which trades as Poundland in the UK, employs about 1,800 people and has an annual revenue of more than £1 billion (€1.19 billion).

Some seven million customers visit one of his stores on a weekly basis. The retailer has been aggressively expanding in recent years both in Britain and Ireland as others fall by the wayside. In many instances, it is taking over premises left vacant by the likes of former household names such as Debenhams.

The company is betting heavily that shoppers will flock to discount stores following the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic. With its ultimate owner, Warsaw-listed Pepco, valued at about €7 billion, it has deep pockets to fund expansion.

Knowing that the company wasn’t going to make inroads by using the Poundland moniker in the Republic of Ireland, the Dealz brand name was adopted for use when the company first came here. It has since been used for the company’s stores in Spain and Poland. With Pepco planning to create about 13,000 new jobs across Europe over the next three years, it seems Dealz is going to become even better known.

“Dealz accounts for about 20 per cent of revenues at the moment and this will increase in the coming years,” says Williams.

The company, which is marking its 10th anniversary in the Republic, has 79 stores open locally. There are 36 Poundland shops in Northern Ireland.

Dealz sells a range of more than 1,000 goods including cut-price groceries, stationery and general merchandise. Many items are priced at or around €1.50, with almost 60 per cent of items at €5 or less. In recent years, the retailer has branched out into electronics, clothing and even sex toys, the latter of which are sold under the Nooky brand name.

Williams talks of expanding the company’s presence even further with plans to open standalone clothing and home stores under the Pepco brand next year.

In Britain the company is looking at multi-store formats, akin to what grocery chains such as Tesco have done. There is also a move into other offerings with chilled and frozen food now available in some stores. It is also trialling the sale of alcohol. Williams says this could all be extended to the Republic, noting that with the opening of the distribution centre here, there are significant opportunities to carry more products from Irish producers.

He says the company is keen to do deals to acquire more stores locally but will only do so “if the price is right”.

“We’ve been around 31 years and that is by doing good deals. We’re not here to turn anyone over though. We want to be around for the next 30 years and you can’t do that if you don’t develop long-lasting quality relationships,” he says.

Williams is quick to admit that the decision to develop a distribution centre here is partly due to Brexit, saying the company has had supply chain issues as a result of it, although he says many of these also relate to the Covid-19 crisis. He adds that a dedicated facility for Ireland was something that was always likely to happen at some point given the company’s expansion plans.

Dealz/Poundland has emerged stronger from the pandemic, Williams says. Last year the company mothballed about one in 10 stores and furloughed 250 employees.

“We shut stores where there were two shops close to each other or those in shopping centres that were only staying open because of us,” says Williams. “Overall, we weren’t badly hit because over 70 per cent of what we sell was classified as essential goods so we remained trading throughout the crisis.”

He sees the pandemic as having shone a light on problems that were already apparent with supply chains, particularly with stock coming from China.

“We had to start sourcing more stock from elsewhere during the crisis, so for example in Ireland we had big issues with pet food so did a deal with a local supplier,” he says.

Williams has been at Poundland for five years and has led the company for the past four. He doesn’t get as many opportunities as he’d like to spend time in the store but he’s in them enough to have memorised the passcode to get on a till if need be.

“I’ve never asked a colleague to do anything I’m not prepared to do myself so I can help out at the checkout if I’m in a store and we’re busy, although to be honest I’m terrible at it so the staff don’t usually want me to,” he says.

There may be plenty of people ready to call the death of the high street but he certainly isn’t one of them. Williams admits to being biased when it comes to talking up why town centres matter. But he also passionately believes they serve a valuable purpose.

“It’s more than just being about shops. Town centres are the heart of the community and we risk losing something special if we don’t look after them,” he says.

As with Penneys/Primark, the discount retail empire he leads has shown a marked reluctance to go online, believing that bricks and mortar is key to keeping prices low.

Despite being around for more than 30 years – the first Poundland opened in Burton-upon-Trent in 1990 – there is still some snobbery around the brand. Williams insists this is changing though, as the stores’ continually expand their product offerings.

“In some places, we’re now becoming the anchor tenant in shopping centres,” he says proudly.

Looking ahead, Williams sees plenty of opportunities for growth. He claims that every new offering the company rolls out can be a big winner for them.

“If you look at alcohol, which we’re currently trialling, it is a £10 billion category in the UK. If we get our normal share of that you’re looking at £150 million in sales, which would add a further 10 per cent of revenues. There are lots of markets like this that we haven’t served previously that we want to move into,” he says.

“There are exciting times ahead for us. We are still very much a challenger brand because we are continuing to challenge the norm of what great value looks like.”

If Williams has his way, Dealz will be bringing many more bargains to Irish customers for years to come.

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