Julian Richer’s crusade to clean up capitalism

Julian Richer © Getty Images

Julian Richer, the entrepreneur who put people before profits, and yet produced plenty of the latter, has been lauded for handing his empire over to his staff. What is his motivation?

Everyone from politicians to newspaper leader writers has been queuing up to salute Julian Richer, who has just handed control of Richer Sounds – the hi-fi store chain he founded as a teenager – to his 522 staff. The move wasn’t entirely a surprise: “My life’s work is my legacy and I haven’t got a spoilt child to run the business,” Richer observed in 2013. But at 60, “he has reached the age when he thinks of posterity”, says the Financial Times.

Richer “made the big reveal” to staff, who erupted into cheers, in a small Salvation Army hall in central London, says The Guardian. A committed Christian, with a weekend sideline as the drummer in a funk band, Richer has long since passed responsibility to his “team of loyal lieutenants”. His declared mission now is to clean up capitalism, in a crusade reserving special ire for “people who think it’s funny and clever not to pay tax”.

An inspirational speaker

Despite his £160m fortune, Richer is a big champion of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, notes The Sunday Times – and particularly admires the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. “He said capitalism has to be radically changed, and I absolutely agree with the guy.” Clearly a gifted speaker himself, the author of The Ethical Capitalist has become big on the corporate “inspiration” circuit. Hired last year by the ailing Marks & Spencer as an adviser on “culture change”, Richer gave such a stirring talk that CEO Steve Rowe said he felt as if he’d had “17,000 volts put through me”.

According to Richer, life began quite literally in M&S, where his parents met as trainee managers in the 1950s. “The people at the Kilburn store now joke that I was conceived in the changings rooms and they’re going to put a plaque up.” He “got his first taste for money” as a teenage boarder at Clifton College in Bristol, says The Sunday Times: he bought old turntables, repaired them, and sold them on. He left school at 18 to work in a hi-fi store, opening his first Richer Sounds shop at London Bridge in 1978.

That “tiny unit” went on to hold “the Guinness record for the highest rate of sales per square foot in the world” for several years as Richer Sounds evolved into a “highly successful niche retailer” in the 1990s. Despite (or arguably because of) its mantra, “people before profits”, the chain has survived “four decades of tumultuous change in music and retailing” and last year notched up record results, says the FT. Cautious management (Richer owns the freeholds of 47 of the group’s 52 stores) has  helped, but the key was customer service; and, according to Richer, the key to that is a happy workforce. He has always championed providing secure, well-paid jobs. Staff perks include holiday houses and use of the company Bentley.

Practical Christianity

This “driven entrepreneur” can come across as “too good to be true”, says The Guardian. But in his youth, Richer was something of a boy-racer. He bought his first Rolls-Royce at 23 and, four years later, a Georgian mansion in Yorkshire where he still lives, in low-key fashion,

with his wife Rosie. “I had jets, helicopters, cars and all that,” he says. “I had two helicopters at the same time. One wasn’t enough.” These days, he hosts Bible study groups and plays ping-pong. Richer says

his embrace of Christianity in later life – he was baptised at 47 – has “reinforced” his ideas. “I call my faith practical Christianity. I just want to try and make the world a better place.”