The university of Bolton hosted the third in a series of evening events with local businessmen on the 17th March. This time it was the turn of Dave Whelan to be grilled by Gordon Burns, providing an insight into his sporting and business exploits.
Dave Whelan is a former professional footballer, having plied his trade for clubs such as Crewe Alexandra and Blackburn Rovers. His exploits for the latter provided the basis for his first story, for whom he famously broke his leg whilst competing for the 1960 FA Cup final. His side were on the wrong end of a 3-0 scoreline, which led to a feeling of unfinished business for the lad from Wigan, a sense that took 50 more years to rectify when he led his hometown club out onto the hallowed turf at Wembly. This time, the footballing gods were on his side, as the unfavoured club from Lancashire overturned Manchester City to win the trophy. Now in the capacity of chairman, Whelan took great pride in the exploits of his boys and banished the demons of his experience 50 years earlier.
Breaking his leg proved to be a blessing in disguise, as the perennial boredom caused by his inactive state led Whelan to the local markets, where he learned how to trade, including the valuable lesson of profit margins, the importance of buying and selling for the right price, and probably more valuably, an insatiable appetite for hard work.
Whelan purchased his own market stall, the first to reside outside of the market hall in Wigan, and became an immediate success. His mantra was to sell anything, a mantra which occasionally brought him to the attention of the law due to grumpy local businesses whose nose was put out of joint by their new-found competition. Whelan successfully defended himself over these legal challenges and continued to build his empire, expanding into the supermarket business.
His inspiration for retail came from the USA, where he discovered the template of self-service, a concept largely unknown in the UK. This concept allowed Whelan to establish a successful chain of supermarkets, primarily in Lancashire. This brought him to the attention of Morrisons, whose presence was mainly in Yorkshire and were looking to expand. Whelan sold his supermarket chain to Morrisons, providing him with a plentiful bank account and thoughts of retirement.
Four days worth of shopping with his wife convinced him of the need to set up a new business, and he found his outlet in the form of a local sports store. He took over this business, and again drew inspiration from his American contemporaries who had again pioneered the concept of self-service in sports stores. This allowed customers for the first time to swing a racket, kick a ball, and pick up trainers without prompt from the customer assistant. This proved a winning formula, with JJB Sports undergoing rapid, aggressive expansion to over 450 stores and a valuation of £1.5 billion.
A health scare forced Whelan to sell his chain of beloved stores. Little did Whelan know, the purchaser was an undercover Mike Ashley, owner of the competing Sports Direct. Ashley subsequently ran JJB into the ground, providing Whelan with his biggest business regret.
Whelan’s insatiable work ethic led him to buying the sports clubs back off JJB, and the founding of the DW chain of sports and fitness clubs, a business that continues to excel with the retail arm being accountable for £110 million profit last year.
Wigan, though, runs through Whelan’s veins. This became no more apparent than when he purchased the minnows as a fourth division outfit, who were, at the time, residing fourth from bottom. His commencing statement was that he was going to make Wigan a premier league club, a statement that would not have been out of place during a stand up comedy routine. Whelan, however, was true to his word. The manufacture of a new stadium, investment in a sound infrastructure, and a trio of spanish ball players led wigan to the big time, and eventually to FA Cup final glory.
Perhaps more remarkably, Whelan has invested a significant sum of money into Wigan’s Lads and Girls club. The club played a large part in Whelan’s childhood, and he was bitterly disappointed when the establishment closed it’s doors. Remembering the impact it had on his life, he acquired local playing fields from the council, and built a new institution, taking inspiration from the successful equivalent in Bolton.
The night was punctuated by the networking prior to the keynote, with local Bolton business people chatting and mingling, swapping ideas and details. The University of Bolton is playing a pro-active part in the organisation of these events, and is successfully forging a pipeline with local businesses. SMEs will be defined by the talent they have at their disposal. By creating such pipelines, Bolton is ensuring that the talent produced by the University is seeping through to the local economy. With the redevelopment of the town centre, the expansion of the university and the ease of transition from student into the local economy, Bolton has a triumvirate of factors which will ensure the health of the local economy and propel the town forward.
Local business success stories lie Dave Whelan serve as inspiration for Bolton’s younger generation – hopefully the next captains of industry will be inspired by the talk and forge the shape of the local economy.