The fifth generation of his family to run the eponymous business, the Booths chairman is looking to future expansion. Gemma Goldfingle reports.
Edwin Booth, executive chairman of Northwest grocery chain Booths, knows how to run a happy ship.
“I have several puppets lying around my office, throw-aways from my children,” says Booth. “Whenever I see any department looking po-faced I get out the puppets.”
With a wide repertoire of voices for the dummies – including a frighteningly realistic Prince Charles, who he counts as a friend – Booth could have pursued a career on Spitting Image if he had not joined the family grocery business.
Booth – who revealed that pre-tax profit at the business which bears his name jumped 7.2% to £8.2m in its year to April 2 last week – was straight out of school when he began working on the shopfloor. It was a daunting prospect, says Booth, at a time when his friends were embarking on university courses.
But he soon established a passion for trading and a hunger to do business.
He took the reins of the group, the fifth generation of Booths to do so, in 1997. “I received a phone call from my father one frosty February and he said: ‘We want you to be chairman.’ But I didn’t have months to prepare, the next week I was doing it,” he says.
One of Booth’s first moves was to set up an operating board, retaining the family board only for finance and property-led decisions. He says this move was integral to transform the business into a true retailer rather than a “just a company that owned some property”.
It is no surprise that Booth led this transformation, as he describes himself as a trader at heart.
“I love the opportunity to get in–store,” he says. “It’s second nature to me to jump behind a till. I put my pink shirt and my name tag on and ask what they [store staff] want me to do.”
The upmarket chain is an institution in the Northwest, so much so that Booth was appointed by Prince Charles as royal ambassador for the region.
The grocer, which sources 25% of its product locally, is often dubbed ‘The Waitrose of the North’ but its executive chairman says it is “Waitrose with soul”.
“The family feel is embedded throughout the business,” says Booth. “We’ve worked with many branding experts who try to pinpoint what makes us so special and they’ve concluded it’s the amazing human touch, which is very difficult to replicate.”
Waitrose, however, has long been touted as a potential buyer for the upmarket chain, and Booth has previously said Waitrose shares a similar ethos to his stores. Waitrose is poorly represented in the Northwest and the pair already share a buying arrangement, adding further fuel to the fire.
“They’ve had a sniff,” he admits. “They’ve all had a sniff but we just offer them a hankerchief.”
Booth says the retailer is focused on growing organically and is hoping that a sixth generation will run the business after him. He says one of the next generation of Booths has already showed an interest in joining the payroll.
And no wonder, as Booths is about to embark on its most ambitious expansion programme in recent years. In September it refinanced, securing a £37m war chest, which it plans to invest in opening 10 stores in the next five years.
The grocer will be staying in the North for the time being, although Booth says it is “only a question of time” before it moves into the Midlands.
The puppet master is clearly pulling the right strings as he plots the grocer’s next move.
Booth is a keep-fit fanatic and a qualified pilot, although he says he rarely has the time to fly