Nothing fires Blacks’ quietly determined chief like a turnaround challenge. And, despite the losses announced last week, he insists the challenge won’t beat him.

Neil Gillis is a turnaround expert. He goes into a company for a maximum of three years, sorts out the structural problems, whips it into shape and moves on.

That’s the theory, anyway. But while he has been chief executive of Blacks Leisure, things have not run quite that smoothly - principally, he says, because the recession got in the way.

“This has been a long, drawn-out turnaround,” says Gillis. “If it weren’t for the recession, we’d be coming out of the turnaround by now and facing a bright future. But it’s going to take that bit longer.”

Gillis - who was drafted in from fitness chain Esporta to sort out Blacks - is determined to stick it out and believes the retailer is worth fighting for. He points out that, despite Blacks last week reporting a loss before tax for the half-year of £18.1m, like-for-likes - excluding stores that are being closed - increased 3.8% in the first two months of the new financial year. “The underlying business is solid,” he says. “It’s just being dragged down by a tail of loss-making stores.”

As Gillis steers the company through a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) - proposed on Tuesday - his vision has persuaded backers Lloyds to agree to the restructuring. And he has got the City to believe in him too.

He’s a very sensible guy who had a clear view of what needed to be done when he came to Blacks.

Andy Wade, Numis

“He’s a very sensible guy who had a clear view of what needed to be done when he came to Blacks. Although, early on, the company was optimistic about what could be achieved with the boardwear business,” says Numis analyst Andy Wade. “But he’s sharp, switched on and strong operationally.”

One analyst said Gillis impressed the City by throwing himself into the role, a trait he takes with him wherever he goes. At Esporta he became a fitness fanatic, when he worked for Cadbury it was said he gained two stone because he was constantly sampling all the products, and when he worked for Linda McCartney Foods he even became a vegetarian - although he reportedly ate a big fat steak on the day he left.

At Blacks, he may not go camping every weekend but, if he is not working, he is likely to be tending his vineyard wearing one of Blacks’ North Face jackets.

Despite the difficult decisions Gillis has had to make at Blacks, one colleague said staff respect him for his honesty and blunt approach. “He’s brutally honest, but with a touch of charm,” says the colleague.

Gillis does not seek the limelight, but he is unafraid to stick his head above the parapet to make a point. One famous instance was when he presented to 1,000 staff at an annual conference naked. He did it to get the message across that staff should not leave themselves exposed to bad mystery shop reviews.

Gillis is confident the restructuring plan he has delivered to Lloyds will mean Blacks has a future and, despite the recession stalling the recovery, he remains enthused. “Blacks has been longer and harder than we originally thought, but what drives me is the huge responsibility,” he says. “I am responsible for some 5,000 workers at Blacks and what I do determines what happens to them. They’re a great bunch of people and I won’t let them down.”

He won’t jump ship until Blacks is “stable and successful”, he says. But if and when that happens, he will move on. “My role is a turnaround person, so I will go on to do something else when the time is right,” he says.

And would he have taken the role at Blacks if he could see the recession coming? “Yes, but I would have taken a long holiday beforehand,” he jokes.

If he does pull the turnaround off, he will definitely deserve one.

Career history

  • 2007 to date Chief executive, Blacks Leisure
  • 2003-07 Chief executive, Esporta Health Clubs
  • 2004 Non-executive chairman, Duchy Originals
  • 2000-03 Managing director, Greene King
  • 1997-2000 Managing director, Linda McCartney Foods (Heinz)
  • Prior to Heinz, various commercial and marketing roles within Premier Brands, RHM Foods and General Foods