For the last few years at Dixons – but thankfully no longer –  my team and I have been the worried-looking doctors and nurses clustered round the bedside of this Great British institution. 

For the last few years at Dixons – but thankfully no longer –  my team and I have been the worried-looking doctors and nurses clustered round the bedside of this Great British institution. 

Not once since the Kalms family started the business in 1937 had Dixons looked as fragile as it did in 2008. With shabby stores, inconsistent service, limited ranges, fractious supplier relationships, a shaky balance sheet, falling sales and internal squabbles, we had become the butt of stand-up comedian jokes. 

At that point we realised a great truth: there is nothing more fulfilling and fun than mending something broken. There is always the problem of where to start, of course. But, like an old house that needs fixing up, the foundations need attention first. 

This means the customer and this, in turn, means the people who meet the customer and interact with him or her every day. We had to answer one fundamental question. In a digital world, what would make people want to come and shop with us? 

What did we need to do to become relevant in the modern world? For a patient in intensive care, it is hard to focus the mind on long-term ambitions – getting through the next day is challenging enough. 

Yet it is as true for that patient as it was for us that imagining a future in which we were strong, flourishing and profoundly different was the driving force behind our recovery. 

I am surprised by those businesses that have not yet had that existential moment – the one that asks what are we here for? Every brand has a place in the customer’s heart and so for nearly everybody there is a way to make it relevant. Yet the high street is littered with those that failed to ask that question – or did it too late.

Because a turnaround is tough of course. We had to take more than £300m of annual costs out of the company and this meant deep changes in the way we did things and tough calls around our people. 

We had to move and integrate all of our delivery and repair networks, our contact centres, our stores and we had to invest hard in training every single one of our colleagues to radically change the customer experience. 

But our colleagues in the business responded in a very exciting way. Positive, creative, determined – not despite the fact that we were in trouble but because we were in trouble. 

Nearly everybody comes to work to do a great job and never more so than when your back is against the wall. 

I remember well the trading meeting where we realised, collectively, that despite the tough times – the banks, the share price, the economy – none of us had ever had so much fun in a job, or been so fulfilled.

The biggest challenge is how to keep that energy going when the patient is back on their feet. Dixons is in a strong place, though there is always plenty left to do. But our customers like us again, our service is much better and our financial position is as strong as ever. 

So now we need to look forward to a life outside hospital with the same passion and determination that we had when we weren’t feeling so good. 

  • Sebastian James is group chief executive of Dixons