The chief executive of DRL has set his sights on rescuing the Comet brand to expand his electricals group. Gemma Goldfingle reports

John Roberts

DRL is probably the biggest electricals group that you’ve never heard of.

But that is changing fast, thanks to chief executive John Roberts’ bid to rescue the Comet brand.

The Bolton-based entrepreneur is vying to add the collapsed retailer’s website to his electricals empire, which is centred on the Appliances Online business as well as a raft of white-label sites for big-name retailers.

Roberts set up DRL in 2000, after having notched up years of experience in the electricals trade. He was in charge of appliances at now-defunct kitchens company Moben when he decided to create his own business.

“I used to go to the pub every Friday with my mate Alan [Latchford] – the L in DRL – and I used to bore him saying there must be a better way,” recalls Roberts, referring to offering better customer service in the electricals market. “Alan finally turned round and said, ‘Will you just do something about it or shut up?’”

Roberts admits he knew “absolutely nothing” about the internet then but, luckily for him, Latchford worked in ecommerce. Together, they saw the internet as a way to simplify the supply chain process, enabling them to offer lower prices to consumers.

They teamed up with another friend John Dutton, who had a small distribution company, and DRL was born with the launch of Appliances Online.

“There are lots of references to Field of Dreams here. We’re constantly building things with blind faith that it will work,” says Roberts.

It was tough to start off with, because he was dealing with an industry that was reluctant to embrace change.

“Everyone wanted the channel to die,” he claims. “The big retailers didn’t want it and the manufacturers were against it, but customers vote with their credit cards.”

It was a move into white-label websites that helped the group grow in the early days. Sainsbury’s became DRL’s first client in 2004, which Roberts says was a key point because it helped the business build a relationship with manufacturers that were more at ease working with a known retail name.

It now runs appliances websites for Boots, Next and B&Q, among others. However, its core website, Appliances Online, is the biggest part of the group, accounting for 75% of revenue.

Although Roberts admits Appliances Online traded on price in the early days, he now believes it is service that sets it apart.

“The rules of the game have changed but the same old-fashioned principles still hold. Good old customer service is still key,” he says.

Roberts ranks John Lewis as Appliances Online’s biggest competitor, because both have the same stance on customer service. Appliances Online offers free next-day delivery and return as standard, while its Facebook page is testament to Roberts’ focus on customer service. The retailer has almost 600,000 ‘likes’ compared with 50,000 for Currys and PC World.

The down-to-earth tycoon encourages all of his call centre staff to have fun with customers and he gives them the autonomy to make financial decisions.

“We don’t recruit on qualifications, we recruit on DNA. It’s a positivity test – if you’re not positive, you’re not for us,” he says.

And Roberts is intent on growing the business. He believes Comet would be a strong addition to the DRL group and plans to operate it as he would a white-label site.

However, even if the deal doesn’t come off, the retailer still stands to benefit. Roberts says: “We’re doing pretty well on the back of Comet’s demise. One of the big challenges is making sure we don’t over trade.”

Roberts has high hopes for the business, which racked up sales of £151.5m and pre-tax profits of £3.35m in the year to March 31, 2011. It recently opened a new distribution centre in Crewe, which has the capacity to fulfil £1.5bn of sales a year.

It’s not all business for Roberts, who is heavily involved in Bolton-based children’s charity On Side, which was founded by DRL non-executive director Bill Holroyd.

It’s no surprise that Roberts is passionate about children, as he has his own brood at home.

“I have five children. Note to self: should have bought a telly,” he jokes.

Career history

2000 to present DRL chief executive

1995 to 1999 Moben head of appliance sales

1994 to 1995 Tecnik Appliances national sales manager