When the wheels fell off JJB Sports last year, its share price plummeting to almost nothing and its lifestyle arm haemorrhaging money, few people would have dared take on such a challenge. But Sir David Jones did.
No stranger to turnarounds, Jones was pivotal in pulling fashion group Next back from the brink in the 1980s. He then went on to help transform the fortunes of Morrisons, brought low by indigestion after wolfing down Safeway earlier this decade.
Jones knew that the situation at JJB Sports was bad – he was already a non-executive – but the awful reality of how dismal things were would very soon surface. Since Jones assumed leadership at the start of this year there has been a blizzard of activity – chief executive Chris Ronnie was suspended, the loss-making lifestyle division was put into administration, fitness clubs were put up for sale and an unnecessary company helicopter was got rid of.
But Shop Direct Group boss Mark Newton-Jones, who worked with Jones at Next and again when Jones became chairman of the home shopping business, says that Jones would never run scared from such a situation.
“He is not afraid of challenges that many would shy away from,” he says. “He tackles things head-on and would not walk away from a problem.”
Jones has fought many high profile battles in his career, most famously perhaps with Next creator George Davies. In 1988 he ousted Davies as Next’s share price plunged below 20p and its financial woes risked sinking the business.
He had a lot to live up to when he took over from the flamboyant Davies – Jones is quieter, less fond of the spotlight and calls himself the “grey accountant”. But that self-description does him little justice, according to many who have worked with him or followed his career.
Roy Maconochie, former retail analyst at James Capel, says: “Accountant is the building block and his inner core, but he has many other skills.” Above all, he says, Jones is a good delegator and motivator.
Newton-Jones describes him as an “inspiration” and says when Jones joined Next he got to grips with the business very quickly. “He is very down to earth. The principles he worked by were that if you were a cleaner in the office or the highest-paid director, you were treated the same. He is not status-driven in the slightest,” he says.
Jones is a big sports fan – his other non-executive posts have included chairman of Yorkshire Country Cricket Club and through Next he sponsored the Leicester Tigers rugby team.
His other Yorkshire triumph came in the form of his deputy chairmanship of Morrisons, where he battled to reshape the board and once again came up against a formidable character – this time Sir Ken Morrison. Maconochie recalls: “David had incredible battles with Ken but, in my view, was instrumental to the recovery of Morrisons.”
Jones played a role in bringing in Morrisons chief executive Marc Bolland, who has made great inroads at the grocer and reported some of the most sparkling results in the sector this year.
Perhaps the most remarkable of Jones’s achievements is that for much of his career he has battled Parkinson’s disease – a fact he kept secret from his corporate peers for almost 20 years. But as Newton-Jones recalls Jones telling directors of Shop Direct at one of his first board meetings: “There may be times when you know that I am physically affected, but believe me it does not affect my brain.”
2008: became executive chairman at JJB; Knighted in the New Year Honours List for his charity work
2007: joined Littlewoods as non-executive chairman
2005: retired as Next chair
1988: took the helm at Next for turnaround
1981: chief executive of Grattan
1980: appointed associate director of GUS
1976: Chief executive of the British Mail Order Corporation
1960: After qualifying as a chartered secretary and accountant, became finance director of Kays at the age of 23