He may have bought Robert Dyas back from the brink but the hardware chain boss tells Nicola Harrison why he’s more than just a turnaround specialist

Three years ago, a 48-year-old Steven Round thought he was coming to the end of his career. The Robert Dyas chief executive, who last week revealed a return to profitability for the hardware chain, believed that companies were seeking ever younger executives to lead businesses. But he was wrong. When asked to run Robert Dyas in 2008 he realised the “balance had shifted”. “Now I’m told they want experience,” he says.

And he has plenty of that, including a turnaround of MFI in 2005, which he describes as “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life”. He recalls he was already working for the group in France at its Hygena Cuisine kitchen chain, when he was asked to return to the UK when MFI “got into trouble”. His brief was simple: to stop MFI being shut down. “Up until then I was seen as someone more creative, who grew things,” he says. “There was a question mark over my ability to cut.”

But Round took the difficult decisions, closing shops and making redundancies to cut costs from the business, which was losing £75m a year when Round joined. A year later, these losses had been reduced to below £40m, and after implementing a turnaround strategy, MFI was sold to Merchant Equity Partners in 2006, although it would eventually collapse in 2008.

Round, who says he has “strong convictions and values”, did not particularly enjoy the experience. “It was tortuous,” he says. “But I did it out of a sense of duty. And there was some sense of satisfaction from getting it done.”

It was the first time Round had tackled a beleaguered retailer, but it wouldn’t be the last. Two years later, in 2008, after a stint at food outlet Spudulike, Round was called upon by Change Capital to revitalise the fortunes of the troubled Robert Dyas. It was perhaps unusual for someone who found turnarounds “tortuous”, but Round says this situation was very different to that of MFI.

Round, who lives in Surrey where several Robert Dyas shops can be found, was a shopper at the chain. “I was fond of it,” he says. “But it had lost its way, and the financial structure was weak. But it wasn’t as difficult as MFI. Robert Dyas is, at its heart, a successful proposition.”

Round was parachuted in to secure a future for Robert Dyas, last year leading a management buyout of the business before agreeing a debt-for-equity swap with its lenders, which prevented it from falling into administration. “It was close to going but because of the strength of the brand there was a great deal of goodwill demonstrated.”

Round, who has a stake in Robert Dyas, says he has enjoyed leading the business through those tough times. But he says he does tend to get “typecast” as a turnaround specialist. “Sometimes people look at your recent history rather than your career in totality.”

And Round, who is something of an unwitting retailer, has had a more varied career than some, spending the first nine years of his career in FMCG, holding marketing roles at Guinness and make-up brand Maybelline. “I’d grown to dislike retailers,” laughs Round. “I thought they took all the margin and left the manufacturers out of pocket.” So Round thought it would be sensible to get some experience in retail, before returning back to manufacturing within a few years.

But he never returned. “I fell in love with retail,” says Round. “The thing that appealed to me was the immediacy and the psychology of what made people want to buy things.”

With his new-found love of retail Round went to Kingfisher, working alongside “fantastic people” including current group chief executive Ian Cheshire and now-HMV boss Simon Fox, as well as his biggest influence, former chief executive Sir Geoff Mulcahy.

Round was charged with repositioning Superdrug, “making it a mainstream competitor to Boots, with attitude. We thought Boots was more BA and we could be Virgin”.

With his marketing background, Round describes himself as a creative person. But he is also a strategic thinker, and it was at Kingfisher Round says he first learned the “economics” of retail.

But in whatever role he tackles, Round, who says he “gets bored easily”, says it has to be stimulating. “And that usually involves something problematic or a growth story.” He adds: “I need a vision to work from, I need to know what I’m working towards, and then I try and make the journey exciting. The job of a chief executive is to conduct the orchestra. You choose the piece of music and the speed at which it is played, but you don’t get in the orchestra pit.”

Steven Round

  • Upbringing Grew up in the Black Country
  • Lives In Surrey with wife and three sons
  • Interests Travelling, skiing, West Bromwich Albion FC, history