Peter Jones re-employs 300 staff who lost jobs after camera chain went bust in January
It is a pitch that might draw snorts from the hard-headed judges on Dragons’ Den: invest in the resurrection of a high-street retailer extinguished by rampant e-commerce competitors.
But the proposal comes from arch-dragon Peter Jones, who believes he can revive the failed camera chain Jessops by reopening 30 high street stores, creating 500 jobs in the process. The entrepreneur is so confident in the chain’s success that he will run the business as chairman and chief executive, investing £5m of his personal fortune to revamp the brand. He has also re-employed more than 300 former Jessops staff who lost their jobs when the company went bust in January.
But he warned that the venture could mean walking away from the BBC show he is famous for if Jessops becomes a big success again.
“I’ll struggle to do both this and Dragons’ Den. I’m going to have to see. However, I’m very committed to Dragons and the BBC and have been there since the beginning, so they might not be able to get rid of me.”
Explaining how he fell for the Jessops pitch, he said: “I was abroad in January when I heard Jessops had gone down and was shocked because I had only bought a Canon camera for Tara [his partner] in November. When I got back to the UK I immediately put the calls in, culminating in several all-night negotiation sessions, but I was absolutely determined to get the business because it was such an iconic brand of which I was a customer.”
Six stores will reopen on Thursday in London, Manchester, High Wycombe, St Albans, Birmingham and Aberdeen, with the majority of staff made up from 1,370 workers left unemployed when all 187 sites shut their doors three days after administrators were called in. All 30 stores will open by the end of April.
On rescuing the business two months ago, Jones initially hinted that the future of Jessops would be online only, but after sending a tweet confirming he had bought the company he was inundated with CVs from former employees.
He said: “Store managers were saying: ‘If you ever need somebody let me know,’ and we just started making contact. I’ve never been overly emotional in business, but these guys are genuinely passionate about their jobs and are all photographers in their spare time.”
Robert Innes, 50, had been store manager in High Wycombe for seven years, having run a photography business in his native South Africa, when he found himself out of a job. However, after spending a few days trying to decide what to do next, he got a call from Jones asking him to come back to his old position.
“Jessops had been my pride and obsession,” he said. “I’ve been in photography most of my life, so when we got the email that said we were going into administration and to close the doors days later, that was very difficult. We were all in shock and completely devastated.
“Being asked to pack up the store for the administrators was the worst week of my life after turning the store into a money-maker. It was like going to a funeral each day. Then I got the call from Peter and it was all very emotional.”
The stores have been rebranded, with wooden floors and a sleek new design inspired by Apple’s stores. He said: “The high street has suffered from online shopping for many years, but I think customers still want the experience of going into a store and getting expert advice.”
Plans are under way to relaunch the website with a focus on click-and-collect, where customers pick up their online orders at the store, which has been highly successful for rivals including Argos and John Lewis.
Jessops traces itself back to a chemist’s store in Leicester 130 years ago. In 1935 Frank Jessop transformed it into a photography shop, and in the early days was mainly involved in hiring and selling 16mm cine films. The company quickly grew under the leadership of Jessop’s son, Alan Jessop, who transformed it into a cut-price retailer of photographic equipment. By the 1970s, it had outgrown its premises and moved to a new 20,000 sq ft site on Hinckley Road in Leicester, which was named as the largest photography store in the world by Guinness World Records. That shop closed in 2008.
A second store followed in the early 1980s in London and as personal cameras became more popular and affordable, the firm expanded to more than 50 shops. It ceased to be a family-run business in 1996 and was sold in a management buyout. In 2002 the Dutch bank ABN Amro’s venture capital arm bought Jessops for £116m.