Refuel Q&A - Peter Lee
Interview with Peter Lee, CEO, Refuel at Westcott Venture Park.
What was your first job?
I worked in a record shop in Oxford called Music Market after quitting midway through a business degree at Oxford Polytechnic. At that time I was earning £28 per week.
Describe how your career developed to the present day.
Music Market quickly grew from one shop to seven and I purchased three of the shops from the owner by the time I was 23. I made the decision to combine music and video and in 1984 formed Bogart’s Video, establishing 12 stores.
I sold Bogart's to Cityvision PLC, when I was 28, who wanted to open a national video chain under the name Ritz Video and I was employed as the Managing Director.
It was through Ritz that I met David Quayle who was the chairman of Cityvision, he was also the 'Q' of B&Q. We would often view new locations together for potential stores and at one point we were opening 7 stores a week reaching a total of 730 using up to 23 shop fitting teams.
When I was 31 I decided to leave Cityvision and look for pastures new. I was on holiday when I met someone in the US who had rights to NFL t-shirts for the UK. He had been let down by a retailer and had 25,000 unsold t-shirts. Over a beer he offered to send them to me and pay him when I had sold them. So overnight I had entered a new industry. I then took distribution of other merchandise to pull together a full range including baseball caps, jackets and bags. One of those companies was a BOSTON based headwear company called Twins Enterprise.
In March 1993 I set up a European operation for them based in Milton Keynes. We enjoyed several years of success in a period where American sports interest was declining in the UK due to the strength and power of the Premier League. We were licensed for Major League Baseball, NFL, NHL and NCAA.
In 1999 I left to create another start up enterprise Buccaneer Europe in Aylesbury, which grew to become a £6.5million a year business in the same industry and in 2003 I started New Era's European business. (New Era, also based at WVP is the largest headwear company on the planet.)
It was with New Era in 2005 that I moved to WVP taking a lease on H3, in addition to investing £1m in the building. I looked at other business parks at the time but Westcott appealed due to its location for staff in addition to being in a peaceful and secure location.
I left New Era to create Refuel in 2009 and six months after leaving Westcott I returned to take Units 14 and 407. After one year with a non-compete clause, I re-entered the headwear and apparel business.
Since then, I have created a series of different companies under the Refuel name including Refuel Global, which deals with European distribution of Starter Black Label and Refuel Brands which deals with the distribution of Mitchell & Ness globally except for the USA.
The third company is Refuel Apparel. Some people on Westcott may have seen the arrival of our printing press, increasing our onsite capability to support other areas of the business. We printed our first t-shirt in December 2013 and are looking forward to an exciting year ahead.
The fourth company is Refuel Performance to support my son, Richard Lee, a goalkeeper who formerly played for Watford and now plays for Brentford. The business will help young footballers to make the most of their careers and put a structure in place to support them.
What are the key responsibilities in your position?
I have appointed young Managing Directors for each of the Refuel brands who have been with me for years. They have ownership and responsibilities to take the different companies forward but I do offer my support and advice as required.
My key role is to continue looking for new opportunities and ideas.
Describe a typical day.
My day starts off walking our dogs around 7.00am before heading out of the door with my packed lunch to come to Westcott. I have a nice office with a Sonos system so am often listening to jazz throughout the day whilst seeking out new ideas and opportunities for Refuel.
I make sure I go to each building at Westcott, often cycling between buildings when the weather is nice in addition to visiting London once a month.
I'm also in the progress of writing a book so I'm trying to allocate time to that!
My iPhone is always at my side, much to my wife's annoyance, so I am never really switched off.
What has been your best decision?
To work for myself.
How do you motivate your staff?
I've made several staff shareholders and always ensure that everyone is treated well with bonuses and social events throughout the year. I've also introduced a pension scheme before I had to by law.
In terms of motivation, I think it is important to give everyone ownership of their work but to be there to provide guidance as required.
My approach must work as 17 of the 48 staff employed today worked for me previously at New Era.
Do you have a good work/life balance?
There are three things in life that are important to me, Family, Football and Business.
I was a season ticket at holder at Manchester United before my son started playing football for Watford. He now plays for Brentford in League 1. I go to watch him when he plays. One of the proudest moments of my life was seeing him walk-out at Old Trafford, playing against Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs.
I'm equally proud of my other three sons, one of which has a thriving business at Westcott. However, I will leave him to tell you about his business in a future issue of the newsletter!
In terms of work-life balance, we're lucky enough to have a home abroad in the sun and I enjoy splitting our time between the sun and UK.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced?
I've always taken a gamble on everything but in 1986 I used the house as a guarantee against my business. If you remember, 1986 was a very long and hot summer so the last thing that people wanted to do was to sit indoors watching a video. At one point, I had to tell my wife that I thought I'd lost the home...
Fortunately, in 1986, I was awarded with the National Video Dealer of the Year Award presented by Michael Aspel, it was at a glitzy awards ceremony held at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. It was that award win that made Cityvision PLC interested in creating a national chain and you know the rest...
How do you see your company developing over the next five years?
We will continue to develop the four companies under the Refuel umbrella brand. Hopefully there will also be further expansion at Westcott.
What's the best piece of advice you've been given and what would you say to those looking to start-up their own business?
David Quayle, formerly of B&Q once said to me: "If I find you doing any work, I will fire you. Delegate everything!"
In terms of my advice to anyone, I would say to people looking to start their own business not to be afraid of taking risks but to acknowledge when there has been a mistake and to move on. Don't let pride get in the way. You also need to be prepared to work for nothing for a considerable amount of time.
What would you like to do when you retire?
Retire?! My father once retired at the age of 65 only to start-up a new business venture at the age of 66. He retired for the second time at 82 and is now 86. He is a real inspiration to me – it's in the blood!