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04 September 2004
The Herald
Spreading the written word

IF you want golfer Colin Montgomerie's biography for 3, the giant Phillips Road Atlas for 2, or strips of Glasgow patter to stick on your fridge, you will be heading for Bookworld, aka Bargain Books, aka David Flatman Limited, which first opened in Princes Street in 1981 and now has over 40 outlets around the UK.

Flatman, 63, is a self-confessed workaholic who lives and breathes books. He runs his discount chains, and the tourist book wholesaler Lomond Books, from an anonymous warehouse at Granton in Edinburgh, not far from his home in desirable seaside Cramond.

The fledgling company shrugged off an early brush with bankruptcy in 1983 when the company overbought, but 20 years later the scars came back to haunt Flatman when it bought too little. Understocked for Christmas 2002, the group lost 575,000, recovering to make a 4287 profit last year on sales up 12.5% to 25m.

'It was my fault,' Flatman says, still nursing the wound. 'I was the old codger who knew the right things to do, remembering how in '82 we didn't have enough money to pay the bills - we cut down the stock and we overdid it.'

The previous three years had seen the group struggling to stay in the black. But it is still growing, employs 250, and is Britain's tenth biggest bookseller.

Flatman goes on: 'We have turned the corner now and recognised some of the errors we were making.' Like-for-like sales in the second quarter were up 12%. 'I am very pleased with that, but we never rest on our laurels. I have made lots of mistakes, but you recover from them, even if I haven't had the Midas touch of the Philip Greens of this world.'

Times have been harder in the industry since the ending of the net book agreement (publishers' price restrictions) eight years ago, which brought cut -price new books into stalls and supermarkets. The stores sell discounted new books, promotional imprints (commissioned from publishers at special prices) such as a forthcoming Encyclopaedia of Scotland, and the familiar 'remaindered' titles (Monty et al).

A new 'BW' format is now being trialled in Glasgow, East Kilbride, Stirling, and two stores in the south, backed by a six-figure investment in store lay-out and decor (with Edinburgh-based 442 Design). It features 'three for 10' offers on children's books and gifts, fiction and cookery books, and a spicing of non-book products such as CDs, DVDs and art supplies.

Flatman notes that his major competitor, West Midlands-based The Works, was recently sold by its founder for 25m after a 'hugely profitable' expansion to 200 shops. 'The public don't see the difference but he sells a lot of non -book product. We are now selling a lot more of it.' But he adds: 'I am terribly keen on books, and books remain our core product.'

Son of a bank manager and a schoolteacher, Flatman grew up in south London and studied at the London School of Economics before finding a job with Procter & Gamble. 'I didn't want to sell soap, I wanted to sell books.' He became a sales manager with Paul Hamlyn, then moved to Collins and to Glasgow in 1970. When another former stalwart of the Scottish publishing industry Holmes McDougall advertised for a general manager, Flatman got the job, but was sacked in 1980 after a disagreement with the company then controlled by Lonrho. 'I couldn't stand the politics and I had very high blood pressure. Since then I have never had high blood pressure, I have it checked regularly.'

His start-up began with Stockbridge Bookshop, still going strong. 'Nobody was really selling discounted books on the high street and we didn't have the confidence to get involved there at first. But in November 1981 we got what we were looking for - a shop on Princes Street. At that time there were only second-hand bookshops and traditional sellers such as Thins, and we wanted to do it like supermarkets and present the bargain trade in a more attractive way.'

The first outlet in London was opened in 1990, and the next few years were particularly successful. 'The reason for that was we had got ourselves organised by then, we had got over the first 10 years. We were a good, ongoing business, we were presenting discounted books on the high street very attractively, and creating stores which were very accessible even I whisper when I go into Waterstones. I am not knocking Waterstones or Ottakars they are very good shops but they are for the upper echelons of society. We are not aiming at heavy book-buyers.'

On the success of BW, which will next appear in Ayr, the jury is still out. Meanwhile, the warehouse is in no danger of running low. Flatman explains that this is not a 'just-in-time' business, with minimum stock. 'Nobody really wants warehouses, but if you go to a publisher and say

'I will take 200,000', to bring the price down, then you have to

find somewhere to put it.' In an archetypal family business, Flatman's wife Hazel is personnel director, son Robert, 37, is finance director and daughter Lizzie, 30, marketing and property manager, though there are four non-family executive directors.

'They (the children) were told they had to go away for five years,' Flatman says. 'We had been to one or two meetings of the Family Business Association and they said the worst thing you can do is to say 'there is a job for you, come in at 18 or 21'.'

Robert worked for the RAC, then Cheltenham & Gloucester, before deciding he wanted to join the business, while Lizzie spent five years with the CACI data company. 'My son will become MD when I become chairman and semi-retire in two years' time,' he says. 'I think it is the right thing for the company.

'Old guys over 65 shouldn't be running companies I don't have the energy I had when I was 50 and anyway, the people who started companies are not always the best people to run them.'

Daughter Lizzie comments: 'He is overly critical of himself. It is a difficult time for all book retailers, the competition we have makes things problematic - but the company has been trading for 25 years very successfully.'

Flatman, a naturalised Scot for 34 years, is a keen climber and has completed all the Munros.

It seems appropriate that he should now be working his way through the Corbetts, the challenge that sounds a bit like running your own high street retailer: hills over 2500 (but under 3000) ft, which also have a 500-foot drop, to keep it interesting.

flatman outlook

Childhood ambition? To play rugby

for England.

Best moment? Climbing my last

Munro, Ben Mhor on Mull, on a clear

day.

Worst moment? Realising we simply

could not pay the bills, and having to

go cap in hand to all the suppliers.

Ambition? To do what is right for the

business. I am not looking forward

to my retirement. I like running the

show.

What drives you? The aim of running

a successful company, a good

company . We have Investors in Peo-

ple and try to give people a fair deal.

What do you drive? A P-registered

Volvo. It does not break down. I am

not a car person.

SIMON BAIN



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