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My Mentors - Mary Portas

Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Category: Guardian

When I was 23 I was working as display manager for Top Shop in Oxford Circus. Sir Ralph Halpern, who was the boss of the Burton Group at that time, decided to take me under his wing and got me involved in the visual side of retailing. He was very aware that the creative side of retailing was the most important part of it all .I was only 23 and felt totally out of my depth: I had regular one to one meetings with him and he sent me to The States to learn about how they retailed; amazing opportunities for someone of that age, for the first time I knew what stress was.

He was a petite man but a dynamic force, witty and a very strong presence in a room. I remember looking at him and admiring his energy and drive. He believed in my potential and in turn I grew in self belief. I used to go to him with these ideas and he would say straight away ‘do it.’ Waxing lyrical and looking at things from all angles isn’t on in retailing. Everything moves so fast there isn’t time to dither. If you believe in something, do it and to this day I’m a great believer in my gut instinct.

My business partner, Peter Cross is similar in that when I first met him I was blown away by his energy. He was a client of mine and he insisted I come along to every meeting which really pissed me off – I wouldn’t build up much of a business if I had to go to every meeting- but I always went because I got such a buzz being around him. I need people around me, I’m not a solitary player at all and every time I met up with him I felt energised.

We thought in the same way which was inspirational and it wasn’t long before we decided we should work together.

He really enjoys people, especially if he’s inspiring them but if he is in the company of someone dull, he isn’t at his best. He’s got a dry sense of humour and he’s got vulnerability too and of course he’s very handsome which always helps. He understands me and knows exactly how to get the best out of me, always with great kindness and humour. If something doesn’t inspire me at once I tend to dismiss it, but Peter makes me look again at ideas, he makes me think deeper and points out the potential in things.
From him I’ve learned what others think about me because sometimes when you’re the boss you don’t often get a true sense of that. I have a big persona which many people find threatening, especially in a woman, but he’s made me use that as a positive thing. I’ve learned to channel that and to use my skills to my best. I have the vision and he carries it out. He’s very passionate about things and drives it to the last degree and won’t give up until he’s got what he wants and won’t let people away with things. At times this can divide opinion on him because he drives others so hard, I think people either love him or hate him.

I’m firmly in the love camp: he believes in me and I know he thinks I’m the best thing since sliced bread which is a very nice feeling in life. The great thing is the feeling is mutual.

Mary Queen of Shops on BBC 2, starts on June 9th and is produced by Optomen.

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