‘Whatever you do, avoid Portsmouth’ they said

HAPPY Tony Johnson in retirement at his Hayling Island home with a lifetime of retail behind him
HAPPY Tony Johnson in retirement at his Hayling Island home with a lifetime of retail behind him
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Tony Johnson laughs a lot. His sense of humour and fun endeared him to hundreds of employees down the years.

But his biggest laugh comes when he recalls the advice he was given when he was pitching to run his first large department store back in the 1960s.

Tony was working for United Drapery Stores (UDS), which had shops all over the country, and his driving ambition was to be the boss of his own large emporium selling everything from buttons to fridges, carpets to women’s fashions.

‘I was talking to one of the first group buyers we had, a very tough lady, and I told her I hoped I would be able to get on in the company.

‘She gave me a piece of advice: ‘‘whatever you do, try not to go to Portsmouth’’.’

Tony rocks with laughter. ‘Lucky I’ve always followed my instincts,’ he says.

For shortly after that conversation Tony found himself... in Portsmouth as the managing director of one of the city’s most famous and still-loved department stores, Landport Drapery Bazaar in Commercial Road.

It turned out that within the UDS group, Portsmouth had a bit of a reputation – a bad one. And Tony had just been handed that poisoned chalice.

‘The Portsmouth store had had all sorts of problems in the years running up to my appointment.’

It had been bombed and virtually destroyed during the Second World War, then rebuilt, but it was only half the size that Tony would expand it to during his reign.

‘They’d had a disastrous fire in 1965 and the fire sale afterwards went on for more than a year,’ says Tony, incredulously.

‘And the manager I replaced had not been particularly brilliant.

‘The place was in a pretty awful state all round.’

And that is how Tony Johnson, the lad born near Croydon, ended up forging a career in retail in the city and the area he now calls home.

He arrived in the city in 1967 and ran that store for nearly 20 years.

The first thing he did was rename it.

‘I thought Landport Drapery Bazaar was too much of a mouthful and I saw an opportunity to trade up and stock better quality products.

‘Yes, it was a nice store, but it was low-trading.

‘We were in the Landport area of Portsmouth, so I decided to keep that name and simply call it Landports.’

Over the years he acquired nearby parcels of land and more than doubled the size of the building from 50,000sq ft to 110,000.

Of course, later the landmark store on the corner of Commercial Road and Arundel Street would gain new identities as Allders and now Debenhams.

‘In my first year our turnover was slightly less than £1m.

‘In my final year there, in the mid-1980s, I’d grown that to £19m. And in one year at the beginning of that decade we made our first £1m net profit.

‘Yes, we’d been very successful.’

Note the use of the word ‘we’.

Tony does not take all the credit, but puts it down to a hard-working team of managers, buyers and shop floor sales people motivated by the commission they could earn.

He employed 250 staff and hand-picked most of them.

Now 83 and living happily in retirement at Hayling Island with his wife of 58 years, Jeanann, he still wonders how on earth he got the job in Portsmouth and then went on to run other stores in the group – simultaneously – as a troubleshooter.

There was a two-year period when he was managing the Portsmouth store and the Cardiff branch at the same time. ‘It was in a fair bit of trouble and they sent me to sort it out.’

Tony remembers the day he was summoned to the chairman’s office to be handed the managership of his first store, Hinds in Eltham, south-east London.

‘I was called in to see the big boss, but I was so terrified I took Jeanann with me and she waited outside.

‘Years later I confided with the chairman about how scared I’d been and that I’d taken my wife for moral support and he said: ‘‘Johnson, if I’d known that you’d never have got the job!’’.’

In Portsmouth, Tony became a popular figure both with staff and among his fellow businessmen, rising to become chairman of the chamber of commerce. It was while he held that position that he persuaded the city council and other ‘more reluctant businesses’ to instal the fountain in Commercial Road to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

There was a reason. ‘I was convinced it would attract more people to that part of Commercial Road and therefore more people into my shop. And it worked.’

His name cropped up recently in my Remember When pages in The News.Former Landports employee David Picketts loved his time working in the store and wanted to know what had happened to ‘Mr Johnson’.

There was a large response from readers who all remembered him with fondess. One recalled how he would dress in a chef’s hat and apron and carve the turkeys at the staff Christmas lunches.

‘I introduced those as a way of thanking the staff for their hard work during the year. I always believed in being fair and having that personal touch.

‘Yes, I worked hard and I expected my staff to do the same, but I was always happy. I liked to have fun and if the boss is happy it rubs off on the staff. I get the distinct impression things in retail are a lot different today. A change for the worse in my opinion.’

First week started with a resignation

In Tony Johnson’s first week in Portsmouth in 1967, his store detective resigned.

‘It wasn’t the most ideal start, but I kept hearing great things about a woman the store had employed but who the company had made resign because she was 60,’ says Tony.

He remembers her name to this day – Hilda Mary Martin.

‘I rang her up and asked if I could go and see her and found this funny little lady who looked like a character out of Agatha Christie.

‘She was very upset that we’d let her go, but was thrilled when I asked if she’d come back and she promised she wouldn’t let me down.’

He adds: ‘Boy, was she good. The best store detective I ever had. She could smell criminals and when she hooked one, you could always tell because her face went bright red.’

He recalls one memorable occasion when she hared after one young male shoplifter.

‘He made a run for it, but Hilda chased after him, caught up with him and then brought him down with a classic rugby tackle. An amazing woman.’

Tony says he was ‘probably a bit too kind to thieves’.

‘I would never call the police for kids, although I should have done for some of the rotters. Instead, I called in their parents and that generally seemed to work.

‘I would also not always prosecute older people. Perhaps I was too soft and certainly Hilda did not agree.’