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Toy Story ~ by Steve Legg

Sorted editor Steve Legg headed to Little Chalfont to speak to Gary Grant, the founder and managing director of The Entertainer, the UK’s largest independent toy retailer, to find out what has changed since his store opened in 1981, why treating kids like royalty is vital, and why family life is more important than opening on Sundays.

How did you build a multi-million-pound toy empire?

We moved to Buckinghamshire when I was three years old and we had no cash, so as a youngster I had many different jobs. I would sweep leaves up, clean snow off people’s drives and wash cars, and then when I went to senior school I had lots of other jobs, so I worked in a sweet shop, helped on a milk round and in a bike shop too. I had a morning and evening paper round and that’s how I earned cash and got going.

I left school at 16 with one O level in maths which has served me really well, and I started working full-time in the bike shop. The skateboard boom from the mid-1970s meant the shop was selling skateboards until the market crashed and I started a business on the side, wheeling and dealing, selling skateboards, bearings and other accessories … there was a conflict and I eventually lost my job.

Tell us about your first store.

In January 1981, I got a call from an estate agent mate who had a toy shop in Amersham on his books, and my wife, Cath, and I took it over, despite having no knowledge of the sector. We did the deal and in May 1981 the first Entertainer was opened. We called it ‘The Entertainer’ but we knew nothing about toys then. I didn’t want to be restricted to toys so I figured if it entertained you, we could sell it. Some 36 years later we have 140 stores and we are between 7–8 per cent of the Toy Industry.

When did you start exploring the Christian faith?

When I started in business there weren’t any boundaries … it was all about making cash. For the first ten years we made money however we could, and sold whatever we could sell. Then in 1991 my wife bought me a ticket for a men’s breakfast and I went along and heard a vicar talk about having a relationship with Jesus. I’d done RE at school and knew about the historical Jesus but left that Saturday with lots of unanswered questions. I went to church the following day and went home that evening realising God really loved me. By the end of that weekend everything had fallen into place.

Out of that experience I had to completely review everything I was doing in my life. I had to rethink my marriage – there was nothing wrong with it, but I was busy and away as I was hell-bent on making money – I had to review how I was running my business, what was my stance about Sunday trading and whether I’d want my staff working on a Sunday.

I value families and I think it’s really important as we see so much fallout in society from the effects of broken families, and it could come down to the fact that they are under attack, and I don’t want to see that, not on my watch. So we’ve never opened any of our stores on a Sunday and we’ve attracted the most amazing staff.

How did one store become 140?

October 1990, before my conversion, a customer told me I was encouraging children to play with darkness, and that if I stopped “the Lord will repay your business in other ways”. … When I became a Christian, I had three stores, and on this journey of stocking ranges that I felt comfortable with, I stopped selling Halloween products, Harry Potter-related merchandise and realistic weaponry, and in October 1991 we had one of the best increases of turnover in our first ten years of business.

Was the business hit hard by the 2008 Financial Crisis?

When The Entertainer faced its toughest time, we called in the local vicar and took the unusual approach of sending an email inviting head office staff to pray together. We had around 50 staff at the time but I was astonished by how many people – around 30 – turned up. We met weekly for around three months, praying for the staff of collapsed rival Woolworths, for wisdom for the government and for own economic situation as a business. In the end, our company – which at one point looked like it would lose £1m – ended 2008 with a £10,000 profit.

So the firm’s continuing success is no surprise, remembering the Bible verse: “Those who honour me, I will honour” (1 Samuel 2:30, NIV). If our motive is right, God walks through those difficult times with us.

I’m intrigued by what some might call your non-commercial approach.

The Christian life isn’t a pick ’n’ mix, you have to jump in with both feet. It’s been the most amazing adventure for the last 27 years. It’s not just about going to church on a Sunday, it’s about how I behave during the rest of the week. So not stocking certain ranges I feel uncomfortable with, not opening on Sundays, being generous towards the staff when the wheels come off in their lives, and giving 10 per cent of our profits to charity is part of our DNA. This could be seen as non-commercial but I feel it’s the right thing to do. Business can be a tremendous force for good.

I went into a store one day and the shop assistant looked straight over the head of a child to serve the next adult, because they’d not seen them. So that gave me the idea to have a step by the counter. We are the children’s shop in town … So when they’re in our shop they’re special, they are royalty, so when you see a four-year-old walking up the steps with their toy and handing over pocket money, it’s fabulous.

You’ve achieved this with just one O level. Do we make too much of the importance of educational qualifications?

I think we’ve cocooned children. Looking back at my own childhood, when I was seven I’d completed my Scouts’ ‘bob a job’ card. We wouldn’t let a seven-year-old walk the streets doing odd jobs for strangers these days, because society has changed. Today I can’t employ a 16-year-old because of the red tape. When I was 16 I’d experienced so many jobs, so we’ve taken away work experience. I learn from seeing and doing. Other children learn from reading and writing. We’re all different people, so I believe we should give each child the chance they deserve.

Not every child is grammar school material. I wasn’t and I went to the ‘failures’ school because I failed my 11 plus and it was right for me. It’s such a shame that so many children are deemed failures. Every child has a nugget of gold inside them. Fantastic athlete, great musician, and if they’re good at English and maths, then that’s a bonus. Let’s find out what’s great with every child. We have young people working in the business with no qualifications and we’ve allowed them to be real people in the working environment.

I was in our Liverpool store recently and was chatting to a staff member who explained how she’d risen through the company ranks, starting with a six-week placement from the Job Centre, then a Christmas temporary job, onto a 20-week contract, then becoming supervisor, and now she’s assistant manager.

I don’t want The Entertainer to be remembered for how much money I make or how many shops we have, but how many people we’ve given opportunities to.