Mountains to climb: YHA’s Greg Pickers in profile

From a very traditional background, educated at prep school in Buckinghamshire and then at a public school in Canterbury, Greg Pickers joined the Telephone Rentals Group straight from school and slowly worked his way through a number of industries before arriving at YHA in 2000.

He didn’t obtain a formal accountancy qualification until much later, and he opted for the ACCA qualification because it was more commercially based and ‘when I started out that was the one they were promoting most’.

That said, an effective FD, like any successful director, shouldn’t necessarily match the image the brand is portraying. Indeed, it can often be detrimental to the successful working of a business.

And with the company facing as many ‘challenges’ as it has over the past two years, the last thing you need is an FD with a larger than average ego. This, Pickers doesn’t have. His unassuming manner, quiet voice and conservative attire are in keeping with the needs of this private company that has faced an increasingly steep uphill battle since foot-and-mouth began ravaging not only UK livestock, but also the outdoor pursuits market.

Indeed, in times of economic downturn conservatism returns thick and fast. This trend is only too clear in the City at the moment as employees are told to return to the ‘suited and booted’ look.

Perhaps these qualities are as it should be. What is it they say about the best managers are those that can pass invisibly through the office, while the business ticks over noiselessly?

Pickers’ use of corporate language of words like ‘significant challenges’ is typical of the traditional image he portrays and presupposes a man of caution.

This seemingly wary nature hints at a very safe accountant who follows the rules and would never dream of stretching a principle to suit demands or expectations from on high.

Indeed Pickers fully supports moves to clarify and tighten the responsibilities of company directors and their accountants.

‘My view is that it’s really down to professionalism of individuals.

You should have guidelines that you should work within. If people have breached those then they should suffer for it. You should abide by guidelines and if you abide by them then there won’t be any problem,’ warns Pickers.

But he doesn’t dismiss out of hand the pressures many accountants face.

‘I think, unfortunately, the problem is that commercial pressures will always mean that those accountants who are in that sort of position are under a tremendous amount of pressure to meet their clients’ requirements.

So they will always try and find ways of meeting those requirements,’ he adds.

Pickers also agrees that regulation of the industry should, for the most part, remain in the hands of the accountants. ‘It is very difficult for government to regulate accountants, the task would be enormous. I think to some extent the profession has to regulate itself, but it has to have proper controls to ensure its members comply,’ he says.

Pickers is, however, sympathetic to outside pressures. After all, he has certainly had a few of his own to deal with over the last two years.

And they haven’t been easily overcome.

When he began at YHA, formerly part of the Youth Hostel Association, he had to immediately come to terms with the new SAP software they were installing.

‘Just as they were putting in SAP, my predecessor decided to resign before the integration of the software,’ explains Pickers.

Then, of course, came the foot-and-mouth epidemic, which effectively put a blanket-ban on all outdoor activities in rural areas. As Britain was just recovering from the outbreak, the terrorist strikes on the US further affected inbound tourism to the UK.

The company suffered a ‘significant loss’ in 2001 – the first since the company separated itself from the Youth Hostel Association via a management buyout, 15 years ago.

In the midst of all this chaos there was a third factor that had an equally negative impact on the company. YHA adventure shops’ flagship store in Covent Garden suddenly had to close, ‘despite the fact we’d been promised by the landlord that he wouldn’t be closing it,’ says Pickers.

‘September 11has had some impact. There’s no denying it. We’ve had foot-and-mouth in this country, which closed the outdoor industry here. And we’ve had September 11, which made people nervous about travelling abroad,’ he says. ‘I think to some extent, the British customers tend to be more stoic than others. It takes a lot more to knock us.

‘A lot of the custom has returned, but who’s to say where the next Bali will be. There’s a certain amount of nervousness out there and it will still be a difficult time until the world situation can be normalised.’

Since then, however, things have been picking up for the adventure chain, albeit with additional help.

A new flagship store in Wardour Street, London’s Soho has opened as well as one near St Paul’s in the City. And since that successful relocation, the company decided it was time to move back to Covent Garden. Last November, it opened a new store on the corner of Southampton Street, just off the Strand.

Pickers says: ‘The business has stabilised. We’ve had to inject some additional funding and the company is trading in a much better position now and is forecast to make a profit – a small profit.’

But the light at the end of the tunnel is still not quite glowing for YHA.

Since the foot-and-mouth epidemic, Pickers explains, ‘the landscape of this industry has changed totally’.

Its main rival, Blacks, which acquired the rump of the famous Army Stores, is now in the ‘premier division’ of the industry. ‘But they are the only team in the premier division,’ he says. ‘Everyone else is in the first division.’

Pickers sees his main challenge, and that of his competitors, as winning promotion to that premier division. ‘To some extent there’s got to be a certain amount of rationalisation within the industry. I think you know that’s true for all the retailers. We are looking at our own situations, but also to some extent there’s got to be some organic growth as well.

And maybe we’ve got to look at some versatile ways of growing,’ he says.

Its reasonably strong community, through created links with Hostelling International, Raleigh International and the Bike Chain, could go part of the way to help the company pull away from its competitors.

On the other side of the fence are the suppliers who are suffering from an abundance and oversupply of products. Great for shops, bad for the suppliers.

‘A lot of suppliers are finding it difficult to survive. There seems to be no shortage of suppliers entering the marketplace,’ explains Pickers.

In the coming 12 months, YHA’s FD will concentrate on ‘developing the systems within YHA to increase the focus on the retail operation and find new ways of keeping data, and to maximise the margins and sales’.

But in the wake of foot-and-mouth and 11 September, YHA will firstly have to deal with the knock-on effects of the inevitable war with Iraq, which will do little to help it pull away from its competitors.

Still the British spring and summer are nigh and with the looming war in Iraq, which has undoubtedly put people off foreign travel, good old camping and walking holidays in the British Isles could help trade pick up. We won’t find out what effect the war has until next year, but an indication of how YHA’s doing will come with the publication of YHA’s results in June.

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During October to December 2002 the number of visits to the UK by overseas visitors rose by 4% – from 6.1 million to 6.3 million – when compared with the previous three months.

And according to the latest statistics from the International Passenger Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics, spending on these visits increased by 2% – or about £50m – to £3.1bn.

Over the same period, the number of overseas visits by UK citizens increased by 370,000 to 15.4 million. The amount spent remained broadly the same, at just over £6.8bn.

The differences in spending resulted in a deficit to the UK of £3.7bn in the three months to December, £80m less than during the three months to September 2002.

Compared with the same period a year earlier, visits to the UK by overseas residents in October to December 2002 were up 23% and visits by UK residents abroad were up 7%.

Over a longer period, in the 12 months ending December 2002, the number of visits by overseas residents to the UK rose by 6% and spending increased by 4% compared with a year earlier.

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