Saturday, 15 December 2012

Christmas in London 2012

The following are my favourite photos of all those I've taken over the past few weeks.  They show that even in winter, London - and especially where I live in Kew - is a vibrant place, both culturally, naturally and visually.

This is my favourite structure in the area: the Pagoda at Kew Gardens; I can see it from my bedroom window and have taken photos of it from every angle.

I love this view of the formal gardens at Kew Palace; typically British: elegant, understated, balanced and a bit stark.

This is a view of the towpath in Richmond taken from the bridge.  To me it looks like a Constable painting and demonstrates the glorious colour of England in winter.

I am always drawn to the riverside in Richmond; irresistibly photogenic.

From every vantage point, there's something aesthetic to admire.

My older daughter, Lauren, was first to discover the perfect aspect of this shot which I nicked for this photo.

Kew Gardens have just set up the holiday carousel near Kew Palace.  Perfect photo op.

This is Liongate at Kew Grardens - quintessential in a cloudless sky.

This is the Chokushi-Mon gate at Kew Gardens, truly beautiful at any time of year.

This taken in October with the pagoda at back.

The garden below the gate is in such contrast to British gardens; far more controlled and manicured.

This is the Temple of Aeolus near the Palm House in Kew Gardens; looks like an Elysian idyll.

Another carousel on Southbank near the Eye. So glad that these old attractions are maintained and still tour the country.

I took this picture of of Regent Street from Oxford Circus.  Looks like there's a halo around the BBC; how ironic during its recent scandal.

Trafalgar Square with Whitehall and Houses of Parliament in the background, taken from the steps of the National Gallery.

And a view of Piccadilly Circus from Leicester Square.

Our beautiful kitten, Bowie; her first Christmas on earth.

I never tire of this view of the Thames from Richmond Hill.

While driving through Richmond Park last weekend, I caught a glimpse of St. Matthias's church in the distance.  I went back on foot on Wednesday to get this photo across the field.  This just doesn't look like London; it looks like a rural setting in Somerset; somehow it reassures me that there does exist some stability, peace and continuity in the world.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Coping with Leadership

There are many characteristics of leaders that are trotted out as being crucial for their personal success and that of the organisations which they manage and lead.  A shortlist of these traits includes superior cognitive skills and knowledge, fortitude, persuasiveness, decisiveness, charisma, authenticity, insightfulness, personality and character.  Obviously these range from ‘harder’ almost measurable qualities to those which are more a matter of subjective impression.

Managers and leaders are barraged with advice from consultants, TED gurus and the bookshelves of airport concession shops: be flexible & adaptable, be firm & have more of a backbone, keep it simple, deal with complexity, adapt, stick to your strengths.  Really, is it any wonder leaders who take this stuff seriously don’t become bipolar with the apparent conflicting advice.  Management is a notoriously trendy academic discipline; one of the best critics of guff at its most absurd is Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times and author of Who moved my Blackberry.  One of the trends I’ve noticed becoming more and more prominent in blogs and articles in the Twitterverse is management and leadership theories based on the truth claims and practices of Eastern spirituality.

A meditative practice which is receiving an enormous amount of attention these days – and not just in the pages of the Sunday Times Style section. Psychologies magazine or Oprah – is mindfulness.  It doesn't surprise me when these periodicals promote the latest, trendiest pop psychology ‘findings’, but mindfulness is being sold by management consultants and bloggers at the Harvard Business Review, which I find deeply alarming.  According to a specialist in the worldviews and practices of eastern religion, Marcia Montenegro, mindfulness isn't just a meditative practice but is an outlook on life derived from the Zen Buddhist notion of detachment; "detachment in Buddhism is necessary because Buddhism teaches that attachment to this world, to your thinking, to your identity as an individual self, and other attachments, such as desires, keep you in the cycle of rebirth.”

Now those who give mindfulness a go and sing its praises might say that these things are not of interest to them; it’s stress-relief and a break from ‘over thinking’ that they’re hoping to achieve so that in the end they can become better, more effective managers and leaders. 

Take Bill George in a recent HBR blog, “Mindfulness helps you become a better Leader.”  When he was executive vice president of Honeywell in the 1980s he says, “I was caught up with external measures of success instead of looking inward to measure my success as a human and a leader.  I was losing my way.”  George tried a TM workshop in 1974 and now considers meditation to be a key component of his daily routine; he says it has helped him to "stay calmer and more focused in my leadership, without losing the “edge” that I believed had made me successful.  Meditation enabled me to cast off the many trivial worries that once possessed me and gain clarity about what was really important.  I gradually became more self-aware and more sensitive to the impact I was having on others.  Just as important, my blood pressure returned to normal and stayed there.”  He also says that he never adopted the spiritual portion of TM but that the physical practice has become an integral part of his daily life.

Another example is Peter Bregman’s recent HBR blogpost, "Try Meditation to strengthen your Resilience".  Bregman is also is a keen proponent of meditation which he began to practice in order to find relief from the highs and lows of emotions he felt as a result of the various sorts of feedback he received from his writing and presenting.  He explains, “unless you find solid footing in your consistent, unshakable Self, you’ll be thrown off balance and lose your way.  You’ll change your mind at the first resistance.  You’ll become overconfident when praise abounds. And you’ll make poor decisions, just to feel better.”  Bregman says that he was in search of “something more solid, an alternative to being tossed around by external events that didn’t rely on pretence.”

He goes on to say that he found the solution to his problem in meditation: “As I followed my breath in and out, I noticed something I hadn’t paid much attention to before.  And paying attention to it changed everything.”  Through meditation, Bregman claims that he was able to find his unshakable Self which would help him to maintain his "equanimity, peace, clarity and judgment in the face of changing circumstances and pressures".  Meditation, he believes, allowed him to see that this 'Self' is always there, “watching.”  He then goes on to encourage readers of his blog to try meditation for themselves rather than taking his word for its benefits.  The result of concentrating on one’s breath, he says, will be that “you will notice that your mind is thinking about something…the person noticing those thoughts?  That’s you. That’s your Self.”

Bregman says, "you are not your thinking.  You are the person watching your thinking."  The concept he's trying to articulate is the Buddhist notion of the witness or observer which is not strictly a person at all.  Nevertheless, Bregman believes that it is detachment which gives a person control over their thoughts and emotions and greater courage in the face of risky situations because, he claims, “you’ll know, no matter what happens, that you’ll be fine.”

Here’s the zinger of his article and the part I find most disturbing: “Having a strong relationship with your Self will make you incorruptible.”

What does that even mean?  It isn’t clear at all that this has anything to do with thinking or behaving in a moral manner.  It’s the detachment associated with mindfulness, the Buddhist seventh step of the Eightfold Path.  As Marcia Montenegro explains on her website, “if one practices mindfulness meditation on a fairly regular basis, that person may eventually adopt the worldview behind it, leading one to believe that the process of detachment is at work.  However, since the self is real, there can be no true detachment; therefore, no liberation or true peace results from mindfulness.  The techniques of mindfulness meditation lead one to enter an altered state, the same state one is in when under hypnosis.  In this state, the meditator’s critical thinking and judgement are suspended, and anything can enter the mind.”  She states in another article:

Mindfulness meditation is not designed for stress reduction or or to be a trendy dabbling for harried Westerners.  It is rigorously religious and strictly spiritual.

What bothers me about the accounts of these two men’s meditation experiences is that they appear to be buying into the meditation trend without critically considering its origin or purpose.  They're simply saying that they found something which they believe is enhancing their ability to lead by controlling their cognitive functions.  Since they don’t believe in a spiritual realm, they think that it isn’t playing any role in their meditative practice.  I think this is like ordering a mimosa for the orange juice and stating that the champagne won’t affect you because you don’t believe it in.  Whether something is true or not is not dependent on whether someone believes it to be true or not.  Meditation, as Christine Pack so elegantly puts it, is like spiritual crack: “entering into an altered state of consciousness is playing with spiritual dynamite, and not in a good way.”

Is coping with stress important to leaders?  Clearly.  Is meditation, mindful or otherwise, the best way to accomplish this?  Obviously not.  There are many ways to lower blood pressure and heart rate including hobbies, creating art, walking, listening to music, writing a poem, reading fiction or having a bath.  OK, so walking your dog isn't going to make it into the HBR's blog, but it's far better for one's physical, mental and emotional health than suspending one's rational thought in order to detach from reality.

The Worshippers Part 8: Visit to Richmond & Putney Unitarian Church

The Richmond & Putney Unitarian Church held its harvest celebration service the Sunday I attended on October 14th.  This is a lovely small church located in the historic area of Richmond in the road behind the Odeon Cinema.

Though I hadn’t been to a Unitarian service since we attended Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in Hampstead eighteen years ago, the readings and hymns of the service were all very familiar to me.  I also recognised the flame and chalice displayed on a banner hanging on the raised platform at the stained-glass end of the church.

There was a choir composed of around 10 men and women who elegantly and sonorously led the 25 congregants and guests through the hymns.  There was also a child's naming ceremony during the service.

The minister, Linda hart, told a story to illustrate some of the principles of the Unitarian faith.  It was the story of some crows who stole the entire harvest away from some animals who had painstakingly sewn, grown and planted it.  When the crows had come back to do some more scavenging, the animals didn't scold or reject them, but rather welcomed the crows and allowed them to share in the next harvest, for which the crows were surprised, but grateful.  I think the point of the story was to illustrate the aims and purposes of the Unitarian church which are these:

We are a congregation with open hearts and open minds.  We gather to celebrate the blessings of life, to support each other and to join with others who follow a spiritual path.  Our purposes are to promote spiritual enquiry in a welcoming, fellowship based on non-discrimination and care for others and to help people of all religious traditions and none find their own spiritual path based on exploration, questioning, insight, intuition and reason.[1]

The key themes of the sermon were to do with inclusion, tolerance and a non-judgmental attitude.  Which seems very mature and reasonable.  But I think there's something vital that's missing.  What about wrong-doing and justice?  The crows seriously ripped off the animals.  And though it's a beautiful thing to welcome them back to the table, to just forget the misdead isn't the same thing as to forgive.  It's forgiveness which wipes the slate clean.  I got the impression that, as in the Christian Science faith and some sects of the New Age, the concept of evil is sidestepped; it's presented as an illusion, therefore no foregiveness is necessary.  Can life work like that?  Certainly not in the secular world, which is why we have courts and prisons.  In the  Christian Kingdom, a price must be paid for sin and this was accomplished through the atonement at the crucifixion.  This is how some people are able to forgive seemingly heinous crimes, because they know that they've been forgiven.  Sotierology is totally absent from many faiths that claim Christian heritage.  The gospel isn't the focus of that heritage for them; I think they look to Jesus as a good teacher.  But as Tim Keller has said many times, the gospel isn't good advice, it's good news.  That's the meaning of sotierology.  In the reverend’s story the theft isn’t acknowledged at all; instead we skip straight to a fairy tale conclusion that all will be well. 

After the service, I was able to talk to some members of the church who were genuinely warm, helpful and candid.  I told them about my project to which they expressed support and interest.  They said that their service often included guests from other faiths such as Buddhism, as the notions of loving kindness and compassion were tenets that the two faiths shared in common.  I was also told that some members are interested in Buddist practices such as bhavana meditation.

Places such as the Unitarian church and the Quaker meeting house I visited earlier in the month are the churches in which I really sense that anyone would be welcomed and – crucially – would not feel intimidated or judged.  People should feel that way about Christian churches but, sadly, many probably don’t.

[1] The Flame, Richmond & Putney Unitarian Church Newsletter, October 2012.

The Worshippers Part 7: Visit to Quaker Meeting House

The Sunday morning I visited the Quaker Meeting house in Retreat Road, Richmond was quintessentially autumnal: clear, crisp and sleepy.  The meeting house is located down a beautiful small cul-de-sac off Richmond Green very close to the Thames tow path.

The structure is in fact an enormous Georgian house currently under renovation (located where it is, it must be worth a fortune).

I arrived a few minutes late for the 10.30 meeting, but was able to wait in the foyer with one of the church elders who told me we could go into the meeting room with any other stranglers at around 10.45.  She was very warm, welcoming and amenable when I explained the purpose of my visit.

We entered at the arranged short break time, took our places and the door was closed – this time, for the rest of the meeting.  There were around 20 ‘friends’ and I seated in a large lounge, mostly around the perimeter of the room, with some additional seating in rows in an adjacent space.  We sat in silence for around 45 minutes; some with eyes closed, others with eyes open.  There was a single reading which broke up the silence around 5 minutes into the worship – a short couple of sentences about sharing the faith with younger generations. 

According to their literature, Quakers believe:

We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence.  We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us….Yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God’s guidance so that you may find the evil weakening in you and the good raised up.[1]

At the end of the meeting I was able to chat to two members of the congregation who were open to sharing with me their beliefs as well as willing to hear about my experiences in the various stops I’d made on my faith journey.

The Quakers, I learned, do not espouse any single belief system or set of doctrines; rather they believe that everyone can find their own personal path by entering the silence.  Some meditate, though others do not.   They believe that each person has a particular experience of God and must each find his or way to be true to it.  This also from the literature:

As Friends we commit ourselves to a way of worship which allows God to teach and transform us. We have found corporately that the Spirit, if rightly followed, will lead us into truth, unity and love: all our testimonies grow from this leading….Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal  experience…The deeper realities of our faith are beyond precise verbal formulation and our way of worship on silent waiting testifies to this.[2]

I found this interesting sentence among the Advices and Queries booklet: "Are you open to the healing power of God’s love?  Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you.  Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.”[3] I have difficulty with this; the new age ‘ground of being’ is a notion.  The Tao is a way.  Christianity is neither a notion nor a way.  It’s a person.

The idea or tenet that truth is found by going deep within sounds laudable; but it isn’t difficult to see that when some look deep within and act on intuitive impulses, the resulting behaviour can actually be destructive.  Again from the literature, “Respect the laws of the state but let your first loyalty be to God’s purposes.  If you feel impelled by strong conviction to break the law, search your conscience deeply."[4]

One of the Friends I spoke with was rather disdainful of the doctrines and practices of the Christian faith.  I’ve noticed this quite a lot – that there is often disgust expressed for the church, Christian practices and the gospel.   And whereas it is right that we Christians are convicted when others point out where our actions and beliefs contradict one another (hypocrisy); it seems nonetheless difficult to accept a faith whose bedrock is personal, autonomous truth.  I don’t understand how one can assert relativism with regard to ultimate reality without denying it.  The Quaker Way puts it like this: 

It should not be imagined, however, that Quakers are impossibly 'good' people.  Like others they have faults and fall short of their own aims.  Nor do they claim that their path is the only true one, they have simply found it right for them.[5]

[1] Advices & Queries, The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, 2009, based on writings of George Fax, 1656.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] "The Quaker Way."

The Worshippers Part 6: Visit to St. Luke’s, the Avenue, Kew

In mid-September I paid a visit to St. Luke’s Church in the Avenue not far from Kew Village and around a two minute walk from my house.  Why had I never been there before, considering it was so close?  Well, when we were planning our move from Surrey to London, the google search result to ‘evangelical churches in southwest London’ yielded one result: Holy Trinity Richmond.  After a visit there in December 2010 and hearing David Cooke speak, we’ve been there ever since.

St. Luke’s is an enormous structure – a traditional Anglican church build in the 19th century; its spire can be seen for miles around.  I’ve always known that hosts the Kew Community Trust, which uses the church hall to put on a variety of community and private activities including bridge and bingo for seniors as well as yoga, reiki, meditation and tai chi available to the locals.  The hall is also used for birthdays and weddings and there’s often some sort of celebration spilling out of the entrance on any given Saturday afternoon.

Given the enormous size of the church, I was very surprised when I walked in and directed to an area at one end – the former chancel which is now the worship space.  So the original altar and small bit of the nave make up the current chapel.  It’s quite beautiful, with all the stained glass and carvings, only it does feel a bit truncated, the hall having usurped the lionshare of the original holy space.

It was a small, intimate and lovely service with perhaps 15 children, who came back after their activities to sing a traditional Christian song; I think it was “Rise and Shine” – I recognised it as something my children had performed for chapel choir and primary school.  The service was also traditional with lovely hymns that I’d remembered from long ago.    There were around 60 people in the pews, including many families and older congregants.  The organ was massive and impressive, especially considering the somewhat confined space to which the organist played.

I enjoyed the sermon and there was something Reverend Stephen said that has stayed with me ever since.  He said that “where we cease to struggle, we cease to be” and this reminded me both of Descartes famous assertion and also eastern philosophy which says that when we cease to struggle – i.e. when we have left the vale of illusion though enlightenment, then we truly are.  When people say that all religions lead to God, they either haven’t really investigated the truth claims of the various faiths or their minimising or eliminating these very significant approaches to life here on earth and in eternity.

St. Luke’s has a sister church, St. Phillips located a mile away in another neighbourhood of Kew; advertisements on the noticeboard of St. Luke’s indicate that St. Phillip’s hosts meditation sessions which I’m curious to discover whether these are contemplative in nature.  So I plan to visit this church to speak to some of its worshippers soon.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Innovative Entrepreneurs in Recession Britain

Last week the BBC reported on the continuing problem of high street retail shops going out of business around the UK. Business correspondent Emma Simpson explained:

Whole swathes of retail…are worth far less than they used to be, with landlords unable or unwilling to invest, yet loath to sell and write off their debt. Many landlords are also slow to cut the rents they demand in order to attract new tenants, because they have to earn a minimum rental income to keep up with their debt payments.[1]

Because neither the landlords nor their creditor banks are willing to sell off these properties at a loss, they're often struggling on with idle or dilapidated retail space.  To investigate the full extent of the problem, the British Retail Consortium, the British council of Shopping Centres, the British Property Federation and the Local Government Association as well as Lloyds, RBS and the Booksellers Association have set up the Distressed Retail Property Taskforce to research the issues and come up with some concrete solutions. The DRPT's remit is “to address issues of physical degeneration, falling footfall, reduced investment and associated social decline in towns and cities across the country.”[2]

Chairman of the task force, Mark Williams, warned that it wasn’t just a problem of the economic cycle, but that the high streets "are going through a structural recalibration, rather than an economic cycle from which we will emerge over time.”[3]  The situation is more dire for some towns than for others, but according to research for the British Council of Shopping Centres, one in every five shopping centres across the UK is in breach of its loan agreements and therefore potential at risk of administration.[4] This amounts to more than £10bn worth of real estate.  Mark Williams explained, “the negative knock-on effect on the wider area is physical degeneration and social decline.”[5]  According to a snapshot of 500 UK town centres by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Local Data Company (LDC), there have been more than 3,600 chain shop closures in the first half of 2012, most from the insolvencies of Peacocks, JJB Sports and Clinton Cards.  In their place have opened bookmakers, pawnbroker, payday loan stores and charity shops.[6]

According to data compiled by the LDC, the proportion of shops lying empty has increased in every region in Britain except London between January and June for a national average of 14.6% of shops remaining empty due largely to lower consumer spending, higher online sales and retail space expansion.  LDC’s findings were based on visits to 145,000 shops in the first half of the year. They found that retail parks had the lowest overall vacancy rate at 8.1%.[7]  Though the criteria for establishing town centre boundaries has been criticised, many of the findings are instructive.

As a complement to Mary Portas’s report on high street, the Government’s report, Understanding High Street Performance highlights the pressures currently faced by town centres and retailers. These include rents, rates and material costs which have risen significantly while at the same time facing tough competition from supermarkets and online retailers and diminished demand due to the recession. Between 200 and 2009, the UK lost 15,000 town centre stores – which means that one of every six shops lies vacant.[8]

It is unlikely that the regeneration of the British high street will come about without some innovative changes in terms of their function, so that high streets will become destinations that include not only retail but provide for public open spaces, leisure and residential use.  And the retailers themselves will need to offer innovative products and services to attract an increasingly demanding clientele.  According to Tym & Partners, a planning and economic consultancy who was commissioned by Richmond Borough to undertake an economic assessment of the area:

A clear picture is emerging of a network of large dominant superstores, and corresponding decline/diversification in the traditional smaller centre.  This means that to succeed secondary or smaller centres must distinguish themselves from the larger destinations by providing an offer that cannot easily be found elsewhere to attract footfall and increase turnover.  This might include the provision of specialist or niche shops, the provision of an enhanced customer service (i.e. home delivery) and generally contributing to a pleasant shopping experience (i.e. convenient parking, a pleasant environment and a range of different town centre uses).

Despite the fact that I’m very blessed to be able to live in such a lovely area as Kew, I’ve nevertheless noticed a large number of shops which have gone out of business with nothing taking their places for months on end.  However, there have recently been a few rays of light in the gloomy high street recession.  I went to visit as many of these as I could find in the Richmond and Kew area to find out what these entrepreneurs are doing: what innovative products and/or services they’re providing, what obstacles they faced in setting up, whether they sought or received any assistance and their hopes for the future.   The message I heard from the entrepreneurs I spoke to, reiterated by academics, artists and businesses is that it is possible to fill these empty shops – public or private, permanent or temporary – in order to make the high street healthy again.  Ian Golding, customer experience specialist, believes a prosperous high street will be one which offers consumers a positive, memorable experience, one that includes these three components:

  • Functional:  Does it do what people want it to do?
  •  Accessible:  How easy is it for people to do what they want to do?
  • Emotional:  How does it make people feel?[9]     

He believes that the only way to help address the issues facing the British High Street is for “the key stakeholders to start working together – central and local government; local people –unless the high street can start to complete from a functional and accessible perspective, the only emotional element of the experience that the consumer will remember is not likely to be positive.”[10]

Despite the economic gloom and severe challenges facing high street businesses, there are some courageous and innovative entrepreneurs out there risking a great deal to bring their dreams to fruition.  Dan Thompson, specialist in start-ups and entrepreneurship at Stanford University, says that in order to succeed in one's retail endeavour, “you only need one thing: bloody-mindedness…It’s knowing you’ve got an idea and you want to make it happen and going out and doing it.”[11] This is the fearless attitude I sensed from all the shop owners I spoke with over the past few weeks.

1  Start-Up Britain

On Sat the 13th of October I had a look round the pop-up shop across the street from Richmond station on Kew Road.  What caught my attention was the high quality photos in the window showcasing the six temporary stalls within.  These included a display of posh chocolates, organic makeup, men’s clothing, silver jewellery, large-sized women’s shoes and hand-designed speciality greeting cards.  The entrepreneurs who’d brought their wares to the shop were all very welcoming and allowed me to take photos of their goodies and have a short chat – not easy to do on a busy shopping day. 

The shop is part of Start-Up Britain, a project which encourages small start-up businessmen and women to market and sell their products for two weeks on a rolling basis in a prominent high street location.  These small retailers already run online businesses, but none has the financial means to take on a shop of their own.   Start-up Britain offers a co-working, co-funded space for these brand-makers to test-drive the products in a new way to a new audience.  In so doing, they can get immediate feedback on the goods themselves, their packaging, marketing and price. 

According to Star-up Tracker, the initiative’s statistic monitor, there have been 22,105 start-ups during October and 391,957 in 2012.  The data come from Companies House and have been interpreted for the tracker by the Made Simple Group. 

It’s inspiring and exciting to see this sort of experimentation going on during the recession, particularly when solid growth is not anticipated on the horizon in the near term.  It’s interesting to note that perhaps given the socio-economic profile of the area, the start-ups were all products pitched at the higher end of the gift market. 

I noticed two other initiatives on the Start-up Britain website: Start-up loans and Start-up spaces.  The former is an initiative with BIS making up to £2500 available to any young person wanting to start a business.  The latter is a scheme which allows start-ups and small businesses to search enterprise hubs, co-working spaces and other office providers in the UK.

2  Mary’s Living & Giving Shop

My next stop was Mary Portas’s Living & Giving Shop, located in the southwest corner of Richmond Green, an arguably idyllic setting.  It’s surprising to discover that this is actually a charity shop as it looks nothing like those you see on most high streets.  This place has the look and feel of a very trendy high-end boutique, oozing charm and sophistication, whilst being sympathetic to the local park setting.  

The lovely staff are volunteers who were extremely helpful, enthusiastic and candid.  They explained that 80% of the profits of the shop are donated to the Save the Children charity and that many donations were directly from designers.  They also said that, despite a brisk business when they opened during the summer, the footfall on a rainy day, being off the high-street on a drizzly day was a distinct disadvantage.

The Living & Giving shop is Mary Portas’s concept of a charity vehicle for Save the Children.  She says it’s not just a shop, ‘but a place to inspire, share, create, meet and discover.  She even goes to far as to say it’s a philosophy and a ‘fantastic way to contribute to the community, help some of the world’s most vulnerable children and bag a designer bargain at the same time!”  A flyer I was given was an invitation to a Glitz & Glamour night to include shopping, free makeovers and hand massage, champagne and ‘sweet treats.’

In addition to the Richmond Green location, her shops are also in Primrose Hill, Westbourne Grove, Edinburgh and Chelsea.  I can’t help but wonder that if it’s Mary Portas’s goal to revive the high street, then she’s chosen the very poshest high streets in the country – places that really don’t need nearly as much reviving as those in less well-healed areas.  I think it’s commendable to open run these shops for charity, only I wonder about the message she’s sending out about high street revival in places that need it most.

3  The Petal Pusher

On the 17th of October I had the chance to speak to the co-owner of The Petal Pusher in Sandycombe Road in Kew.  Rachel Haynie generously gave me some of her time to share with me the story of how the shop that she and her husband, Omar Gharbi, dreamt up and brought into being. 

The Petal Pusher is a unique concept to Kew; it combines a high quality café with sandwiches and cakes with a floristry.  The pair are quintessential entrepreneurs – they have both experience in the sectors and honed their skills in London  - Omar in a celebrity chef-run kitchen and Rachel in a professional project management role as well as running her own flower stall in the Richmond area.

The atmosphere of the café/shop is warm, calm and intimate and the flowers at the rear give a lovely fragrance.  There’s even a small “den” featuring a small burning fire and couches.  The décor is stylish but not stark.

Rachel described how it all came about; that they’d had a dream of creating a retail establishment that would combine high-quality food and a florist.  They chose the spot in terrace of shops in Sandycombe Road because it was available.  They’ve funded the entire project themselves, without recourse to bank financing or overdrafts.  This, she said, has made every decision considered, from the chairs to the penny-farthing above the door outside the café. 

We talked at some length about customers and the challenge of selecting the best prices for their offerings.  It’s important, Rachel said, to take into account the prices charged by others in Kew for similar products, as well as the type of customers that have tended to come by already, the customers which they hope to attract in future and what margins will be sustainable, both in the short and medium-term.  It sounded that all of these factors needed to be carefully analysed before coming up with an optimal pricing strategy.

The Petal Pusher has plans to provide additional services and events, such as flower and table arranging classes, wreath making, a German Christmas market as well as Christmas events for children.  I thought that this is what entrepreneurship is all about; thinking of new ways to provide goods and services that customers can enjoy, experience and learn from.

4  Art House Hairdressing

The owner of the new Art House Hair Studio, Rosemarie, allowed me to view the new spaces included in her salon and chat a bit about her business early on a Tuesday morning.  Rosemarie opens her shop at 8.30am, or whenever it’s convenient for her clients – that’s what I call customer service.  It’s a lovely place in an excellent spot; a corner shop on Sandycombe Road, decorated in contemporary style but sympathetic to the Victorian architecture and surrounding residential area. 

Rosemarie is from Australia but has set up salons and worked on cruise ships all over the world, so she’s brought a wealth of experience with her to the venture.  She’d initially considered a Richmond address, but told me that rents and rates were excessive there and that she’s glad she settled in Kew instead, particularly due to the large traffic of pedestrians and buggies down the road.  She has two chairs on the ground floor of the salon at present, explaining that any more would have made it difficult for prams to park.  Again, her consideration for the details for of a client’s needs is admirable.

Rosemarie took me downstairs to a renovated space, part of which she plans to rent to a beauty therapist (for waxing and nails) and a larger area which will become part art gallery (hence the name) and lounge for clients waiting for haircolour to develop.  This is her innovative edge – I’ve never yet seen this combination of salon and culture combined in an elegant and funky space; quite unique to this area I think.  With her business colleague, Brooke, Rosemarie hosted a champagne open house on the 28th of October, offering free hair consultations as well as the opportunity to view the work of the artist Robin Sinclair.  The attendance was over 200 and was a great success.  Brilliant.

I asked Rosemarie whether there had been any impediments to starting up her business and if she’d received any help in doing so.  As a matter of pride, she said, she hadn’t sought or had any help in setting up her business and wasn’t aware of what assistance might be available.  Hairdressing, she said, was pretty recession-proof; though people might not go for a Nicky Clarke appointment, they still needed to have their hair cut and what she was offering was a stylish experience at an affordable price. 

The impediments she faced in pulling her concept together were contractors and utilities, some of whom had failed to provide her with services they’d promised on time. She opened the ground floor salon in July, prior to the entire shop being completed in the hopes that it would begin to generate interest, excitement and income whilst she worked on the lounge/gallery/beauty room.  In all my walks passed, I've never seen the shop without a client.

5  Zita Elze

Brazilian-born Zita Elze is a Chelsea Flower Show award-winning floral designer who has expanded her Kew-based floristry business to include wedding services, floral decor for venues & events, prop hire and an international flower school.  She is considered to be a breath of fresh air in the traditional British floristry industry, coming from a background in interior design and artistic book-binding.  She had little actual floristry training, but considers this to have been an advantage as her approach is unique.  Zita emphasises her objective of incorporating artistry and beauty in all her work.

One of Zita’s most innovative ideas has been to create a range of wedding gowns and accessories made entirely from fresh flowers, leaves and grasses.  The bodice of the wedding gowns appears like a 'living embroidery', composed of tiny rosebuds, seed heads and other delicate plant material, while the skirt of the dress is made from dried skeleton leaves or grasses.  The gowns (called Zita Elze Living Embroidery Bridal Collection) were originally designed for shows and exhibits, but their success has prompted the first order by a real bride and a dress will be made bespoke a few days before the wedding next summer.  The same technique is used on parasols and tall glass vases.  This and other techniques - with strong emphasis on inspiration and creativity - are used in her Design Academy which offers a range of classes from an intensive four week course for professionals to single day or evening classes for amateurs.  A range of informal Christmas classes will run through December for local enthusiasts wishing to try their hand at festive floral decorations.

It was noticeable that during the recession, as more and more 'for let' signs have gone up on Sandycombe Road where Zita Elze is located, she has three shop fronts, including a prop hire shop for events and the Design School as well as her stunning flower shop.   Zita Elze's shops sit close to the heart of Kew; stylish, botanical and understated, just as the village of which she's now become an integral part.

This small shop, located along the same parade of shops as Zita Elze, specialises in quilting fabrics, patterns and kits, tapestry and embroidery.  What caught my attention is that, though this is a traditional haberdashery, it also offers classes in quilting and patchwork, for both beginners and more advanced students. I see this as a wonderful combination of a throwback to a traditional British craft with an innovative teaching service.

7  Kew Village Community Market

The Kew Village Market happens the first Sunday of every month for four hours in the centre of the village where the parade is closed to traffic.  It is a local market that is “run by the community for the benefit of the community.”    It is composed of a mixture of between 30 and 35 food and craft stalls and a couple of charity ones.  Run by a group of local volunteers, the stalls are charged per market day and also a license fee to the council.  The market has both a Facebook and Twitter presence which is contemporary and completely in keeping with the traditional feel of Kew itself. 

During 2011, the market donated of £5,500 from profits to a variety of local charities.  It also allows local musicians to provide entertainment, usually young secondary-school aged performing artists.

Categories of goods on sale at the Kew Village Community Market include specialty food (baking, chocolates, nuts, cheeses, savouries, butchers, beer, sweets and sorbet), skin care, jewellery, ceramics, art & cards, photography, toys & gifts and home accessories.

Some traders have shops located elsewhere, using the Kew Market as an additional sales venue and marketing opportunity.  Others are just starting out, giving their products and brands a test drive.  Still others are traders whose businesses aren't large enough or profitable enough yet to warrant a shop premise.  And some are niche entrepreneurs who want to stay that way.  But what unites the entrepreneurs of the Kew Village Market is that they all sell goods that are of very high quality.  Sometimes bespoke, often handmade, these are the types of  products which make great gifts: they're contemporary and elegant and show that the people who make them care deeply about the goods they make and serving the people who buy them.  

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The health of UK retail has been worsening over the course over the past two years, as demonstrated by the KPMG/Ipsos Retail Think Tank's Retail Health Index (RHI):

The calculation of the RHI involves, firstly, a quantitative assessment of the impact on retail health of demand, margins and costs every quarter for that just completed and a forecast for the one ahead.   A score is arrived at using both objective and subjective judgements based upon hard datasets and softer qualitative material.     These scores are submitted by RTT members[12], collated and aggregated for the Retail Think Tank's quarterly meeting.  The framework follows the example of the Bank of England Agents' scoring system on economic intelligence provided to the Monetary Policy Committee.  The aggregate scores are combined to form the RHI which is reviewed at the quarterly meeting and are occasionally revised after debate if members feel it is appropriate.  The index base of 100 was set on 1 April 2006.  The definitions of factors used to assess the index are the following:

  • Demand: From a retro-perspective, retail sales, volumes and prices are the primary indicators.  For future prospects, economic factors such as interest rates, employment levels and house prices as well as consumer confidence, footfall and preferences are used.
  • Margin (gross): Sales less cost of sales; the buying margin less markdowns and shrinkage.  Cost of sales include product purchase costs, associated costs of indirect taxes, duty and discounts.
  • Costs: All other costs associated with the retail operations, including freight and logistics, marketing, property and people.[13]

In my talks with all these entrepreneurs I was reminded of one of the main findings of Scott Shane in his book The Illusions of Entrepreneurship of 2008: in his research, Shane found that most entrepreneurs begin their own businesses in low-tech sectors such as retail; they haven't plans to grow and their businesses generate less than $100,000 per year in revenue.  Furthermore, he found that entrepreneurs tend to start businesses in sectors in which they’ve worked before and understand, and that these tend to be in highly competitive industries.  In the US, Shane found that entrepreneurs typically do not come up with an innovative idea or possess an extraordinary dream; they don’t desire to make a lot of many, become famous or better their communities or improve the world.  Rather, they simply don’t want to work for someone else.  They also start-up with their own savings or have personal borrowings, tending not to use venture capital.

I have to say that the start-up business owners that I spoke with in Kew and Richmond, do not appear to resonate so much with this US trend, in that they certainly have tried to offer an innovative mix of products and services.  I also think that Shane’s findings with regard to entrepreneurial productivity might be a bit dated as many of the businesses I spoke to have an online presence for sales or a Facebook and/or twitter presence for marketing and communication.

In the UK, independent retailers account for 67% of all high street spaces.  Matthew Hopkinson of LDC said, "it is these businesses that sit at the heart of the economic, social and community issues that the country faces."[14]  Even in the leafy Richmond borough, it's difficult to start up a business which will endure difficult trading conditions.  I applaud the innovative entrepreneurs of my neighbourhood whose vision, drive and commitment are helping to keep alive the health and prosperity of our community.

[1] Emma Simpson, "High Street taskforce aims to rejuvenate retail," BBC News, 29 October 2012.
[2] Tiffany Holland, “Taskforce launched to tackle struggling town centres,” Retail Week, 3 July 2012.
[3] Emma Simpson, "High Street taskforce," 29 October 2012.
[4] Emma Simpson, “The Battle to revitalise shopping centres,” BBC News, 3 July 2012.
[5] Tiffany Holland, "Taskforce launched," 3 July 2012.
[6] Charlie Cooper, "Goodbye toys and cards.  Hello loans and bookies," The Independent, 18 October 2012.
[7] "Empty shop rate rises across Britain as spending drops," BBC News, 4 September 2012.
[8] Will Dean, “The pop-up paradigm: They may not last for long but temporary shops are here to stay,” The Independent, 26 January 2012.
[9] Ian Golding, “I’m not paying to park! Why the British high street might be struggling,” Independent Retail, Oct 18, 2012.
[10] ibid.
[11] Will Dean, "The pop-up paradigm,"26 January 2012.
[12] Nick Bubb, Independent Retail Analyst, Dr. Tim Denison, Ipsos Retail Performance, Helen Dickinson of KPMG, Neil Saunders of Conlumino, Richard Lowe of Barclays Retail & Wholesale Sectors, Vicky Redwood or Capital Economics and Mark Teale of CB Richard Ellis.
[13] Retail Think Tank, "Health of UK retail will worsen to record levels."
[14] Local Data Company press release, "Independent's Day H1 2012 - Growth in Independent sector slows significantly in first half of 2012 across town centres across Great Britain," 9 October 2012.