SHOPPING centres didn’t exist when I left school so it’s very difficult to have life and career plans and see them all the way through,” admits Colin Roberts, the new manager of Bury St Edmunds’ the arc.
With a lifelong career in retail though, the 58-year-old seems tailor-made for his latest role.
The foundations of his working life were laid in a near bygone age of one-to-one customer service and a steady rise through the ranks of shop management.
He left the helm of a shopping centre in Ipswich to take on a position he longed for in his home town of 22 years.
With the sapling rays of the spring sun filtering into his new office, Colin beams: “I feel like I’ve come home. I’m passionate about what I do and this town. I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else. This is where I wanted to be.”
Born in Walsall, in the West Midlands, Colin left school to take up a job in a factory but soon realised it wasn’t for him.
After his mum spoke to the manager of the local branch of Fosters menswear, he landed a job as a junior sales assistant or, as he puts it, ‘the sweeper upper’.
Aged just 21, he went to run one of their shops in Okehampton, in Devon – becoming one of the youngest ever managers for the company.
Colin remembers: “It was a life-changing experience. It was where I grew up and probably shaped me into the person I am today.
“It was a fairly small shop with two members of staff, one of whom was in his 40s and an ex-sergeant major.
“He was so used to taking orders from any age that it didn’t bother him. It probably bothered me more than him. The point was that age doesn’t matter, it’s the people that make things work.”
After about a year, he went on to take management positions at Fosters stores across the country, including in Reading, Tunbridge Wells, Eastbourne and Gravesend.
The proudest achievement of his working life came when he was made an area manager for the company.
Covering the Sussex and South London area, he had 24 shops under his control, advising on the best way to get turnover, ensuring shelves were properly stocked and paper work was completed as well as motivating managers and staff.
When asked how retailing has changed over the years, he answers: “It was very much a one-to-one customer service. The art in those days was to be able to sell. If someone came in and wanted a shirt, it was upt o you to sell them a tie, a pair of cufflinks and trousers.
“That then diluted over the years. You got the Woolworths type of approach where it became self-selection, which is pretty much retail as we know it now.”
When the country was choked by recession in the late 1980s/early 90s, he was relocated to East Anglia to take on a larger area.
However, within 18 months the business was struggling and Colin was among those made redundant.
He says: “I had been with the company for 21 years so I was devastated. I was out of work for seven months and it was quite a strange experience. The whole country was in an absolute grip of recession and I applied for literally 100 jobs.”
Eventually, he landed a job as area support manager – ‘very much a troubleshooting role’ – with Spoils Kitchen Reject Shops, based in Saxmundham.
He then became manager of Palmers department store, in Newmarket, which was a hub of ‘traditional retailing with a slightly older more wealthy customer base’.
They were ‘a wonderful company to work for’, but the job had its challenges.
He says: “Retail is all about highs and lows. It was 1996 and we had an appalling Christmas. It really affected me quite badly and I couldn’t understand what was going on.
“When we went into the January sales it was incredible. We pulled back just about every single figure we had lost over Christmas.
“It was at that time I thought I needed to do something else and an opportunity came up as a bit of a whim.”
That opportunity was operations manager at the Buttermarket shopping centre, in Ipswich.
“One of the reasons I went for it was because the building in Newmarket was very old and it was about trying to keep it together as much as keeping the business going.”
Later, he landed the position of centre manager.
Colin says: “The role is very much about the fabric of the building. It’s providing a service to retailers to drive as much footfall as you possibly can to that building and to keep it as a really safe, pleasant environment for people.”
If the arc position hadn’t come up, he would still be in Ipswich.
He explains: “It was just the right thing to do. Bury is a town I fell in love with 22 years ago and I wanted that opportunity to take part in something that is very special.”
He plans to integrate the facility more with the town centre.
“I’m not going to do anything radical. I’m going to take time to talk to people about what it is they love about it and what they want from it and take it from there.
“I accept that one or two people still don’t like the arc. I think the development is key and crucial to the future of Bury for the younger people.
“The arc was very much built for the future of the town. We need things like this to keep the younger generation here.”
He is already very close to filling two of the centre’s empty units.
But how can retail survive in an age of austerity and online shopping?
He thinks the future lies in combining retail and leisure.
“Retailing needs to be fun. Napoleon once said we’re a nation of shopkeepers. It’s a leisure activity and needs to be a real experience.
“You need to have something that will keep people happy like the water walkers and simulator ride in Charter Square.
“We’ve an ideal venue to do lots of things like that. I want to work with some car dealers to do displays, so if you’ve got someone who isn’t a great shopper, it’s something for them to do and look at. It’s theatre.”