Chris Dawson can’t read or write. However, that doesn’t stop the billionaire founder of The Range from communicating with his army of employees – he simply subjects them to phone calls at dawn.
“If I’ve got a good idea, even if it’s at three o’clock in the morning I just can’t contain it, I have got to tell someone,” Dawson says.
The 64-year-old, who has turned The Range into a booming chain of retail park shops selling everything from lawn-mowers and hammocks to artists’ sketch-pads, believes in squeezing the most out of his day.
So being granted an audience with Dawson requires a thorough vetting process, including a request for examples of previous articles and a firm recommendation to watch all of his TV appearances to date. However, he ensures it’s worth your while.
He is a tantalisingly rare breed of bombastic British entrepreneur who is wildly unashamed about his greed and what it has taken to make his fortune. But despite his outlandish personality attracting tabloid headlines, The Range’s phenomenal growth to 149 shops and counting means he is increasingly considered a serious player in the retail and property world.
He arranges our meeting to coincide with the opening of his latest shop, in Slough.
That morning, Dawson was the first person in the shop, spotted pacing the aisles flanked by two shop managers, who obediently nodded as he pointed out what he wanted changed – everything from lighting rigs to the position of garden gnomes.
Recently The Range was nicknamed “the working man’s John Lewis”, which made Dawson beam with pride. When he finally makes his way through to the front of the store he is visibly sweating with a mixture of exertion and excitement.
“I’ve been up since four-thirty this morning, I couldn’t sleep I was so excited, and I’m like this with every opening,” he says.
Despite his previous demands, refreshingly Dawson turns up without an entourage or public relations adviser. It later becomes clear this is because he doesn’t want anyone to take away attention from his one-man show.
Dawson left school with no qualifications: “Dyslexic is a polite way of putting it, I just didn’t have a bloody clue.”
However, he fed his thirst for making money by selling teas to builders on construction sites at the age of 14, before progressing to selling watches from a briefcase on a market stall, then selling everything he could get his hands on from the back of a lorry. He then used the profits from his wheeler-dealing to open his first The Range superstore at Sugar Mill business park in Plymouth in 1989.
“I’ve never written a letter in my life or read a book. I don’t care about that. Some people don’t get here by luck – they get here because they’re the very best. Now I’m doing deals for mega-millions,” he trumpets.
Dawson wears his reputation as a modern-day Del Boy if not on the sleeve of his tailored shirt, which is embroidered with his initials, but on the number plate of his Rolls-Royce, “DE11 BOY”.
“Mange tout, mange tout,” he says smirking as he checks his cuff-links. “I taught Derek Trotter all his best lines,” he says.
It’s unclear whether or not he’s joking.
“To have a lot of money you’ve got to either win it, steal it or inherit it. That’s my phrase, by the way,” he says.
The latter also appears to be one of his catchphrases, as he claims lines from Jim Davidson, Derek Trotter and Felix Dennis during the course of the morning. “Other than that, you’re buggered and you have to go and work for it.”
Dawson remains unashamedly rough around the edges. His sales patter is innuendo-peppered, which he boasts helped him to win over his wife, Sarah, when he sold her a knock-off watch 35 years ago and then chased her for top-up payments.
“I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on,” he says to one startled shopper attempting to assemble some garden furniture.
“The male stripper is on in 15 minutes” he announces to another group of women who are loading up their baskets with wooden home decorations and sequin-covered cushions. Dawson knows his audience and if he could bottle his spiel he would no doubt be selling that, too.
During a quick tour around the vast former Homebase warehouse that The Range has taken over on the outskirts of the Berkshire town, Dawson repeatedly breaks off mid-sentence to comment on how many people there are in a queue, mentally adding up how much is in one shopper’s basket.
“As each person comes in, I think ‘Kerching, kerching, kerching!’”
He is all too aware that his brash style might rub some people the wrong way, but he thrives on this. He even admits that he recently said that he wanted to become a trillionaire “just to **** off the anti-capitalists”.
He does have a point, however. Britain, for all its successes, has a peculiar repulsion when it comes to talking about success and making money.
But Dawson doesn’t care and, as he reveals “what he told Simon Cowell in the Caribbean recently”, thereby scoring another name-drop, “if you’re an actor you get an Oscar, if you’re a sportsman you get a medal, a scientist you get a Nobel prize, or whatever. In business, all we get is a set of numbers and our job is to beat them.”
The Range reported £565m of revenues and pre-profits of £57.3m for the year to the end of January 2015, boosted by the fact the company owns its own design company, Lucky Fox, and store fitters, which Dawson estimates shaves 10 days from a shop’s opening time.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Range stores were”, he says at least three times.
He also has a lucrative sideline in commercial and residential property. One of the perks is a vast villa in Cannes, which he says he rents out to various celebrities.
“I can barely fit in two weeks there myself but I can’t stop making a profit, I just can’t control myself,” he booms.
Dawson is a total whirlwind of energy – and while others are left exhausted by a few hours with him, he uses his helicopter to allow him to visit up to 10 of his stores a day.
“I’m like Anneka bloody Rice,” he says, likening himself to the 1990s TV presenter. Dawson says that he plans to add another 30 stores by the end of the year and will be on course to increase the £700m of sales he claims he made in 2015 to £1bn this year.
But isn’t he concerned that The Range’s growth, which appeals to bargain hunters, will suffer from the continuing expansion of German discount giants Aldi and Lidl?
He seems untroubled by this, however, suggesting that “English overheads” will soon start to creep in, as they come under pressure to add more to their sites. Later, he reveals that he is secretly planning on “taking the fight to Germany” and has been studying expansion on to the discounters’ home turf for the past 18 months.
When asked whether he wouldn’t rather retire than focus on an international roll-out, he replies emphatically: “I just want to go as fast as I can for as long as I can, making as much money as I can.”
The week after our meeting, he calls unexpectedly to tell of a £110m property deal he has just agreed in Bristol and is concerned about how he came across.
“I had them all doing the hokey-cokey by the finish. But this deal, that’s not Del Boy, is it? That’s serious business, they’ll read that and be sure I’m the real deal.” He sure is.