John Hirst, Operations Director, Destination Bristol

We welcome John Hirst of Destination Bristol, to our regular series of interviews with leading figures in the South West business community. 

Hello John! Tell us about Destination Bristol and your role as Operations Director

Destination Bristol is a marketing organisation that promotes and markets our city. My primary role in the Destination Bristol team is to develop the main shopping area in the city centre: working with partners in ‘Bristol Shopping Quarter’, which covers Broadmead, The Galleries, Quakers Friars and Cabot Circus. 

I ensure that all the retail operations run smoothly and that the area remains appealing for customers and investors. I also act as an intermediary between other partners in the city centre to address issues and challenges with the main aim of improving the quality of our overall offer and providing shoppers and visitors with a first class experience in Bristol.

How has the economic recession impacted your business? 

The economy is a massive issue for everyone. There is definitely an expectation for us to achieve improved results with fewer resources, but I enjoy the challenge of slimming down and improving efficiencies. Having said that, there are opportunities out there and we have to make sure we are ready to maximise opportunities.

To attract investment, we need to concentrate on providing the best possible shopping experience for customers. There are many other very good shopping options in this region and we need customers to choose Bristol first!

In early 2012 over 20 shops closed: we always expect some to close after Christmas, but this year we saw too many fold. National closures were significant: Peacocks, Bon Marche, Game and others all went under. I have been in retail for 35 years and can say this is the toughest environment that I have seen. Investment is available, but we need to prove we can provide a good return for people to invest in Bristol. The second half of 2012 has been encouraging, with many new stores opening in central Bristol.

What challenges are you facing over the next 12 months?

The biggest upcoming challenge is the vote on the Business Improvement District next year. BIDs are a way for local businesses to work together and provide funding to tackle common issues such as marketing, cleansing and maintenance. Our BID has been in operation since 2005 and has had a great positive impact. We hope our retailers continue to support the BID and vote YES once again in 2013.

Do you think that the government should intervene more?

I have never seen as much interest from the government in the retail industry as I have in 2012. The completion of the Portas review was especially significant. I do hear a lot of complaints from retailers about business rates: I am happy to see serious discussion with government underway to hopefully find a solution acceptable to all involved.

What is your view on the South West business scene?

I visit other cities on a regular basis and we discuss retail performance regularly, some locations have been badly impacted by the recession. Bristol has performed better than many. We were very fortunate to complete Cabot Circus in 2008 before the worst of the recession hit. If it had not been completed on time, it may have been mothballed which would have been a disaster for retail in Bristol.

Do you have any Non-Executive Directorships? If so, what have you learned from the experience?

Until recently, I was the advisory chair for ‘Common Purpose’, a development organisation that challenges people to improve themselves and the society in which they live. That made me review my whole approach and I have changed completely as a result.

I am currently a chair of Crimestoppers, which covers the Avon & Somerset police force area and a director of BRAVE, which supports small businesses. I am also a trustee of The Station and Spike Island.

I have had to scale back some of my Non-Executive roles as I had too many plates spinning at once! I recommend that people take on advisory roles, but do make sure that you can continue to do your main job to the best of your ability.

Do you have any advice that you’d pass on to a newly appointed company director?

Fully understand the goals of your business. Be realistic about what you can achieve, be neither a pessimist nor optimist. Set your own standards, which should be high, and measure your performance against them. Always lead from the front with enthusiasm and people will follow you. Also make sure you wake up early to get ahead of the game!

What do you like to do outside of work? 

I love sport in general and need to exercise every day. I cycle into work, which is a 15 mile round trip. I have completed 28 marathons and I aim to complete as many marathons as my age (I’m about half way!). I play golf occasionally and similarly hope to get my handicap under my age, but at my current rate I will need to be in my 80s for this to be likely! I also have a 10 year old son, and I am spending lots of time with him before he grows up and moves on.

Who is your hero/personal inspiration?

I was fortunate to meet my current professional inspiration at my last job interview, John Savage has been our chairman for 15 years and I still look to him as my mentor. Outside of the professional sphere I have great admiration for many football managers especially Bill Shankly and Brian Clough, larger than life and occasionally controversial characters with real passion and leadership skills.

What is on your I-Pod and what are you reading right now?

I must admit to not reading much, as by the time I am finished with work, sport and my family activities it is usually time for bed! As for music, I like most music from the 80’s, but I am usually listening to the radio to catch up with the news and sport. 

What is your experience working with Moon Consulting?

Moon Consulting are known for being the ‘top-end’ of recruitment. They are very well respected and people always speak highly of them. What makes Moon unique is their determination to break new ground and move businesses forward. You can see this in the events and workshops that they run. I know Vanessa very well from the work she does with Spike Island, she has been a friend for years.