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EXCLUSIVE: Robbo bows out

June 9, 2011: Richard ‘Robbo’ Robertson has formally announced his forthcoming retirement as managing director of Ted’s Cameras and the PMA Australia chairman’s role.

Robbo will stand down from the PMA at the next conference in Sydney at the end of the month and from Ted’s by the end of September.

‘After 40 years I find the challenge isn’t the same as after 20 and 30 years he told Photo Counter in an exclusive interview to inform the photo retailing community of his decision.

‘Besides,’ he added in typical Robbo style, ‘You start to sound like a broken record – “same bullshit, different day”. They don’t need to hear it from me any more.’

He leaves the industry with no regrets, and a relish for the future.

‘I think I deserve a break,’ he said. ‘I’ve put in my fair share and now I want to enjoy the fruits of my labour.

‘The first period – from 6 to maybe 18 months – will be rest, golf, travel children and grandchildren, Mum and Dad.

‘Then maybe I’ll get inspired to go and do something different!’

He said he was looking forward to 10 to 30 years of active retirement. The one thing dampening his enthusiasm for the next stage of his life is that ‘some of the friends I expected to retire with are no longer here.’

Among those good friends whose untimely passing have perhaps encouraged Robbo to reconsider his priorities are mentor and former Spotless managing director Ron Evans (who along with current owner Brian Blythe then co-owned Ted’s Cameras), and much-loved industry stalwart, John Noyes .

Ron Evans died on the Friday he was due to retire as managing director of Spotless, while Robbo recalls one of his final conversations with John Noyes, who passed away in 2009: ‘He said, ‘Play as much golf and enjoy life as much as you can, because you don’t have it forever” – and then he passed away a week later, and that haunts me still.’

Looking back on his career he said, ‘I have no regrets. I have nothing left undone. I never dreamt it would be like this.’

He recalled his teacher pronouncing judgement on the young Richard Robertson following his failure in his Fifth Form exams:

‘Robertson, you’ll never make anything of your life – just go and get a job and be happy.’

– This must have been a great spur to a man with a renowned enthusiasm for a challenge – which in Robbo’s case has for the most part resulted in a win!

He said that Ted’s was in good hands with Nic Peasley as general manager, and that this had been the core of the succession plan devised with Brian Blythe six years ago. Robbo urged all business owners to develop a succession plan.

He added that there has been no discussion as yet as to whether there will be a new managing director appointed.

Looking to the future of the industry, Robbo said there were a range of challenges confronting photo retailing, foremost among them being the rising cost of doing business and the rising take from the internet.

Of the two he said that increasing sales lost to the offshore internet channel was ‘a terrible threat’.

‘If there was some more parity in pricing it wouldn’t be so bad,’ he said.

‘It can’t be long before retailers go direct offshore for their stock so that they can compete with offshore retailers.’ he said.

‘I’m at a loss as to why larger players don’t do it already.’

Relentlessly increasing costs were also hitting smaller players hard.

‘Something will have to give with landlords, with rents up 5 percent per year on shrinking volumes, declining prices and declining margins,’ he said.

Specialist retailers are getting screwed from every angle: landlords, internet traders, businesses who treat photography as just a traffic builder, and the ACCC.

He was concerned that the new Australian Consumer Laws were creating added uncertainty.

‘If retailers have to refund money, how does retailer get money back?’ he asked – a question troubling all retailers at present, with precious little in the way of answers coming from suppliers/manufacturers.

He added that the growth of the mass market channel was totally unhealthy, and it could be terminal for specialists.

‘If we keep heading down this road the only place to buy will be at mass merchants.’

As always, Robbo was fulsome in his praise of both the leaders he had worked under, and the people who he himself led. His address at Ted’s 40th anniversary celebrations last year gives a flavour of this:

‘I am fanatical about getting a result. I love retailing, I hate losing, I hate being on the losing team…and I’ll say this to you all: If it hadn’t been for Ron Evans and Brian Blythe, you would not be here tonight.

‘Ted [Todd – who started Ted’s Cameras] gave us the spirit, Ron and Brian gave us the controls. Ron taught me that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. They taught us how to measure. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, the amount of measuring that we do, but we are all here, 40 years on.’

‘There will never be another company like ours.

‘We are the strongest single retailing unit in our industry, in the world,’ he said.

He noted that with only 22 stores, Ted’s controlled around 15 percent of the Australian DSLR business and 6 – 7 percent of compact cameras, and that was due to strong marketing, great buying, great advertising, great team leadership, a close eye on the numbers and, ‘above all 260 fantastic retail staff.’

– And while taking no credit for that achievement, it’s pretty certain that it wouldn’t have happened without the instinctive, inspirational leadership of Mr Richard Robertson.

He concluded yesterday’s interview by thanking ‘those very good friends and acquaintances who have persevered with a grumpy old man for the last 40 years.’

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