John Roberts: A man for all seasons
There was a genuine intake of breath last week when it was announced that Steve Caunce was stepping down as CEO of online retail AO World and founder John Roberts was replacing him.
The two mates had become multi-millionaires when the business floated in 2014 and found themselves the subject of a tsunami of public interest.
Roberts tweeted soon after the announcement: “Delighted to be back as CEO of @ao. And huge thanks to Steve Caunce, who’ll continue to advise the business after a well-earned break.” #aoletsgo
The tweet summed up why now is the perfect moment for Roberts to resume the controls of the business he set up on the back of a £1 bet with a mate and why now is an opportune time for cricket-loving Caunce, who has just celebrated his 50th birthday, to step out of the limelight.
At the outset I should say that while I’ve interviewed Roberts on a number of occasions my only real dealings with Caunce have been as opponents on the cricket field, where he’s a reliable but not particularly flashy batsman.
His passion for grassroots cricket is genuine and it’s no surprise that the Lancashire club he’s involved with has a thriving junior division.
On the field he’s not particularly outspoken and in the statement last week we was credited for building the foundations of AO World since assuming the role of CEO two years ago.
Under his watch the listed company has strengthened its senior management team and overseen rapid expansion into Europe, which hasn’t been without its challenges.
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Roberts is the opposite of Caunce. The last time I interviewed him was 18 months ago at Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham’s digital summit and he was in a bullish mood.
Roberts’ first job was as a waiter at the Last Drop Hotel in Bolton and he’s a great speaker.
The company’s stated ambition is to be the No 1 white good website in Germany and Holland and has similarly ambitious plans for France, Switzerland, Poland, Belgium and the Czech Republic.
It’s a million miles away from the conversation he had with a mate in a pub in 1998/99 about the internet that sparked the AO story.
“He was saying it was a thing to search for information and I was saying ‘I reckon we can flog stuff on that’,” recalled Roberts. “He said I was talking rubbish and this conversation was going on forever.
“We used to have these honorary bets of £1 so he bet me £1 that I wouldn’t give up my job and get on with it and get it started.”
The rest, as they say, is history. When the company floated in 2014 the business was valued at £1.2bn. At the time the initial share price was 285p. It’s now at 114p.
Roberts, right, at Andy Burnham’s digital summit 18 months ago
Roberts has been frustrated at how some aspects of the media have reported AO’s story compared to the way the US media would cover the same story.
“From a press coverage perspective we talk about ‘it’s not making any money yet,” he said in 2017. “Whereas in the US they’ll celebrate the progress they’ve made. They have a lot more blind faith than we do.”
Roberts has no regrets about flotation and says he would do it all again.
“It gave us the money to go and expand our business into new categories, to new territories, to launch our business into Germany and the Netherlands,” he says. “We could not have done that if we’d not raised the capital.
“We don’t set the price of the business on the market. Very experienced investors do that. It was 11 times over-subscribed. Our original investors might think they got a raw deal on that because we probably could have got them more.
“Then the focus becomes ‘how much you made out of it?’ and not ‘what can it do and what it can help you build?’ Would we do it again? Yes but I would have probably got a slightly bigger flak jacket.”
Roberts has a reputation for his attention to details and reportedly made 2am trips to AO’s Croydon depot to see the ‘unsexy’ delivery side of the business. He’s also responded to complaints from customers personally.
For Roberts business is pretty simple. Customers want the best and most convenient service at the best price. If something goes wrong they expect to be looked after.
In a bid to boost brand awareness AO sponsored the 2017 series of Britain’s Got Talent and Roberts got a name check from Simon Cowell in the final on live TV – although Roberts himself missed the moment.
Now his name has been called again after Caunce’s decision to step back as CEO. Roberts says the biggest opportunity comes from raising AO World’s brand awareness and gaining more market share – which means now is the perfect time for him to become the CEO.