Rediscovering Jersey's entrepreneurial spirit.

Francis Gerald Voisin

Owner, Voisins Department Store

Could you tell us a little about your early years and your childhood growing up in Jersey?

I was one of 4 children, the only boy with 3 sisters. I was educated in Jersey, then in Devon before returning to Jersey. I have happy memories of my childhood, nothing out of the ordinary.

Voisin and Company was founded on 5th April 1837 as a haberdashery shop on 26 King Street and is the oldest family-run department store in Britain. At what age were you introduced to the family business and was this always to be your destiny?

My earliest memory of the store was my father coming home with Gaudins bakery pies and cakes at lunch time. In those days the store would close for lunch and he would come home every day. Sometimes we would eat as a family at Gaudins Restaurant. I clearly remember all the children joining our parents to wish the staff a Merry Christmas; my eldest sister would always talk too much, which would stress my father because it made him late.

At the age of 29/30, you bought the business from your father, Gerald Francis Voisin and embarked on a journey helping to grow the business with Voisins 5 values: passion, fashion, expertise, exceptional customer service and consistency. How were your first years in the retail business and what was it that made you take a career change at 36?

I joined the business after leaving school, then went to work in Harrods and when I returned to the business I was full of bright ideas of what we should be doing but my father wasn’t so keen. It was a classic case of an older man wanting to slow down to retirement and a young kid comes along wanting to shake everything up and I probably wasn’t very understanding of his situation. So we didn’t see eye to eye on the direction to take the business and eventually he agreed to sell the business to me and charge me rent for the property.

He made it easy for me to take over the company and he was tremendously supportive, we actually had a much better relationship after that because we both knew that I carried the can for my decisions.

My first years were difficult, so much change was needed because retail in Jersey had undergone 20 years of dramatic change when many old local retailers had been replaced with UK owned businesses. We needed to reconnect the business with the people of Jersey, Voisins had become too reliant on tourists from both the UK and France and in the 1990’s the Island’s tourism industry was starting to change so we had to change too.

I needed to get the management team to buy into changing and modernising the business, it was like being on a crash course for change management and part of that was defining a clear vision for the future and developing a culture of how we would operate. Our company culture is still an important part of what we are and how we do things, it was much later that we introduced our 5 values to help our teams focus on how we go about our jobs, with particular emphasis on customer service.

Our company culture is an important part of what we are and how we do things.

You were elected to the States of Jersey as Deputy of St Lawrence in 1999. You served on the finance and economics committee and the policy resources committee. Could you explain what this new career direction meant to you?

I wanted to contribute to the Island and thought that the business would more or less run itself. I was pleased with the management team that we had put together and they did a good job in running the show.

Being a member of the States Assembly was a very interesting time and it opened my eyes to the issues that have to be addressed across a broad community.

Being part of a government in an island community is not the same as running a business, the criteria for good and bad decisions is quite different. It had been suggested to me that being a States member would take just a couple of days per week but it took a lot of my time, I had hoped to remain involved in the business and play a part in the States, but ultimately this wasn’t going to be possible, something had to give.

You were elected in 2002 as the first president of the economic development committee and it was in this role that you led the Islands first economic growth plan. Tell us more about this stage in your career and what you felt was your greatest achievement?

The achievement that I’m most proud about, which was achieved with a good team of civil servants, was to merge I think 5 former committees and departments into one industries committee. In doing this, we saved a significant amount of money.

I’m probably one of a very few Committee Presidents that had a considerably smaller budget at the end of their term than at the beginning. There were difficult conversations to be held with some industry sectors about the amount of States’ support that would be available in the future.

I’m also pleased to have been among the first politicians to support the establishment of Jersey Finance, which is now a prominent institution promoting the Island’s finance industry. I remember the first economic growth plan well, we didn’t have much budget to spend, which, it turned out was a good thing, because what the island’s economy needed at that time was to be left to get on with recovering from the dot com recession that had hit us in 2001. There are actually some interesting parallels with today.  

My vision for the business is to offer the people of Jersey contemporary, fashionable products with great customer care - we need to keep relevant and we need to keep moving forward.

You returned to the retail industry in 2003 and took the business forward with a £1.5million investment in 2009 and a major refurbishment in 2017. What is your vision for the future of Voisins?

My vision for the business is to offer the people of Jersey contemporary, fashionable product offered with great customer service, where we give good advice in a friendly, helpful manner. We need to keep relevant and we need to keep moving forward, which is why we aim to update a different part of the store each year. This year will be Beauty’s turn. Major refurbishments are part of keeping relevant and part of what we do. 

You were involved in the 2016 Jersey Business Enterprise Week at Digital Jersey, discussing how firms can adapt to technological changes. Could you explain how Voisins has adapted to digital trends since you took control in 1993?

As with any business that has evolved over the last 28 years, the use of technology is now extremely important. Not long after I joined, we purchased our first computer and put it in a special room. Today, every till is a computer linked to our systems held on the cloud and every office based role works from a computer workstation.

Our sales floor teams communicate through tablets and our sales floor managers talk to each other through phone-based devices that allow them to organise deployment of staff, give and receive advice for each other or call for help with security threats.

The store is fully covered by wifi and due to Covid most of our buying appointments are via newly installed video conferencing facilities.

Last year we introduced our Voisins Rewards phone App which is proving extremely popular. Successful retailers today need to build relationships with their customers by knowing what they like, what they buy and offering them product that they might like.

We need to start the debate about how to get our economy going again and how to improve productivity within the constraints of the Island.

You were elected to the board of Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust for your entrepreneurial expertise, you were Chairman of the board of governors at Highland College and you've held various non-exec directorships. Could you tell us why you decided to become a member of the IoD Industry Sub-Committee as well?

I’ve been involved with Durrell for just over a year and I hope that I’ve been able to contribute in a small way but I have also learnt a lot about what the trust does, which is becoming more relevant as every one of us is more conscience about how we can protect the environment.  

I’m pleased to be part of the Industries sub committee because the Island needs to urgently refocus on developing our economy in a sustainable way, it has shrunk in real terms over the last 20 years and is now smaller than it was in both 2000 and 2007. The result of this is that earnings have also fallen in real terms and the average earnings are below where they were 10 years ago. Taxes have also gone up for many people over this time, so if Islanders are feeling poorer, it’s because they are.

We need to start the debate about how to get our economy going again and how to improve productivity within the constraints of the Island.  

In April 2020, the Chief Minster established a new Economic Political Oversight Group comprising of Ministers, senior officials and yourself and other external business representatives. Could you tell us what you hope to achieve from the resulting Economic Council paper?

What I would like to achieve is a new emphasis on re-discovering Jersey’s entrepreneurial spirit. Unfortunately, it has been strangled by too much legislation and too much regulation.

We need to encourage people to establish businesses and employ people to help the business grow.

A vibrant economy needs new, small businesses to keep larger businesses on their toes, to challenge and if successful to grow into the large businesses of tomorrow.

Government won’t see the next big industry sector, private enterprise will.

Look at ship building, tourism, and the finance industry. To encourage entrepreneurs, we need to redress the risk ratio, in other words, reduce the risk of businesses falling fowl of the many pieces of legislation that regulate businesses. This isn’t an easy task, but we’ve got to look for solutions and start the conversation.

You were nominated for Inspirational Leader of the Year for ‘inspiring and motivating employees throughout the coronavirus pandemic’ in the Pride of Jersey Awards. How has Voisins survived the Covid storm and retained jobs?

The first lockdown was difficult, there was so much uncertainty around how long it would last, whether there would be financial support, whether stock would continue to arrive and how we would pay for it with no sales coming in.

We tried hard to make sure that everyone kept in touch, to offer support, but several members of staff still became very anxious so re-opening again in May was a great relief. We went through a difficult cost cutting exercise at the beginning of the summer and held onto those savings through to the end of the year, which has helped our financial position.

For the second lockdown, we needed more people to come in, which helped keep spirits high. By the time we were able to re-open in February, I think most of the team felt positive and there was a great atmosphere in the store. We survived much better than I feared, our people have pulled together brilliantly, they are supportive of each other and share the bond of having gone through this testing experience together.