A talent for IT has taken David Duffy to destinations across Europe and beyond.
But now the director at Huddersfield-based online retailer Stores Direct is happy enough with the daily commute from his home town of Wigan to the company’s headquarters at Bradley.
Says David: “I used to be a technical engineer for a US-based software company designing and installing digital systems for newspaper offices. I worked all over the world from Croatia to Nairobi and Helsinki.
“I don’t fly anything like as much now – and it doesn’t bother me. It got to the stage where it was almost like getting on the bus, it was so much part of my routine.
“I spent a lot of time in Helsinki, which is my favourite European city. I would get home on a Friday night, arrive at my local for a pint and everyone would be asking me where I was off to next. It sounds great, but after a while, everyone stopped asking!
“Travelling on business can be very lonely. I also got married to my wife Lisa, which was another reason for ‘jumping ship’.”
Says David: “When I left college, I was going to go into graphic design. I worked for an advertising agency in Manchester for a short time. They got in a lot of Apple Macs and the programme was one I had used at college. I had a better understanding of it than the person who was training us to use them! That made me wonder whether to be a designer or concentrate on the IT side.”
David joined newspaper group Newsquest as part of a team overseeing its IT systems before being promoted to executive in charge of IT for the group’s Lancashire division.
At the age of 24, he was headhunted by Digital Technology International, a worldwide business specialising in digital publishing. Says David: “They said they’d seen what I could do and how would I like a job working for the company and travelling the world?”
David spent 10 years with DTI, saying: “They were great times. But in my final year with the company I totted it up and discovered I’d made almost 200 flights in a year. I had three months solid working in Zagreb and that took its toll. I came home one Friday night to find airline tickets for a flight to Sweden on Monday morning. That’s when I came to the end of the line!”
David had known Stores Direct founder Mike Birtwhistle for many years. Mike had been a steward with British Airways before founding the firm in 2001 to sell wood-burning stoves – initially from the back of a Vauxhall Corsa.
“Mike and I go back a few years,” says David. “We have the same friends and we socialised a lot. He knew I had a bit of an understanding about Google and so on and asked if I wanted to come and work for his company.”
Stores Direct, based at Pennine Business Park, had two websites at the time. Now it has 24 selling products ranging from stoves, fireplaces, flue systems and associated heating products to bathrooms, furniture and soft furnishings.
The company’s rapid expansion earned it a spot in the annual Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 – ranking the UK’s fastest-growing private companies.
Stores Direct, which also has showrooms at Elland and in Chorley, Lancashire and Darlington, County Durham, won the category for SME of the Year in the 2010 Examiner Business Awards.
It also has impressive “green” credentials. Many of its customers are turning to wood-burning stoves as a more environmentally-friendly alternative to gas or oil – a trend which is increasing in the face of soaring heating costs.
David has played a key part in the company’s success.
He says: “Part of what I did on joining the company was to simplify the workflow. I have a dislike of complicated businesses. Most businesses are generally way too complicated. By making fundamental changes to simplify processes, you will make savings.
“For the first time in my career I was given full rein to do what I wanted to do. For the volumes of products we move, there are very few of us. We reduce paper and we keep our costs down. We have one printer and one fax machine for the entire office. We used to have seven people dealing solely with orders coming in online. We now have one person doing that full-time and two people trained to cover when necessary. Many of our systems are automated.”
Stock control is another area for savings. “We try to hold as little as possible,” says David. “We have a warehouse at Halifax held by a distributor who ships nationwide. At peak times, we are shifting thousands and thousands of stoves.”
Says David: “We got into the online shopping scene early and pushed it hard. But it has not been easy – there’s been a lot of hard work involved. A lot of people think it is easy. They set up an online shopping business – and they go by the by.
“There is a lot you have to do to make an online business credible and get any kind of customer to part with their hard-earned cash. It’s about having a website that looks professional, it is about functionality and it’s about building up trust so that customers know their money is going where it should be going.
“Small things matter – such as having a local phone number on the website. I have a personal aversion to 0800 numbers because I don’t know where they are based. If I get a phone call from an 0800 number, I’m not going to answer it!”
There’s no doubting where Stores Direct is to be found – nor where it is heading. Says David: “We have expanded our showroom in Elland and last year we opened the showroom in Lancashire. We also took over a company in Darlington and have built up that business under the StovesAreUs brand to give us more coverage and give people the choice of viewing products in person as well as online. Having showrooms gives people the opportunity to touch and feel the products, see the quality.”
Says David: “It also means we know what it takes to run a bricks-and-mortar outlet efficiently as well as how to sell successfully online. We sell to customers in person in the ‘triangle’ of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North East, but we also sell online to London, Scotland and the South of England.”
David still clocks up the miles, but this time its visiting the warehouse and showrooms on a regular basis. “During the peak eselling season it’s all hands to the pump,” he says. “There’s no job in this company that I haven’t done myself. I spent two months when I joined the company in the warehouse learning how to strap and pack stoves, so I know what’s involved in other aspects of the business.”
Away from work, David is busy trying to rediscover his form on the golf courses at Bradley and Fixby. “I used to play as a youngster and I was junior captain at a local club for a couple of years,” he says. “I’m also a former Thai boxer. I started when I was 16 and I was an instructor for a while as well. I’m a black belt, but my last fight was back in 1996, although I was still training up to the age of 29. Now I keep in shape by doing a bit of boxing at the gym.”