'God just got me': How this businessman's Christian conversion is helping spread a revolution across the retail industry
When Gary Grant, the chief executive of the toy retailer The Entertainer, got stuck into helping victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster with aid collections last month, one of the local councillors who was working alongside him sent him a text message a week later, asking to meet.
'I've looked you up,' the text said. 'I'm not religious but I'm at a crossroads in my life – can we meet for a coffee?'
The councillor had watched a short online video outlining Grant's journey, and been struck by his sensational conversion to Christianity at the age of 33.
Grant, now 58, was born in Wembley to poor parents who divorced when he was three. Growing up, 'money was everything', he has said. When he started his own business in 1981, he had 'no idea' about the toy industry. Yet within 10 years there were three shops and now, 36 years later, there are 138 across the UK, with several foreign franchises.
The turning point, however, came in 1991, when Grant's Christian wife Catherine persuaded him to attend a Christian men's breakfast. Grant, who had never before been to church, wept quietly at the back while the speaker described having a personal relationship with Jesus. 'God just got me,' said Grant later.
The experience was to spark a revolution not just inside Grant's heart, but across The Entertainer business, with working practices and how staff, suppliers and customers were treated. Shops were closed on Sundays so that staff who were believers or non-believers could spend time with their families, and bad language was even banned in the workplace.
More fundamentally, the concept of 'generosity' was introduced into the business. The concept of giving money away 'wasn't on my radar' growing up, said Grant. Yet today, 10 per cent of the company's profits go to charity, while employees can take part in a 'payroll giving' scheme in which anything they give to charity as part of their monthly pay packet is matched by the company: 45 per cent of staff take up the offer.
Further, there is the 'pennies' option in which customers paying on a bank card can round up the pennies to the nearest pound and give the difference to a charity, currently Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Grant's remarkable story – which is refreshing in an age of justified cynicism towards big business – is one of 50 outlined in a new book by Faith in Business' Richard Higginson and fashion entrepreneur Kina Robertshaw, A Voice to be Heard – The Stories, Faith and Challenges of Christian Entrepreneurs.
Published on September 21 by IVP, the book is based on extensive and up-to-date research with 50 top UK Christian entrepreneurs from a variety of business sectors. It explains the history, motivation and contribution that Christian entrepreneurs are making through their work of producing high quality goods and services, promoting Christian values, witnessing to people in business, and giving generously to worthy causes.
'Generosity,' Grant tells Christian Today, 'goes beyond money: I'm talking...time and talents.' Referring to Grenfell, he says: 'I had lorries, staff, trucks. Sometimes we can facilitate generosity – we need to lead by being generous and we need to facilitate generosity. There were 20 staff who volunteered loading lorries. All wanted to do something but didn't know how to – you're able to provide that opportunity.'
But there is a wider context here. 'I think that as a society whether it be UK or wider world we have been endeavouring to over-deliver,' Grant says. 'Businesses, corporations, bankers, everybody being pushed to the margins to over-deliver. The 2008 crash showed we have run out of steam.
'People who are not in business have looked at the business world – banking; in my case retail – and reputations as business people have been severely undermined by some of the practices that we have been doing.'
Grant, who says God gave him the motto RIG – reputation, integrity, generosity – is the ultimate example of enlightened self-interest in action.
'I'm in a unique position because I own my own business so you could say I make up my own rules as I go along. Many people are employed and having to work to utterly unrealistic goals. From a reputational and integrity standpoint, standing up and doing the right thing can be the best thing. Personal reputation has got to be a top priority for Christians in business today.
'And then integrity – the way we go about things: when you stop and say I am sorry because that is not achievable or realistic.'
Grant admits to being 'a demanding retailer – I demand a lot of my suppliers and staff'. But, he says, 'you have to balance that with being caring'.
On generosity, he says that 'as Christians, God has given us all we've got.'
He is not alone: 'I'm one of 20 or 30 or 50 Christian businessmen who are standing firm with the guidelines that God has given us. I'm not elevated or unique – I'm in a club that doing the right thing is best for long term sustainability.'
However, he is keen to emphasise that you do not have to be Christian to run a good business. 'It is wrong to say you've got to be a Christian to run an honest business – there are many many well run businesses that are not Christian – John Lewis is a shining example of that.'
Nonetheless, there are certain values related to the generosity element of his motto that are unique to The Entertainer.
Unique, too, is his approach to Sundays. 'It is a day where my wife and I will choose to go and worship. For my staff – you don't need a faith to work for The Entertainer – it is a family day. I say to my staff you should treasure Sunday lunches, when you have your family around a kitchen table or a dining room table. That is the time for building relationships – not having your head buried in a Playstation. I value family life. Whether you call it a religious day or not, in public I would simply say Sundays is a family day – eat together, play together – you need both children and grown ups off work at the same time.'
Grant occupies a unique place in what he concedes is a hard world. 'Retail is really tough at the moment – the internet is continuing to have an impact on the high street.'
But, 'We have to stand out from the crowd by offering a great range of products at fair pricing and outstanding customer service. I remember retail when I was a kid – 50 years ago you were known, they greeted you in the shops and you were served. I want to be an old fashioned retailer in a modern world. I want my community shops to know Mrs Jones when they come in. We strive to do things differently.'
And as for the Grenfell encounter, Grant says: 'That's how we can make a difference – by putting our faith in action without using the words.'