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Dr David Ross, the Grimsby-born founder of Carphone Warehouse and Lincolnshire’s first billionaire, has visited the University of Lincoln building that bears his name, giving a Great Lives lecture on his journey through business.

Dr Ross was in Lincoln for the official opening of the University of Lincoln’s new £21 million purpose-built Ross Lucas Medical Sciences Building on Tuesday, for which the Lincolnshire philanthropist donated £1 million towards.

Charitable donations to societal growth is hardly a new venture for David Ross. In 2007, he set up a foundation in his name which would offer funding to educational projects and big developments, including his significant donation for the construction of the Ross Lucas Medical Sciences Building.

David Ross and Rob Lucas both made a £1 million donation to the Lincoln Medical School and the building is named in their honour. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

To date, the Ross Foundation issued nearly £27 million in grants to increase education, sports and arts access across the UK, including creating the David Ross Education Trust which operates 34 schools nationally, and 10 in Lincolnshire.

During his Great Lives lecture, organised by the University of Lincoln and held inside the medical school building, Dr Ross spoke candidly of his upbringing in Grimsby, how his family’s roots of self-employment shaped his life, and his education at Uppingham School.

Students from Skegness Grammar School were invited to the lecture. | Photo: Claire Andrews

It was at Uppingham where he met Charles Dunstone, who he would go on to co-found Carphone Warehouse with. Charles was a computer salesman turned phone salesman, and David wanted to follow suit.

Carphone Warehouse is now owned by parent company Currys plc, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s it was a mobile phone retail juggernaut, opening thousands of shops across Europe to offer affordable deals on a range of phone devices.

UK Carphone Warehouse stores became defunct in 2020, but the business still operates online and inside Currys stores – and it earned David Ross a great fortune and helped him become Lincolnshire’s first ever billionaire.

The lecture theatre inside the Ross Lucas Medical Sciences Building witnessed a full house for the Great Lives lecture. | Photo: Claire Andrews

When he told his father about his grand idea to sell phones, the response was dismissive. “He looked pretty much in complete horror” he says. “He told me ‘your brother’s doing very well in the army, phones will never catch on!’”

In terms of business model, David and Charles’ big idea was more the concept of people wanting a phone they could carry, rather than one plugged into a wall.

Dr David Ross shared anecdotes from his life, as well as advice for young people wanting a successful career in business. | Photo: Claire Andrews

He added: “A lot of people these days spend a lot of time analysing their business plan, working out not only the plan, but also the marketing strategy and how it’s all this going to work.

“If I look at it, the full extent of our research was two things: one, we were selling mobile phones to people who up until that stage, the early days in the market, couldn’t necessarily buy them.

“Network operators and the manufacturers were very good at selling mobile phones to big corporations, but they weren’t very good with individuals.

“We had a plan that one day, if everybody could have a mobile phone, or if it was not connected to their wall, they would want to have that phone, rather than the one that was on their wall – and that was as simple as it was.”

Lincolnshire’s first billionaire took questions from the audience. | Photo: Claire Andrews

However, one man would soon emerge on the scene to change the landscape forever. Steve Jobs and his Apple products eventually squashed the competition with innovative and never-before seen ideas, making the iPhone an all-encompassing product that combined all the features you would now consider necessary on a standard mobile phone.

The Lincolnite reporter Ellis Karran asked Dr David Ross about Steve Jobs’ legacy and impact, to which he replied: “We always saw a competitive advantage in what they were developing. I remember one story is somebody came in and told us there was this phone coming out, and the bloke making them hates instruction manuals so much, that he’s refusing to put a manual out with his phone.

“We’ve all survived for years and years with this sort of 15-page document on how to turn it on and turn it off. Steve Jobs said to his engineers that either it’s intuitive and they can use it, or they won’t be able to use it.

“Looking back at that, he was 100% right, but at the time, we thought he was a bit of a lunatic! Sometimes you’re too close to things to see.

“He was an extraordinary man, and the legacy of him is the fact that those design approaches have been so embedded in the culture and organisation, that the company has managed to stay around this long. It’s extraordinary.”

| Photo: Claire Andrews

Dr David Ross is on the Board of Trustees at The Royal Opera House, and is also a trustee at the National Portrait Gallery, as he continues to express a passion for the arts and culture of British history and heritage.

He is keenly involved in recent debates and discussions around the broadcasting and displaying of controversial topics within the United Kingdom’s history.

Dr Ross said that it is important for every country to have a history they are proud of, while also acknowledging “deeply complex” narratives around our past.

David Ross here with the University of Lincoln’s Vice Chancellor Neal Juster. | Photo: Claire Andrews

“We have to look to other elements of our narrative and other elements of history that we can still celebrate and be proud of. I think we need to express those and be proud to express them.

“We’ve always been an open society, we’ve always been a trading society — and also we can be proud of many of our achievements in the industrial revolution.

“There are things that we can be proud of, and it’s a question of drawing those out, and realising that many of those had a huge impact on global society.”

| Photo: Claire Andrews

Dr Ross offered a final piece of wisdom at the end of the lecture, sharing his motivations in life and what inspires him to continue his efforts despite all his success.

He said: “What you want to be doing in life should be fascinating, interesting, challenging and different. You must never look backwards and go ‘well that was more fun than that’, you must always look forwards and find the next interesting and different thing. What is the next contribution?

“For me, the National Portrait Gallery at the moment is all consuming, because it’s a great business challenge and a great social and intellectual challenge.

“By next June it will be reopened, then you’ve got to find the next one. If you get them wrong you won’t be invited back, if you keep doing it there’s a chance you’ll be invited to do something interesting again. You’re only as good as your last gig.

“For the young people – firstly nothing comes without hard work. This idea we see sometimes on Britain’s Got Talent, well none of them have talent, let’s be clear. Hard work is a foundation.

“The other thing is sticking to what you love and enjoy. If you love something and you enjoy it, you put your energy into it and positive things. If you’re doing it reluctantly, you’re never going to put your energy into it in the same way.”

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