Philip Bier brought low-cost Danish retailer Tiger to the UK back in 2005, and saw it grow exponentially before making a multimillion pound exit in 2017.
When the photographer-turned-entrepreneur sold his 50% stake in the UK arm of the business, which has since rebranded as Flying Tiger Copenhagen, he had opened more than 40 stores on high streets around the country and Tiger Retail had a turnover of £44 million.
Bier grew up in Denmark. He moved to London to train as a photographer in 1985 and has stayed ever since, working as a commercial photographer for two decades before embarking with Tiger. This month he returned to his roots, co-founding new prints business eyeeye.me with childhood friend and fellow photographer, Mark Fluri.
The new online-only venture sells limited-edition “museum-standard” black and white photographic prints - many created from previously unseen vintage negatives taken between 1880 and 1960. The prints, all made in Copenhagen, cost around £60 and are printed on museum quality paper.
Fluri amassed the collection over time and is CEO, while Bier is on board as a 50% partner providing capital and financial advice.
“We’re collectors at heart and we want to preserve vintage negatives and make them available for people to enjoy,” Bier said. “The idea is to print a quality photograph on museum quality paper - to sell a museum quality photographic print at an affordable price.”
The pair would have loved to open a gallery/shop in London, complete with print-making and framing facilities, but Bier said UK business rates meant this had to be “disregarded as an option”.
Business rates raise around £30 billion a year for the Treasury, but have been blamed for the decline of the high street, as they hit physical retailers and not online competitors.
The Government launched a review of business rates last year, calling for submissions. Its long-awaited final report on the review is due to be published in the autumn.
Many companies and big-name retailers are calling for long term reforms to the system. The Government’s interim report released in March showed proposals include the idea of a 2% online sales tax, which proponents argue could raise £2 billion a year to cut business rates.
Bier is adamant on the issue. He advises Revo, the non-profit body representing the retail property sector, and recently met with Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, for a meeting to discuss business rates and the future of the high street.
He told the Standard: “There was no chance of a freestanding gallery as it would be too costly. We maybe would have done that in Copenhagen, but the risk here is so much greater, even with turnover related rent, because the business rates is a fixed overhead.
“Current business rates stifle high streets. I think the system worked up until the start of e-commerce and now it doesn’t work. The system is so fundamentally broken.”
Bier said that he does not expect a “fundamental review” in the autumn as the government’s finances are under “enormous strain”, but said: “My view is that business rates should go completely and be replaced largely by corporation tax. Tax should be a result of what you make; business rates is a tax on existence.”
The experienced retailer argues that the future of the British high street will depend both on delivering customers something they cannot get in an online experience, and on Government and business working together.
“Retailers and government need to cooperate, to get together and say ‘how does the high street stay relevant?’ Shops need to be complemented by public spaces that people want to use,” he said. “The shopping experience needs to be a good one, whatever it is. It needs really good service. It needs to offer something additional, or the customer will think ‘why didn’t I just order this?’
“If we [eyeeye] did have a store/ gallery, I would want to have a physical printer in store, where people could watch their images being printed frames being made - a mixture of workshop and retail. That would offer something different, something consumers can’t get online.”
Bier said his new venture and Tiger are similar in that both take “something mass market and making it less elitist”.
“Tiger made Scandinavian design available at affordable prices, and this is similar in that way,” he said. “Our target audience is anyone who has an interest in photography and who wants an original print, and not a poster. It is more expensive than a poster, but not out of reach.”
He believes that Generation Z’s love of second-hand clothes and vintage items is “fantastic”, and he hopes it will help fuel interest in eyeeye.
Bier may have left Tiger after it got big, but he aims to stay in this business forever. He has no exit strategy and the duo dream of collaborating with museums. It is a true passion project. “We are building up a library and collection, and it would be good to collaborate with museums,” he said. “There are amazing negatives not being seen.”