Now chief financial officer, Mr Bellingham last month had the rather more pleasant task of announcing that the company had returned to the black after three years of losses. In its annus horribilis of 1998, it reported a pre-tax loss of �46.9m.
The change in the business today is apparent in the fashions and the furnishings, as well as the figures.
Throughout the flagship store in London's Regent Street, mahogany fittings have given way to pale wood; window displays are uncluttered and the shops are furnished with products people can buy rather than the props that once left them frustrated. The effect is more casual and relaxed.
The first step in rehabilitating the business was not fittings but financial stability.
This was the job of David Hoare, the company doctor brought into the group in 1997. He came originally as a non-executive director but was then appointed chief executive after the departure of Ann Iverson, the US-born retailer who had failed to revive the group in her two years at the helm.
The turning point in Laura Ashley's financial fortunes was the decision by Malaysian United Industries in April 1998 to inject almost �44m in return for a 40 per cent stake.
Retailing is a core area for MUI, which saw the opportunity in Laura Ashley from far afield. KC Ng, Laura Ashley's current chief executive whose idea of a weekend out is dropping into a Laura Ashley store somewhere, says: “It was the combination of the strength worldwide of the Laura Ashley brand together with the experience and talent within the business that attracted us.”
But along with the brand, experience and talent, Laura Ashley also had some less desirable assets: A lossmaking US business – sold for $1 in April 1999 – and a manufacturing operation that added too much complexity to a small business struggling to cope with its flagging retail chain.
Mr Hoare moved to quit manufacturing early in 1998 and closed or sold five of the seven Welsh factories.
Dealing with US business was no easier. Mr Bellingham says now that Ms Iverson made two big errors in her approach to the company.
“Her first big mistake was to think she understood the North American market: the US became an operation that was losing �1m-�2m a month. It was about large stores at large rents in the wrong places,” he says.
Her second mistake, he says, was in trying to make Laura Ashley young. It is a view endorsed by Annette Brown, who was brought in as fashion director less than two years ago.
Ms Brown says that focus groups have helped the business to understand customers' expectations of shopping and of what they expect from Laura Ashley.
Research among non-customers has also helped in that it has made the group concentrate on removing the perception that it is expensive.
“That was a major thrust for us to reposition ourselves,” says Ms Brown.
Once, a single design team decided what went into stores, leaving buying and merchandising teams trailing in their wake. Now the products are divided into categories such as knitwear and accessories, with a product manager responsible for all aspects of that category.
This is scarcely retailing rocket science, as Mr Bellingham readily admits. The wonder is not that the group is doing this now, but that it has survived as a retailer for so long without such practices.
For home furnishings, the more consistent offering and the fastest-growing part of sales, the turbulence of the past few years has not been as severe.
The main breakthrough here has been in increasing ranges.
The company also has exploited the success of home furnishings in stores by using the brand in new ways.
While such moves may at first sight seem further removed from the core business than opening jumbo stores in North America, Laura Ashley now seems to have a clearer view of its identity.
“We are a northern European retailer, which also owns a worldwide brand,” says Mr Bellingham.