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The SMART Interview #12 Johnnie Boden

  • TheSMARTInterview12JohnnieBoden
  • 14 May 2014

Entrepreneur Johnnie Boden's first menswear catalogue in 1991 had just eight items in it. These days the Boden clothing empire shifts 60 million catalogues a year and dresses people in 50 countries, notching up over £200 million in sales in the process. So how do you build a successful business in a competitive sector like retail?

At Heathrow Express we like to celebrate doing things that bit smarter. Each month we seek out someone who really exemplifies this approach to work and life and we ask them some questions. This month: Johnnie Boden.

Are people born entrepreneurial or is it something they learn?

Not everybody is, but you don't have to be Superman either. I think a lot of people who think they can't probably can, but there are certain ingredients you need to have in your character. You need to be confident, but also a little insecure. A lot of people don't have that insecurity. If you had a warm, cuddly childhood you probably won't be an entrepreneur. All of us tend to have something to prove and are a bit restless. You don't really know it's there, but it just is.

Thinking smarter, being creative; it’s something many people struggle with – is there a secret?

There is no magic formula, but there's bunch of things I do and usually one of them will work. I work in an office a lot so I find it really helpful to spend time outside it when I want to think creatively. I find it particularly helpful to spend time with a bunch of key people who are smart, really frank and fun. You need people who can shake you up a little, people who you can really be yourself with. Talking to them is often very inspiring. We might meet for lunch or dinner or have a few drinks. Having meetings in a really nice environment where there's less time pressure and a good facilitator helps too. If that doesn't work, you often need external stimulae – like visiting museums, travelling to usual cities, wandering around vintage flea markets.

Having a good idea is the easy bit. How do you take a good idea and make it commercially successful?

Work – very hard for 10 years minimum! And don't give up, because you'll make tons of mistakes and you need to learn to bounce back. Be very open about your mistakes. Have a laugh about them, don't let them get to you. And learn, learn, learn every time. You also need to realise your limitations. Concentrate on what you are good at and make sure you delegate as much as you can. Listen all the time to your customers even when they're saying stuff you don't want to hear. Have a really great team around you – people better than you. Above all, you need a very good partner or number two.

What’s the best way to motivate the people working for you?

Be committed and passionate – that's infectious. If you real care about the success of the business – every detail – your people will like that and it rubs off on them. That's the emotional side. Then there's the rational side. You need to manage people well, looking after them, being fair and consistent. Praising people and telling them they did a good job – but really meaning it. Being friendly and smiley works wonders too; being quite open means people can be open with me. It does get harder the bigger the organisation gets. We've recently started using internal films as a better way to communicate than Powerpoint presentations.

Johnnie Boden, Founder of Boden Clothing

Johnnie Boden, Founder of Boden Clothing

You sell online and by mail order. Are the two channels different or complementary? What are the pros and cons of each?

They're not different in principle but there are very big differences in execution. Web is much faster, immediate and versatile; you can change things quickly. But it's harder to emotionally engage with your customers. Catalogues do that job very well if you do it right. But the planning that goes into them is enormous and they are very inflexible. You only have one chance to get it right and then things can happen very quickly which make the catalogue out of date – for example you run out of a stock item. Getting the balance right in a catalogue between making that emotional connection and showcasing product is crucial. We get loads of agencies who say 'your catalogue is too crammed with product', but you actually need them jammed with product. The customer really wants to see what the product looks like. We mail 60 million a year and they are our principle selling tool, so every square inch counts. We'd love to reduce the number we mail but customers really love them. 93% of our orders come through the website but we know that the majority of people use the catalogue as well as the website to view the product first.

Fashion is a fickle thing: does a brand like Boden have to change with the times or is remaining the same – dependable, trusted – a crucial part of its appeal?

If I knew the answer, if there was some kind of formula, it would be lovely. The problem is, it's a balance of the two and it's very hard to strike it. For every product that we carry over which fails, there's another that we carry over which works really well. When I first started there was much less fashion and you could run the same product for four or five years and it would still sell well. It's not the same now. There are some products that continue to sell well for several seasons and then they just suddenly die. That's terrible as you've bought loads of stock and you don't know why it has happened – but it has. There's no crystal ball.

Is social media important for a business like Boden or just a distraction?

Broadly speaking social media is people talking to each other. It's another manifestation of word-of-mouth which has always been a principle source of new customers for all brands. So now it's just slightly more formalised and there are many more ways of doing it. So yes, it is important. Some customers use it a lot; some not at all. The big issue these days is that there are so many more places people are talking about clothes and shopping and we need to be closer to them. But there's a real danger of throwing too much cash at the wrong things. I think within the whole industry, people are struggling with this. What we have found generally is that it’s a bit like the catalogue. What we do on social channels has to engage emotionally but also has to do the job and showcase products.

Anything you'd do differently if you could do it all again?

I would hire a designer at the beginning, rather than doing my own design. I would have been more open about my own and other people's failings too. I also think there have been people we kept that we should have got rid of earlier. Some people think it's cruel to fire people, but read a business guru like Jack Welch and he'll say fire 10% of your people every year. That sounds really horrible, but the longer you're in business the more you see there's something in that. Lots of people are very nice and perfectly good, but if you look at really successful businesses, they have amazing people at the top. In reality you can get complacent, people might be nice but if they aren't quite good enough, your competitors will eat away at you and you miss opportunities – and that's dangerous.

You must travel a lot – is there a particular part of the world you love to visit?

Japan is amazing. I don't go there enough. Going to somewhere like Tokyo shakes you up so much. I defy anyone in retail not to be inspired by Japan. But I don't love to travel for work. I'm a home boy and miss my creature comforts. But I have to do it and it's really important. One of my things when I travel is trying new restaurants – that's a real treat. I really enjoy going to New York too. A little place that I tried there recently is I Sodi. Rita who owns the place and cooks the food turns out lovely dishes inspired by her upbringing in Tuscany.

What do you always take with you when you travel and why?

Alka-Seltzer! It's handy for hangovers and digestion issues! I take my very conventional alarm clock too as I don't trust anything else and there's something comforting about having the same noise by your bed. And I always take a really fantastic book which reminds me of Britain. I've just finished Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her. I go for classic British fiction; a 19th century or early 20th century British novel.

The new Boden collection is online now at www.boden.co.uk

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