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TM Lewin: Geoff Quinn

Self-confessed shirt nerd Geoff Quinn tells GB how knowledge is the key weapon in his arsenal

If you are a business professional working in London, you are likely to be familiar with TM Lewin. Despite the glut of shirt and suit vendors that populate the City streets, the TM Lewin name has become synonymous with high quality professional wear at an affordable price. However, these prices would be inconceivable if it wasn’t for managing director Geoff Quinn’s profound knowledge of the industry and its processes. Knowledge, it turns out, really is power.

“We’ve found that by having a really good understanding of the business and of the product, we’ve been able to get better prices and been able to work well with people,” says Quinn. Knowledge of the product is key; it gives him ammunition in his negotiations with suppliers and instant competitive advantage when faced with rivals. “The bottom line is they don’t have people in the business that actually understand the product the way we do,” explains Quinn.

This intimate relationship with the product is a result of Quinn’s 30-odd years in the shirtmaking industry, with 28 of those spent at Lewins. When Quinn joined the Jermyn Street store, that was the only shop and there were just six employees on the payroll; 28 years later and with Quinn at the helm there are 57 shops and over 500 staff. Its figures aren’t too shabby either – this year the shirtmaker bucked the retail downturn announcing sales of over 1.8m shirts, equating to sales growth of 14% and turnover of over £63m.

Despite the impressive financials, Quinn isn’t ready to rest on his laurels just yet. The shirt enthusiast is to launch a new initiative from October – instead of monthly introductions of 70 new designs into its stores, Quinn wants this doubled to 140 new shirt fabrics per month. “There isn’t anyone else trying to do what we’re doing,” he says.

This constant awareness of its competition is how Quinn strives to distinguish TM Lewin in a historically crowded market place. And the gentile exterior of tailors’ shop fronts belies the fierce competition and underhand tactics that go on behind closed doors. One of TM Lewin’s competitors went so far as to write to Trading Standards claiming that their rival wasn’t trading properly. Unfortunately for them, Lewin has a “fantastic relationship” with Trading Standards and every promotion they run is checked out with the regulatory body.  

This is not to say that TM Lewin hasn’t been beset by its own problems. Last September, Lewins unveiled its first ever merchandising system. “When we switched on the systems we thought that everything was going to be fantastic. It wasn’t.” The new system was incompatible with the legacy system and as a result both were chopped in half. Consequently, the figures weren’t as strong as a surprisingly frank Quinn was expecting, but he remains upbeat. “Now I can look at last year and think ‘wow, I can beat October’s figures’, so there’s always an upside, although it didn’t feel like it at the time.”

Equally, the implementation of this system along with a raft of other changes to the business has meant that that Lewins has managed to avoid the economic slowdown that has blighted much of the high street. “We have been very lucky about our business year to date but much of that is due to the business changes we’ve been making over the last 18 months feeding through into the business,” he explains.

The last 18 months has been a pivotal point in the company’s development. Following a management buy-out in May 2006, Quinn hired a stellar management team to share his vision for the next stage of the business’s growth. “My first maxim when hiring people is to try to hire those who are better than you at what they do,” he explains. “I’m just the rounded guy in the middle who has an idea about all the different things they do but I don’t think I could do any of their jobs on their own and certainly not as well as my team do them.”

Since 2005, the company’s expansion has been eye-wateringly impressive. It has gone from a portfolio of 21 stores and a turnover of £29m to 57 retail outlets and £63m and with 13 stores planned for the next 12 months, this aggressive growth shows no sign of abating. Meanwhile, the shirtmaker is broadening its horizons, as it extends its women’s line, increases its presence in department store concessions and plans international expansion.

As a result of this diversification, Quinn has faced criticism and been accused of abandoning the company’s ties with the City and Jermyn Street in the pursuit of commercial access. “It’s about convenience and trying to find the right route to a customer’s wardrobe whether it be directly from the man coming into a shop, or whether it be going into concessions and shopping centres,” Quinn offers convincingly.

As for international expansion, it is very much in the planning stage at the moment as Lewins explores the prospect of international growth through working with franchise partners. “What we have is a very simple business model that works well when it’s situated near to the business community. And there’s absolutely no reason why that won’t work internationally,” Quinn explains.

As with any entrepreneur, steering TM Lewin towards commercial success and Quinn’s personal rise to fame as the shirt nerd of our time has not been without its difficulties. When asked about his biggest business challenge, the surprisingly young-looking 49 year-old is defiant. “I think it’s still waiting to hit me.”

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