10 secrets of clothing brand Boden’s success

Johnnie Boden and Julian Granville share the golden rules behind £250m-turnover clothing company Boden's rise


Johnnie Boden set up his eponymous mail-order clothing company in a friend’s house in 1991. After launching with just eight products in 1991, Boden has grown into one of Britain’s most successful and influential clothing brands with a turnover in excess of £250m. But it’s not been plain sailing.
In 1995, with the business on the brink of collapse, founder and chairman Johnnie Boden recruited Julian Granville as finance director. Slowly, the company began turning a profit. Piper Private Equity led investments in 1999 and 2003 helping establish Boden as a premium mail-order only brand. When Piper exited in 2007, the business had delivered a 30x multiple on its investment.
And 20 years later, Johnnie Boden remains as chairman of the company, brand guardian and proud owner of the office dog Sprout. Julian Granville, meanwhile, became managing director in 1997 and joined Piper’s Advisory Panel in 2008. Here, the two of them share their 10 golden rules of successful business.
1. Find a friend

Johnnie: It’s very hard to run a business without a good mate. Two is better than one. Since entrepreneurs are fundamentally unstable, it’s important to have a partner they trust who complements their personality. It’s pretty impossible otherwise.

2. And the right team

Julian: We would have done much better if we’d had a good design team from the word go. We were unbelievably useless when it was just the two of us. Johnnie was paranoid about the fashion industry, thinking no one would understand what we were doing, and used to meet lots of unsuitable designers obsessed with the catwalk and fickle fashion. It’s easy to give up and think you’ll never find the right person, but it’s worth persevering. Really good people make all the difference.

3. Get your product right

Johnnie: Don’t fixate on your premises or VAT or any of the other minor details of your business. Spend at least 80% of your time getting the product right, so it stands out from the competition, is good quality and something people want to buy at the right price. In the early days we were six out of 10 for product and 0 out of 10 in a lot of other areas. If we’d concentrated on going from six to eight, it would have solved many of the other problems.

4. Keep your eyes on the road

Julian: It’s incredibly easy – and dangerous – to get distracted from your main objective and try to diversify your business into other areas. At various stages Johnnie was determined to expand Boden beyond a mail-order/internet business and launch it on the high street, but was talked out of it by Piper. Had we gone ahead, we’d probably have gone bust.

5. Enjoy year one

Johnnie: People often think the first year is going to be the hardest but it’s actually the opposite. You receive loads of sympathy orders and can get away with blaming any problems on your inexperience. It’s all quite jolly. Then the honeymoon ends. During one particularly bad period, the father of a friend of mine rang up inquiring: ‘Am I right in thinking you’re about to go bankrupt?’  ‘Well, it’s not very easy at the moment,’ I said. ‘You bloody well deserve to,’ he barked. ‘It’s a terrible service.’

6. Remember to laugh

Julian: We had a mutual barrister friend called Charles, who was one of our real-life models in the days before we used professionals. Back then Charles was quite chunky, though he looked great in a pair of our moleskin trousers. However, after the catalogue came out, Johnnie received a furious three-page letter from Charles, written in legalese, accusing him of doctoring the photograph to make Charles look fatter than he really was. ‘This has done my legal practice irreparable damage,’ thundered Charles, demanding financial compensation. Johnnie was devastated and had a complete sense of humour failure – despite the fact that the last line read: ‘I will, of course, settle for a pair of cricket trousers.’

7. Don’t try to please everybody

Johnnie: I always want to be liked – which makes me terribly bad at interviewing new people because whenever I ask a difficult question, I answer it on their behalf. It also means I take it very personally when people are rude about Boden at dinner parties – despite the fact that they’re rarely Boden customers anyway. Some people will love to hate you, whatever you do. You’re never going to convert them, so don’t bother trying. Focus on pleasing your existing customers instead.

8. Invite Tesco for lunch

Julian: It’s incredible how much you can learn from picking up the phone and asking a senior figure in your industry for lunch. People generally don’t mind being asked for advice and even the biggest names can be accommodating. Johnnie once took Terry Leahy at Tesco for lunch and found him extremely helpful. Of course, it doesn’t have to be Terry Leahy – though now he’s no longer at Tesco his diary’s probably a little clearer.

9. But avoid dinner

Johnnie: If you have to attend industry conferences in the UK, give the networking dinners a miss. You’ll end up sitting next to some other entrepreneur who’s in ball bearings, and all he’ll want to do is drone on about his business while you drone on about yours. We were at one entrepreneurs’ dinner where I was on the top table with nine big cheeses – all on transmit, all booming, none listening to a word the other said. Every single one of us loathed it. Especially me – and I was the loudest them all.

10. Get lucky

Julian: Not an easy one to arrange, but people in business don’t give luck nearly enough credit. Energy, skill and judgment count but luck outweighs them all. If you took the external shocks – like random postal strikes – that happened during the long period when we were teetering on the brink and put them in a different order, we’d have gone bankrupt years ago.

This is an extract from ’25 Years, 25 Insights’, published by Piper Private Equity to mark its 25th anniversary. A specialist in consumer brands, Piper founded Pitcher & Piano and has helped grow businesses such as Boden, Las Iguanas and Maximuscle. To order a free copy of the book go to http://www.piperprivateequity.com/

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