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How I got here: Malcolm O'Connell, production director for Penfield

Sourcing trips to China are all in a day’s work for US outdoor brand Penfield’s production director.

Malcolm O’Connell

Malcolm O’Connell

What does your typical week involve?

A typical week for the seven-strong production and development department I manage is centred on where we are in a particular season. Over the past 18 months, we’ve pulled our critical path forward by six or seven weeks at some points, in order to dedicate more time to design and give our sales people a slightly extended selling period. That said, the date we place orders with factories hasn’t come forward by more than two weeks.

We wholesale Penfield to between 80 and 90 accounts across the UK from, Urban Outfitters and John Lewis, to department stores such as Liberty and premium independents like End in Newcastle.

We own the licence for Penfield in all markets globally, except for Japan, China and South Korea, where we are developing our Cape Heights brand. My team also looks after Cape Heights, which as a womenswear-led brand for the Asian market presents new challenges in terms of fit and design.

This week, we have just finished the first Penfield prototypes for autumn 16, although the samples won’t be delivered to the sales teams until November. They are currently selling spring 16 and in line with our critical path we close the books at the end of August. Then, the production team starts collating all the orders from the UK, as well as our European distributors and partners in the US and Canada, and booking numbers with our factories worldwide.

The majority of the factories we work with are in Asia. We try to be well organised and have two or three factory options in each category, so we have knitwear specialists, while others focus on outerwear.

We work with between 14 and 15 active factories, which are trusted suppliers. We would only look to work with new suppliers if they were offering a better price, lead times, improved quality and general capability. It is really good to see what’s happening on the ground at the factories. In May, I spent two weeks in China visiting our key outerwear suppliers and sourcing new ones. Due to the timing, I was also able to get an update on production of autumn 15, which shipped in June, check out the last summer 16 samples and follow up on autumn 16 development.

How is your role changing as the industry evolves?

As a largely forward-order wholesale business, speed to market means we need to have enough time to sell, get goods made and delivered by the beginning of the delivery window, taking into account that production in the Far East takes 90 days in general, although certain fabric production lead times can extend this. Faster production is possible, but it’s dependent on order size and the capacity situation at the supplier.

The nature of the business will change as ecommerce grows as our retail arm. The focus will be less on two wholesale collections and more on newness and servicing the business faster.

That being said, we already work with our key accounts on exclusive collaborations, almost all of which are serviced by our existing suppliers. If our first-choice factory is at capacity, we always have a back-up.

We are about to ship a special Penfield collaboration padded gilet for Urban Outfitters, which will be on offer across the retailer’s US stores. We took a style from our collection and changed the shell fabric from a cotton base cloth to a modern nylon fabric, which sits in our existing collection. The shell colour has remained the same, but we have updated the lining to make it more contemporary.

What have you got wrong and how did you learn from it?

I started in branded menswear in 1997 at Ben Sherman as assistant production manager and it was great to see the brand develop globally into other product groups and international markets. Then, in 2003, I went to work for women’s lingerie brand Bodas, which was a good experience. It taught me not to be afraid to branch out and, since lingerie wasn’t for me, it solidified my affinity with menswear-led brands. It’s really important to realise what you like and what you’re good at.

Who in the industry do you aspire to emulate?

My mentor from when I started in the industry was Ben Sherman sourcing director Barry Ditchfield. He showed me the ropes on my first Far East trip and taught me how to deal with suppliers. Barry also taught me how to work with different people within the business and I applied his way of working to everything I do. Barry retired in 2005 and is no longer with us [he died in 2013], but is very fondly remembered.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Talk to people in different departments, don’t send emails. You learn a lot more from a conversation, even on Skype, than you would on email. I would also say don’t be put off by a mistake. I have dealt with hundreds of production seasons and they will never be executed perfectly. Just deal with the problem as it arises.

What are the key skills you need to keep progressing up the career ladder?

At Penfield we’re quite determined to grow our business and my department supports all the teams from design and sales to ecommerce, marketing and international. So I will need to stay in touch with the needs of these different teams and understand what’s happening across the UK business as a whole. I also need to keep my finger on the pulse of international sourcing activity to find out which new areas are opening up for production worldwide.

How do you see your career progressing? 

Penfield’s plans to develop the brand over the next three years could involve expanding my department. We might also need more staff if we increase our international customer base with Cape Heights. If the brand grows big enough, as current projections indicate it will, then it’s likely we will set up a dedicated production team for Cape Heights, which I would also manage.

If you could work in another area of fashion, what would it be?

I feel like I’m doing exactly the right thing for me. I was never a creative type or into the design and conceptual side. It might have been nice to get involved with the internet side of brands earlier on, as having your own website teaches you a lot about what you can do to help your brand grow internationally.


2014 Production director, Penfield

2013 Consulting, various

2008 Head of production, French Connection

2006 Senior production manager, Gap Europe

2004 Senior category manager, Ben Sherman

2003 Commercial manager, Bodas

1997 Assistant production manager, Ben Sherman

1997 Production assistant, David Howard

1992 BA Textile Management, University of Leeds

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