Ian Maclean, managing director of John Smedley, on why keeping it in the family is so important to the knitwear brand.
It’s towards the end of my tour around the John Smedley factory at Lea Mills near Matlock, Derbyshire, with the brand’s managing director Ian Maclean, that I meet Sue, a woman who has worked at the 228-year-old company for 25 years. She’s a linker in a small team of women employed at the factory to piece together the knitted samples, experiments and prototypes for the in-house design team.
I ask her if she enjoys working at John Smedley and her reply, quick as a flash, is in the affirmative. When I suggest she had to say that, without missing a beat she turns from the linking machine, looks me right in the eye and says: “I love working here.”
Later, in the boardroom, Maclean gestures to a large painting of a serious and dapper gentleman, who is John Smedley the First, the man who laid thefoundations for the business. “As you’ve seen from the tour, we’re a tight-knit community” says Maclean, seemingly oblivious to the pun. The loyalty of that extended family has been central to John Smedley’s fortunes.
“There’s no doubt in the last three or four years when things have been very difficult there must be people who have thought, ‘Should I be working for a more stable business?’” Maclean says. “But we have people who are very passionate about what they do.”
If the mood around the historic mill is anything to go by, then whatever Maclean and his team are doing, it’s working, something that will only be enhanced by the royal warrant awarded to the business at the start of the year.
Maclean says the award was “a great boost to morale”, and that recognition from the Queen’s household filled the company with pride. “It’s a great reward for the efforts we put into making things we really like and making them really good quality,” he continues, and his stockists agree. Steve Cochrane, chief executive of Middlesbrough indie department store Psyche, says: “It is a beautifully made, well-designed product. I’m a big fan and it fits well on our tailoring floor, and appeals to a more sophisticated, more discerning customer.”
Switching to discuss his own family, Maclean, who is the seventh generation, sits bolt upright when I enquire how he came to spearhead the company - perhaps something to do with both his sense of duty and respect for his forefathers (both Smedleys and Macleans), whose paintings line the walls and peer down at us.
Maclean explains that the brand had been run by manufacturing experts for 20 or 30 years until 2008, when it decided to bring someone in with marketing expertise to strengthen the brand positioning. But that person didn’t work out when the recession hit. “In good times he probably would have been the right guy but he spent too much money, so we had to say goodbye to him [in September 2010],” says Maclean. “I was the chairman at the time and felt the family ought to have a stronger presence in the business.”
After 10 years answering to nearly 90 shareholding Smedley family members as chairman, it was now Maclean’s responsibility to steady the ship as the MD. “The family is very important. We are the ones who want it to continue. We are invested in this business and will do things professional managers won’t to make sure that happens. I’ve tried to bring that philosophy to the company.”
The company made a £1.9m pre-tax loss in 2010, so Maclean had to act swiftly.
“We’ve taken some fantastically good decisions over the past couple of years to bring out all the stars in the company and get them to help us rebuild the business. It’s taken us two years, it’s been a hard journey but we’ve been highly motivated and we’ve done it. Our cash is going up, our profits are going up, we’re stronger, we avoided borrowing from the bank and it’s all down to these people out here,” he adds, gesturing out to the factory.
Figures for the 15 months ending March 2012 show a £156,000 profit which, while not a number to make mohair stand on end, is a step in the right direction.
“The family has been behind us the whole way. We canvas their opinion all the time and if they had said at any time ‘We want to sell the business’, we’d have sold the business. But they didn’t,” he says with palpable confidence.
Perhaps that’s a trait that runs in the family, evident most importantly in John Smedley the First’s crucial decision to create a brand in addition to the manufacturing operation. Maclean counts that move as one of the main reasons Smedley has endured where so many factories have failed since the Industrial Revolution.
Despite being renowned for its quality Made in Britain product, Maclean is more pragmatic when discussing the occasionally rose-tinted subject. “The reason why we are still in Britain is as much as a result of historical accident and inertia as it is a desire to do it here. There have been plenty of discussions in the past at board meetings along the lines of ‘How can we possibly survive the onslaught of low-priced competition? We should sell up and open a factory in China and make it a lot cheaper’, but that action has never been taken,”
Cochrane is thankful the brand has stuck to its guns. “‘UK made’ really appeals to our foreign customers and is a key selling point online,” he says.
Demand for Made in Britain is still evidently on the rise. Maclean continues: “The indications are it’s a good thing to buy from the UK even though it’s a bit more expensive. And those that have been buying from Asia are finding it’s not as easy as it used to be and it’s also getting more expensive.”
If what Maclean claims is true and the global playing field is levelling out, then John Smedley is in a prime position to grow internationally.
“With a very long history comes recognition in many parts of the world. We can strengthen our appearance in certain places by talking to a local population in their language and provide local customer service to give them a greater confidence to buy. We’ve already started with ecommerce; the next step is to back that up with the kind of flagship store in Brook Street [the brand’s London flagship] in a different economy and above it a wholesaling space to sell from.”
With retail representing 15% of the £18.9m turnover, private-label manufacturing a further 10% and wholesale the remaining three quarters, growing accounts will be key to building momentum. Which is part of the reason Maclean unveiled the brand’s autumn 13 Signature collection, including a fetching range of long johns, at London Collections: Men.
“We’ve been at Pitti Uomo for many years but our home market is still our most important one. The fact that LCM has arrived gives us direct access to British buyers and media to talk about a British brand, which is a new step for us and I hope it’s a launch pad for John Smedley.”
Sounds rather menswear-focused, right? It is surprising to learn womenswear makes up 40% of the business, an opportunity Maclean is not blind to when it comes to the brand’s future.
“If LCM is a success for us, then I can see us exploring London Fashion Week as our next step to raise the profile of our womenswear.” Here’s hoping the plan works so Sue and the rest of the extended family can continue to make top-quality knits for years to come.