As part of Drapers’ 130th anniversary celebrations this year, we brought together some of fashion retail’s biggest names for a series of unique one-on-one interviews.
Here, retail supremo Don McCarthy reminisces with his friend, Oasis and Warehouse CEO Liz Evans.
Drapers ventures to Don McCarthy’s 100 acre country estate, where the retail veteran tells friend and CEO of Oasis and Warehouse, Liz Evans, about his 47 years in retail. Best known as executive chairman of House of Fraser between 2006 and 2014, McCarthy has played a role at many high street chains over the years, including Stead & Simpson, Kurt Geiger, Shoe Studio Group, Principles and Warehouse.
Evans has nearly 30 years’ experience in retail. She began her career at Marks & Spencer in 1989, and worked across its retail, international and womenswear divisions, before leaving in 2005 to join Coast, where she became managing director. She moved to lead its stablemate Oasis in 2010, and has been at the helm of Warehouse since 2013.
The pair are fast friends, and he has mentored her and several other retail chiefs; he says he is a great advocate of retailers “sending the lift back down” when they reach the dizzy heights of success. The father of two was awarded a CBE for his services to business and charity earlier this year.
Liz Evans: Don, tell us where your career first began.
Don McCarthy: When I was at school, I needed a Saturday job. Back then there were so many shoe shops on the high street, so I joined [now-defunct footwear chain] Stead & Simpson and I loved selling. When I left school, they said they would take me on to run the shop in Streatham, so that’s what I did when I was 16 and I loved every minute of it. It was a great industry. The things I learned as a Saturday boy selling footwear have stayed with me throughout my life. When you think of business, you are just selling yourself and your products. That’s how I got started. Then I went to work for Kurt Geiger in London, which had one store at the time. The business was owned by the South African Spitz family, headed by David Spitz. We developed the Carvela brand’s retail offer so there was a medium-priced chain and a high-priced chain. They were fantastic businesses to work with. It was a joy coming to central London; it is such a great place to work.
LE: There’s such a buzz in London, isn’t there? We’ve all had people who have helped us along the way. Who stands out for you?
DM: David Spitz was my mentor; he is a lovely guy. He is 73 now and I was 20 when I met him. He was great. His family involved me in lots of meetings. In many ways, everything I learned was because I attended things that someone allowed me to attend. I think giving people the opportunity to learn is the biggest thing you do for them – simply by letting them sit in on a meeting and listen to what’s being said. Mentoring people can be just about giving them an opportunity to learn. He did that for me, which was brilliant.
LE: It must be so difficult to narrow down but what have been your career highs? The moments you look back and reflect on, and think, “Wow! That was magical!”
If you can find something you really love doing, it is never work. I can honestly say I have never worked a day in my life
DM: My biggest achievement was when we sold Shoe Studio [a footwear business set up by Spitz and McCarthy] to Nine West in 1997. When I was growing up we didn’t have a lot of money; we had a good life and we had enough, but not a lot. I remember leaving the lawyers’ office at 3.30am after we did the deal and going to my hotel. As I’m a Catholic boy, I went down on my knees and thanked God. I got £3m and it was unbelievable. It was a financially momentous time.
LE: It was life changing.
DM: Absolutely. I thought no matter what happens now, at least I can look after my wife and kids. It was a time when I thought, “I can’t believe that just happened.”
LE: So when that happens, Don, you hear about people who just head for the beach and take some time out, but you didn’t do that did you?
DM: I’ll always remember David’s father said, “If you find something you love doing, you’ll never work again.” And that is true. If you can find something you really love doing, it is never work. I can honestly say I have never worked a day in my life. Every day that I’ve gone to work, I’ve enjoyed it so much. I’ve always felt good about it. Some days are long and hard, but actually I love my industry and I love what I do.
LE: I love that attitude! What do you think is the best bit about our industry?
DM: People are the best thing about our industry. It is a people’s industry, therefore you really meet great people. You also meet some painful ones, but if I don’t like someone I don’t deal with them. Therefore, I have a great life where I get to see and talk business with great people. It keeps me involved in what’s going on.
LE: How do you think the industry has changed over the years?
DM: Do I think it’s as easy as it once was? No I don’t. When I started in the shoe business, I think life was easier. There was enough to allow you to make some money and still look after your people. Now everything is squeezed and it is far more competitive. I think I was born at the right time for me. I don’t think I would have been given the same opportunities today. In retail in the 1970s there were so many clearly defined trends. But today retail and fashion are repetitive. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, so it’s hard to be different. In those days there was individualism, which was great. I was lucky to be born then.
I’ve gone past investing in my dreams; I’m now investing in other peoples’ dreams
LE: You say it would be harder for you today, but I disagree. You were unique in your time and there will always be those special people in every generation. There are always a few game changers in the industry and that’s how people see you. I know there are many people in fashion who are extremely grateful not just for your free advice and mentoring, but also for giving them career opportunities, and the chance to learn and grow.
DM: Stop, you’ll have me crying in a minute! People don’t leave me because I overpay them and underwork them!
LE: You’ve been an amazing mentor to me: generous with your time, counsel and advice over the years, and I’d like to say thank you.
Photographer: Sam Chick
DM: It works the other way as well. It is really satisfying to meet people and to hear their stories. I get so much joy from supporting people. It’s a tough industry but when you see people who get the lead role and get that opportunity, it’s great. It’s up to them then to hold that position. They need to have the ability to do it – like you! If I look at you now and compare that with how you were five years ago, there is such a difference. All the pain you had to go through with [failed Icelandic bank] Kaupthing [owner of Warehouse, Coast and Oasis] has taught you so much. You only learn by going through experiences.
LE: It’s true: when the going gets tough, you learn.
DM: It is our responsibly as leaders to help those coming after us and to mentor them. In 10 years you should be sitting here, Liz, and saying the same thing. It is really important for the industry.
LE: It’s about the virtuous circle; it’s about sustaining the industry and keeping the talent here, isn’t it? We all have a responsibility.
DM: Exactly. That’s why events like the Drapers Awards are so important. If you don’t support our industry awards, you lose the ability to help motivate people and inspire future leaders.
When you look at successful takeovers, it is about people. The who have done well have been emotional and caring
LE: I totally agree. It’s all about the pride of the team. You have done your bit for our industry and it’s a fair challenge back to the next generation to take that responsibility of leadership beyond the financial aspects of business.
DM: It’s a tough industry, so by default you have to be tough at what you do. But it allows people to express their personalities and be who they are. Some of the laughs I’ve had have been great, and I’ve met some really big characters.
LE: As well as the good times, you’ve had to deal with some difficult situations in your career. What was the biggest challenge?
DM: I’ve moved from shoes to clothing to department stores. The most difficult time for me was in 2008 when Baugur [Icelandic investment group, which owned a third of HoF] went bust and a lot of people lost their shares. It was the worst time to be in the business, everyone was in a mess. [Scottish entrepreneur Sir] Tom [Hunter] sold his shares to Mike Ashley. What people underestimate is that we had to sell HoF. We couldn’t stay the way we were. The most difficult thing was trying to find a new partner for HoF and then finally doing the deal with the Chinese [buyer Sanpower].
LE: And since then you’ve moved from business leader to investor [with McCarthy’s investment vehicle No 9, which launched in 2014]. What do you look for when you’re investing?
DM: Investing in business is investing in people. I don’t try and find a business; I find people, then look at what they do. If they believe they can take something and make something of it, then I’ll do it. I’ve gone past investing in my dreams; I’m now investing in other peoples’ dreams. When you look at successful takeovers, it is about people. The ones who have done well have been emotional and caring, and wanted to be successful. Peter Ruis has done a good job [as chief executive] at Jigsaw, and Philip Mountford [CEO of European lingerie brand Hunkemöller] is incredibly passionate about his business and they probably never worked a day in their lives because of it.
Retail is not only about investors, but it’s about good investors with good management teams. That’s the truth. It is bloody hard today. There are companies out there doing well, but we all have to get used to making less money as a percentage of our sales. I’m very lucky. I have a great family, great friends and a job I’ve never worked a day of my life in. I was overpaid and underworked, and I made money. It doesn’t get much better than that. If it all ended tonight, I’d say that was a bloody good ride.
- All the “In conversation” interviews are in our limited edition 130th anniversary book.
- Tomorrow: Ian Cheshire and Ray Kelvin