The boss of young fashion chain A-Wear rose from changing room assistant to chief executive, and is now making the biggest leap of her career by taking the business across the Irish Sea to the UK.
Repeats have always been a bit of a dirty word in this business” explains Annmarie Flood, chief executive of A-Wear. “It might seem counter-intuitive to not fully capitalise on your winners, but we keep repeats to a minimum.
“We are running about 30 new lines a week in each store, which will have around 400 options at any one time. It’s all about constantly refreshing the stores,” she says.
This ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’ philosophy is not a recent adaptation of fast-fashion values, but is part of A-Wear’s heritage and a necessary element of growing a business in a country as small as the Republic of Ireland, which in population terms is no bigger than Greater Manchester.
Says Flood: “When you are building a business in Ireland you have a finite customer group and we need that customer to come in regularly. You have to offer them a reason, and knowing that they are going to see something new is a powerful reason to return to stores.”A-Wear was founded 30 years ago by the Weston family, who also owned Ireland’s premium department store Brown Thomas in Dublin and went on to buy Selfridges and Canadian department store chain Holt Renfrew.
The business started off with two stores and took a boutique approach to young fashion, which is still evident in the stores today. Over the past decade the chain has expanded to 27 stores across the RoI and Northern Ireland and has total sales of €64 million (£50m) and an EBITDA of €10.5m (£8.2m). Over the past two months A-Wear has made the momentous move of crossing the Irish Sea to open stores in the UK, at the new Highcross shopping centre in Leicester and Bristol’s Cabot Circus, and the business plans to open one more in an as-yet-unnamed location by November.
Moving into the UK marketplace has been in A-Wear’s sights for some time, but it was not until the business had been bought out by private equity group Alchemy Partners in June 2006 that the plan was finally given the green light. Flood explains: “We tested the ground for two years by running a concession in Selfridges in Birmingham. It was a really useful exercise, teaching us a lot as well as reassuring us, because the popular items were the same there as in Ireland. But it was only when the owner of Selfridges, Galen Weston, decided that he wanted to concentrate on his luxury department store business and sell A-Wear that the chain got the go-ahead to expand into the UK.”
Flood says that A-Wear’s management was fortunate that it had many investors interested in the chain in 2006. As a result, the management team got to choose the partner they went into business with. “Alchemy was the best match as it believed in the brand and its ability to grow, and as a result we have a €10m (£7.8m) growth fund to invest in new stores in the UK. Now as other opportunities arise we will dip into that pot to open more.
“For the past 18 months we have been working on the brand to ready it for the move to the UK. We tested a new store format in Swords shopping centre in Dublin that is the template for the UK openings and we rebranded the business in terms of logo and fascia. So it’s an exciting time for us and the culmination of our hard work and research.”
A-Wear intends to open 10 stores over the next two years in the UK, as and when the opportunities arise. Store sizes will vary – its Leicester shop is 5,000sq ft while the smallest among its Irish portfolio is 1,500sq ft.
Flood says the business will take a short break after the initial flurry of openings to give the stores a chance to settle and allow the business to learn from its first experience of being a UK retailer, before branching out further. A fully transactional UK website will also be launched next month to support the launch of the UK stores. Flood says: “I don’t expect the pause to be long as we are a fast-moving company and we take advantage of opportunities when they arise.”
Flood’s dynamism is a reflection of the Irish retail market which, being small, has always been fiercely competitive. She grew up with retail in her blood as her father ran his own hardware store, and Flood cites him as a huge influence on her business persona. However, retail was not Flood’s first career. She trained as a nurse and worked part-time at A-Wear – starting as the changing room assistant – to make ends meet. On the day she qualified as a nurse she bought a one-way ticket to New York and flew to the US to
start a completely new life and put her training to good use. “Back then, times were very difficult in Ireland,” she says. “The unemployment rate was 20% and lawyers
and doctors were working in retail. Going overseas to work was the only option for a lot of people.”
Three years of living and working in the Big Apple left her a self-confessed New York junkie, and she heads back for her fix at least twice a year. “I loved every minute of it but after three years of nursing I decided I was going to travel the world. I packed my bags and went to Australia, where I lived for a year, before moving on to China and Japan.
“I did all sorts of mad things like hitchhiking in Japan but after travelling for four years I realised I wanted to pursue a career in fashion. Clothes have always been my passion – I spent every spare penny I earned on them – so I returned to Ireland to see if I could break into the business.”
At that time in Dublin there were only two fashion buying offices, belonging to A-Wear and variety store chain Dunnes. Flood says: “The chances of me walking into a job in either one of them were slim. I knew I enjoyed retail after working in my dad’s store so I decided to start from the bottom and work my way up. “I was 27 when I started manning the fitting rooms at A-Wear and I loved it. Six months on the opportunity arose to manage a floor in the store and then soon after that I became a store manager.”
At the time A-Wear also sold menswear, and when Flood was offered the chance to become an assistant buyer she jumped at it. “Buying was a revelation. It’s like a drug, once you start you can’t stop,” she says.
Her passion for retail was noted by the Irish retail community and after a year in A-Wear’s buying department she was head-hunted by value chain Penneys, which trades in the UK as Primark. “I spent a decade there learning my trade,” she says. “I started as a buyer and ended up running the menswear buying department. It was a fantastic education; I travelled the world and learnt to be a tough negotiator. We worked out that in seven years I had amassed a million air miles, which gives you an idea of the amount of time I spent on the road.”
Flood’s time at Penneys came to an end when she received a phone call from Paul Kelly, now chief executive at Selfridges but at that time managing director of A-Wear. Kelly offered her the job of fashion director, which was an offer she could not refuse.She says: “Ireland is an incredibly competitive place in which to retail. You live the business 24 hours a day and are always aware of what your rivals are up to. At A-Wear it has always been about standing out from the rest of them.
“We are not interested in following, which I think has stood us in good stead, particularly when British high street chains made the move into Ireland. We were able to step up to that challenge and raise the bar. We have to offer fabulous product and fabulous service at a great price and we can’t afford to fail on any of those.”
The core A-Wear customer, she says, is aged between 18 and 26. She is fashion forward, loves colour and is trend-driven, but prefers feminine styling and likes the boutique aesthetic that A-Wear can offer. Flood adds: “She is not really interested in buying what I would call basic product.”
In the UK, A-Wear’s stores will sit just above the likes of New Look and below River Island, Oasis and Principles in terms of pricing. During Flood’s decade at A-Wear, sales have doubled and her success led to a promotion to chief executive. In that role she pushed the business forward under a lean management team that includes herself, finance director Mark Naughton-Rumbo, buying director Yvonne Nugent and operations director Darragh Kelly.
A-Wear’s head office in Dublin is manned by just 45 staff, and the business employs 500 people in total. “We are a lean, mean organisation which works for us at the moment and enables us to react quickly to threats and opportunities,” says Flood. A-Wear, Flood happily concedes, is a buying-led business. One where, she maintains, its team of five buyers are more creatively driven than most but commercially harder nosed. They have to be, as the chain has just two merchandisers who work closely with the buying team. Flood says: “We do not employ a full-time designer although we have someone who works with us exclusively on our fashion direction every season. She comes up with a detailed template of stories with myself and the team, which the buyers take out to our supply base and develop themselves.
“There is an awful lot of autonomy for the people who work in the business. Each manager is encouraged to think of the store as their own; when I used to run a store that is how I thought about it. At head office each buyer’s assistant has to do everything from basic allocating to checking lab dips to confirm fabric colours. It is great training.
“We encourage them to spend time in store and do stints in the fitting room to get to know their customer. I know this will become more of a challenge as we grow as a business and that is something that we will have to manage as it happens.
“But the boutique aesthetic of this business is something that I thrive on. I am involved in everything, from the creative direction and signing off ranges to marketing, choosing the store locations and setting the overall strategy. “The diversity of the job is one of the reasons why I love it so much. It feeds the two sides of me – the fashion creative and the cut and thrust businesswoman.”
2007 Chief executive, A-Wear
2004 Managing director, A-Wear
1998 Fashion director, A-Wear
1997 Head of womenswear, woven division, Dunnes Various roles rising to position of buying controller, Penneys/Primark
Who is your fashion icon?
Miuccia Prada. She is the perfect blend of businesswoman and creative. It is inspirational
to look at her career, she is a rare breed. It’s very seldom that you see
such a strong creative personality with a razor-sharp business brain. I also admire Madonna for her ability to reinvent herself, which we have to do all the time in this business, and my dad, who ran his own hardware store and from whom I learnt an awful lot.
What is the best-selling product you have worked on?
The one that sticks in the mind was a brightly coloured mac that we sold 500 of on its first day in just 20 stores. I walked home from work and I can remember counting how many girls were wearing it. I still do that with other winners and it gives me such a buzz.
What has been your proudest achievement?
I think that has to be to go from being changing room girl to chief executive in the business, albeit with a break. When I started out there were two buying offices in Dublin and I never dreamt that the foot I got in the door would take me all the way it has.
Which is your favourite retailer?
There is a store in New York called Morgane Le Fay that I never go in without buying something. It is almost like a gallery with the clothes making up the art exhibition. It is both accessible and seductive.
What would be your dream job apart from fashion?
I would love to have been an artist but I do not have the talent. I always find time to visit an art gallery when I’m travelling. In another life I think I could have been an interior designer. Five years ago my husband and I bought an old house in Dublin and gutted it. We have spent the past three years refurbishing it, which I have loved doing.