The first managing director of Moda In Pelle has a reputation for turning around big-name multiples, so what compelled him to join a 35-year-old footwear indie?
Sitting in the opulent art deco dining room of Claridge’s Hotel in London’s Mayfair, Tom Clark, managing director of independent footwear chain Moda In Pelle, is abstaining from breakfast.
He has been up since 6am and as he sups his tea, Clark is open, direct and makes no bones about his ambitions for the independent footwear chain.
Somewhat surprisingly, he reveals that he is preparing to lead a management buyout of Moda In Pelle and that it is just a matter of time before he makes his play. This is a man who does not hang around. “If someone gives me an instruction manual, I ask for the one-page summary at the back,” he smiles. “Retail is a today business and those people who sit around are waiting to lose,” he says.
Clark began his retail career among hockey sticks and tennis balls on the shop floor of a three-store independent sports retailer, Stanforth Sports in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. From there he joined Olympus Sports in the mid-1980s when brands such as Sergio Tacchini and Lacoste were flying and prices for sportswear were topping out at £100 for the first time. Next it was on to Sock Shop and then the Burton Group where he got his first exposure to modern day retail heavyweights, working under the likes of Sir Stuart Rose and Phil Wrigley, now the bosses of Marks & Spencer and New Look respectively.
“When you are an area manager and you are sat around a table with retailers like them, you just think, ‘oh my God’” he says. “You think you know what you’re on about but in terms of education and getting a real business view, it was a fantastic experience.”
After cutting his teeth by learning from retail’s leading lights, Clark says he began to receive calls from exasperated retailers looking for a fix-it man.
Stints at kidswear specialist Adams Kids, furniture business Harveys and big-box footwear retailer Brantano followed. “There have been a lot of cases on my CV where people called me to sort their problems out,” he says. “Adams was a turnaround job and I had a fantastic time. It had just become loss-making and there was no real vision for the business. After I left Adams I went to turn around Harveys, and my role was to put clarity around the vision and then deliver it.”
Clark took up a role at Brantano after leaving Harveys in 2004 and was charged with making the marginally profitable business more relevant to UK shoppers.
After leaving in 2006, his career went full circle when he turned down a job with Middle Eastern retail giant Alshaya and instead opted to return to his indie roots by joining Moda In Pelle.
For the past 35 years, Moda In Pelle has been run by owners Stephen and Claire Buck. But Clark tells Drapers that the pair are looking to step away from the business and have hired him, along with his experience of retail turnarounds, to take the reins.
It seems a strange choice. After rescuing so many high-profile multiples, why was it that Clark decided to return to the independent scene? “With Moda it’s all about whether it is potentially going to be a management buyout,” he says. “That is the reason for having a look at it. There is a desire from the current owners to step away from the business.”
The current co-owner of Mode In Pelle, Stephen Buck, is a serial entrepreneur, with investments reaching beyond retail into property and telecoms. However, in March of this year he rescued middle-market womenswear retailer Emma Somerset and sister two-store retailer French Dressing from administration. Buck has now charged Clark with running the 12-store Emma Somerset business alongside Moda In Pelle, giving him the opportunity to once again display his revitalising talent.
Moda In Pelle’s spell in administration came in 2006. Buck bought back the business a day later, angering suppliers who were left out of pocket. Now, 18 months on, Clark says he has got the retailer back into shape and it is having its best season since the administration in terms of sales and margin.
He tells Drapers that upon his arrival at the business, there could have been three different discount promotions running at the same time with no strategy behind them, while there was no quality control process behind the product.
“When I walked through the door of Moda it became clear that there was this independent business versus the corporate machine. The things you assume that will be there aren’t. It is a lovely brand with fantastic product and it has a great IT system but my job was to give it focus, clarity and to take the brand and make it commercially viable. The day-to-day dynamics really focus the mind and drive performance; there are no corporate comforts, no room for apathy or dead wood. You either make a difference and deliver, or you get found out very quickly.”
The current economic climate is not giving the footwear sector much of a leg-up, as players across every sector continue to feel the slowdown. Moda In Pelle’s high street footwear rival Faith has recently hoisted a ‘For Sale’ sign and whether it is in the value end of the footwear market, the luxury sector or the middle market, sales are slowing.
Clark, however, is not the type to shy away from a challenge. “Blow the whistle and over the top we go,” he smiles. “I love the call to action.”
He says Moda In Pelle will deliver sales of £15 million and a pre-tax profit of between £1m and £2m this year. “The footwear landscape has changed more in the past year than ever with the demise of a number of chains, so the promised consolidation of the mid market has already taken place,” says Clark. “There is a [footwear] market of about £5.2 billion and everyone thinks they can have a slice of the action. In the end it’s about product – innovation, quality and price.”
Filling the gap
Clark is involved with product selection, ranging, store environment and the retail proposition, and has invested in extensive customer research this year. Moda In Pelle’s offer is positioned against Faith and Dune, designed to give party-loving young women some fashion, glitz and glamour. But Clark is adamant that he doesn’t want the brand to appeal to the brasher end of the footwear market. “I don’t want to target Jordan, I want to target Katie Price,” he says. “I want to target Fearne Cotton too. We fill the gap between Dune and Kurt Geiger; that’s where we position ourselves in the market.”
The typical shopper, according to Clark, is a 30- to 45-year-old yummy-mummy or a lady who lunches, with high levels of disposable income. “She shops with us five to seven times a year and likes fashion and style but is not a slave to it, and has probably done designer brands to death in her early years. The Moda In Pelle woman likes something with a twist and shoes that make a statement.”
Footwear at the retailer ranges from £30 for a sandal to £300 for boots. Sky-high heels, platforms and patent leather are staples in store, with quirky buckles and strap details.
However, in April this year Moda In Pelle was hit with a lawsuit questioning the originality of one of its designs. The business had to pay luxury footwear brand Gina £100,000 damages plus legal costs of £150,000 and destroy 5,000 pairs of shoes after Gina accused Moda In Pelle of copying its designs. Buck said at the time that the similarity between the styles was “entirely accidental and unintentional.”
Despite the incident the retailer has pressed on with business as usual and is focusing on its retail roll-out plans. Clark is determined to expand Moda In Pelle’s reach in the south of England and plans to open stores in Exeter and Bristol this year.
The Moda In Pelle wholesale operation is another element which Clark believes has growing potential, although he is the first to admit that previous wholesale partners have been burned by the brand due to bad delivery and service. He vows that this has now changed, and he is gunning to grow the account base from its current level of 200 stockists.
With 31 standalone stores across the UK and with plans to expand the portfolio to 50 stores within the next three years, Clark has developed a new shopfit with which to revamp the retailer. He claims it is driving a healthy 10% sales improvement in the stores that have been refurbished.The new shopfit uses fabric seating, chandeliers, flock wallpaper and soft textured furnishings and softer lighting to give a more feminine boutique feel, as opposed to the previous minimal white box design. Clark says the three trial stores, on South Molton Street in central London, the Victoria Quarter in Leeds and Lakeside shopping centre in Thurrock, Essex, have all outperformed expectations and that the green light has been given for the roll-out of the format which will see all of the existing stores undergoing refurbishment over the next two years.
Moda In Pelle is also in discussions with potential franchise partners for stores in new markets in the Far East and Russia. The new shopfit, the store opening programme and continued product development will all add value to the business that Clark is hoping to own one day. Now it is only a matter of time.
2007 Managing director, Moda In Pelle
2004 Retail operations director, Brantano
2002 Sales and operations director, Harveys
1997 Head of retail, UK and RoI, Adams Kids
1993 Business development manager/area manager, Burton
1989 Area manager, Sock Shop
1984 Various store manager positions, Olympus Sports