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The Drapers Interview: Brian Brick on bringing Moss Bros back from the brink

Brian Brick

As his seven-year turnaround plan finally comes to fruition, Moss Bros chief executive Brian Brick can taste the fruits of his labour.

Moss Bros chief executive Brian Brick is on sparkling form. Fresh from a break in Cape Town, with the sun-kissed complexion to prove it, he chats brightly as he expertly weaves his way through Moss Bros’ Clapham Junction store, handily located beneath the company’s headquarters. Who can blame his optimism, there is plenty for Brick to smile about in Moss Bros’ 165th anniversary year.

“When I arrived here it was pretty rocky and most people didn’t think the business would survive, but we have”

In the 23 weeks to January 9, the menswear retailer grew like-for-like sales by 4.2%, with gross margin up 2.8% on the same period last year. Retail sales climbed 3.5%, while the hire side of the business rose 9.5%. The biggest surge was in online, with sales rising 32.7% during the 49 weeks to January 9. Looking back, in the 26 weeks to August 1 sales rose 10% to £61.3m, with pre-tax profits soaring 44%.

It was a different scenario when Brick took over the struggling formalwear business in 2009. During the first half of that year Moss Bros reported a £3m loss, with sales down 0.6% to £60.7m and like-for-likes slumping by 2.6%.

Moss Bros spring 16 campaign

Moss Bros spring 16 campaign

Business turnaround

Brick believes a mixture of brand clarity, consistent full-price trading, a store refit programme, investment in staff and a better integrated multichannel experience have driven the turnaround, which helped Moss Bros scoop the Most Improved Retailer award at the Drapers Awards in November.

“When I arrived here it was pretty rocky and most people didn’t think the business would survive, but we have,” states Brick, cutting straight to the point over the boardroom table in his office above the Clapham Junction store. Dapper male models in blue suits gaze down from the spring 16 campaign artwork, signalling a conscious move towards a more contemporary styling.

“When I started at the business there was an absolute sea of red and white, everything was on offer. While we’re still an offer-driven business, we have far fewer Sales. There are two major Sales at Christmas and in the summer, as well as two mid-season Sales, which are much shorter than before. Often the promotion isn’t price driven but around the product. So, for example, we’ll promote the attributes of our £159 wool, polyester and Lycra performance suit.”

Every strategy is aimed at developing the Moss Bros brand, Brick explains, relaxing confidently in his chair. This included discontinuing the Canali franchise, selling 15 Hugo Boss stores back to the German retailer and selling Cecil Gee to JD Sports in 2011, as well as rebadging stores as Moss Bros, rather than Moss, from 2013.

‘Good, better, best’

“We also reappraised our in-house brands for autumn 14 and came up with a ‘good, better, best’ hierarchy,” he explains. “Each of our sub-brands represents a different fit, so there’s real clarity within the line-up. We also cleaned up the outside brands, so we now have three major brands – Ted Baker, French Connection and DKNY – each of which has a clear market position.”

The streamlined brand portfolio reflects Brick’s quest for clarity. Launched for autumn 14, the Moss Esq, Moss London and Moss 1851 sub-brands each represent a slim, contemporary tailored or fuller regular fit, selling alongside the Savoy Tailors Guild label, which survived the cull thanks to its continued popularity.

Entry-level Moss Esq is a regular fit suit aimed at the workwear market, while slim fit Moss London has a quirkier, youthful style and Moss 1851 offers a sophisticated classic look. Prices start at £100 for a Moss Esq suit, climbing to £300 for a Savoy Tailors Guild or Moss 1851 suit. The core prices sit between £150 and £200, ranging from pure wool to wool blends and poly viscose. While suits dominate sales, the casual jacketing side of the business is growing and every piece is now sold as a separate to feed the trend for flexible dressing.

Brick confirms made-to-measure service Moss Bespoke, launched in 2010, will be phased out over the next couple of months and replaced by the Tailor Me personalisation service, which launched in six stores in November.

For £100 plus the off-the-peg suit price, the customer selects the fit and fabric they desire, as well as making up to five alterations to the suit standard block, such as changing the jacket or sleeve length. They are also given five styling options from the number of buttons to the lapel style. Manufactured in Asia, where Moss Bros carries out all its production, the personalised suit is guaranteed to arrive in 30 days or less. Rolling out in stores nationwide in the spring, Tailor Me will launch online at the end of 2016.

Leaning across the table to show off his personalised tailored fit, single-breasted mid-blue suit, Brick explains the rationale: “Moss Bespoke went reasonably well, but I feel there’s a much bigger opportunity with Tailor Me. It is more about made-to-order and individuality. It’s for those customers who want something personalised or who might be a bit shorter or taller and always struggle to buy off the peg.”

Paul Monks, owner of Hertfordshire two-store indie Purple Menswear, has noted a similar demand for personalisation, with made-to-measure now representing 65% of his business. “Men are now looking for interesting fabric and a slightly slimmer cut. They’re being a little braver, going for more checks and brighter colours,” he says.

“I see Moss Bros as a middle-tier brand. For most people they are an obtainable price whereas the Hackett or Hugo Boss suits we stock are more for a special occasion. I think the Moss Bros offer is great for an everyday work suit at a good price.”

Taking a look at the Moss Bros business as a whole, the split is 85% retail, 15% suits for hire. Within the hire business 60% is for weddings and 40% for black tie events. Moss Bros reacted to the shift towards lounge suits by expanding its collection and updating the look of its morning suits, introducing exclusive slimmer fit hire suits from Ted Baker.

The updated product mix has been noted by William Coe, managing director of independent department store Coe’s of Ispwich, which offers formal hirewear. “Moss Bros has upped its game over the past couple of years as the formal hire business has evolved more towards lounge suits. Hire wear has bounced back as people become more used to purchasing online, although we personally sell more suits than hire.

“The suit trade is still challenging at times, being polarised between the lower end and high bracket items, with the middle being squeezed. Moss Bros are a volume player and while they do a good job they only really affect us at bottom or middle of our range, as we also stock premium brands like Without Prejudice and Remus Uomo.”

Aiming to offer a point of difference to competitors such as Marks & Spencer and Next, Moss Bros plans to bring the hire and retail websites closer together in 2016, allowing customers to flick between the two. While still only 10% of the business, the chief executive is confident ecommerce can reach 30% to 40% in the next couple of years.

“Online is growing tremendously and we’re backing it with more stock. The typical footprint of our stores is about 2,500 sq ft, so we’re limited in terms of space, whereas online you have elastic walls. So we’re looking to take on new brands online and then introduce them into a handful of stores.”

For spring 16 Moss Bros added Savile Row label Hardy Amies online and in select stores, with Brick feeling the quirky aesthetic and £400 suit price point was a good fit.

Moss Bros spring 16 campaign

Moss Bros spring 16 campaign

New store layout

Another initiative is the refurbished store layout, which is now divided by fit – slim, tailored and regular – rather than brand, in a bid to simplify the customer journey. The majority of Moss Bros’ 126 stores will be refitted by the end of 2017.

Out in store at least once a week, the Moss Bros boss enjoys seeing the customer reaction first hand. “I go into a store that’s just been refurbished and a customer will say: ‘It’s great to have a Moss Bros in town,’ but there’s been a store there for 15 years,” he laughs. “We put in a contemporary shopfit and suddenly people notice it. This reflects how the whole perception of the business is changing.”

Moss Bros is planning to open five new stores nationwide by the end of 2016. While unwilling to reveal exact locations, Brick is eyeing a further 30 towns and cities across the UK for potential stores.

Backing bricks-and-mortar comes as second nature for a man who grew up on the shopfloor of his father’s fashion retail business Brick’s Manshops, which at its height spanned 22 stores. After graduating with an accounting degree from Manchester University in 1985, Brick realigned the business, slashing the stores to six and rebranding as Suits You. In 2005, when the parent company, then called Speciality Retail Group, sold to Gresham Private Equity, it fetched £30m.

“Brian is an old-school retailer who understands the product and he’s done a fantastic job at Moss Bros,” says independent retail analyst Richard Hyman. “During his period at the helm he has brought online and offline closer together, as well as improving the quality, fit and styling. Whereas before the stores were cluttered and too reliant on discounting, Brick has axed peripheral product, edited the sub-brands and tightened up operations. The results speak for themselves.

“It’s a different challenge now he’s turned Moss Bros back from the edge of oblivion. He can start to explore international opportunities online, for example in the Far East and Australia.”

“We don’t want to be just selling cheap suits. We want to develop Moss Bros into the first choice for men’s tailoring”

And the new-found confidence in the business is already propelling Brick’s international agenda. Moss Bros will open its first international standalone store in Dubai’s Ibn Battuta mall with partner Retail Arabia in March, following the opening of its first concession in House of Fraser Abu Dhabi in July 2015.

“We felt the business was ready to go abroad and that the Middle East was a good place to launch, especially as we have a lot of Middle Eastern customers in our West End stores. We are also currently recruiting someone to drum up international business.”

Investment in staff from the shop floor to head office is a priority. This month it was announced Charles Tyrwhitt finance director Tony Bennett will join as group finance director in August, while former Ann Summers managing director Paula Minowa will be responsible for customer journey in a newly created chief operating officer role. Brick praises the improving calibre of the workforce, which now includes his 22-year-old daughter Gabby, a buyer’s admin assistant.

“We’ve still got a hell of a way to go, but I’m very ambitious. We don’t want to be just selling cheap suits. We want to develop Moss Bros into the first choice for men’s tailoring,” says Brick vehemently. “I liken retail to a jigsaw. Unless you have every piece in place you don’t have a picture.”

And it would appear that, for the time being at least, the pieces are falling into place for Moss Bros.

UK men’s suit market

52 weeks to January 18 2015 

£519.8m spend on suits, 4.9m sales volume, £106.18 average parice of a suit 

52 weeks to January 18 2016

£499.3m spend on suits, 4.7m sales volume, £106.36 average parice of a suit

Source: Kantar Worldpanel

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