The Moss Bros chief executive has been forced to make some tough decisions since joining the menswear retailer, but is confident his actions are beginning to pay off.
“Is this for the big spread? Oh God, that’s horrible. Why have I agreed to do this? I hate publicity.” So opens Brian Brick, the grumpy suit specialist who took the helm of menswear group Moss Bros in March last year.
Except this is feigned grumpiness. Brick bats back questions with playful petulance, but he also laughs a great deal, reels off anecdotes and, at one point, goes so far as to admit he is enjoying himself.
Perhaps he likes a slightly gruff image. It has certainly helped him oversee a period of momentous change at the menswear retailer, which includes the Moss; Moss Bros Hire; Cecil Gee and now Moss Bespoke fascias (more of which later), as well as the UK franchise for Hugo Boss and is a stockist of Canali. Since he arrived, Brick has instigated a slight but significant shift upmarket. He has also overseen a 12.6% increase in like-for-like sales in the 16 weeks to May 22 and narrowed Moss Bros’s underlying pre-tax losses from £5m to £3.9m for the year to January 30.
However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Staff including trading director Ciaran McCloskey and chairman David Adams have left the business, and
Brick admits to losing sleep over lower-level redundancies.
Although the worst is now over, it is far from complete. “Culture is something that changes over a period of time. It’s not like saying, ‘Yesterday you were wearing grey suits. Today I want us all to wear navy blue suits,’” he says.
Aside from the cultural shift - which Brick hopes will see Moss Bros move towards a “much more inclusive” atmosphere - he has effected tangible changes in store. The retailer has cut down on the number of brands it sells, dropping the likes of Pierre Cardin, for example, in favour of more “depth”.
“If you spend the money you would have spent on 10 brands on five instead, you will have the customer’s size [in stock] and they will buy. Customers can’t buy what they can’t see. They can buy what they do see.”
At the other end of the spectrum Brick has brought back quirkier brands like Ted Baker into Moss, and has worked to get new season product into its fashion-led fascia Cecil Gee and Hugo Boss franchise stores faster to satisfy a growing appetite for “newness and freshness”.
In keeping with these changes, Moss has stopped filling its windows with bargain-basement price messages, and begun instead to highlight its aspirational new brands. It is also rolling out a new storefit that is “simpler, easier to understand and has a few twists to it that say suit specialist,” says Brick.
Brick is very keen on this sentiment. For Moss Bros to succeed, he argues, it must play up to its specialist credentials and drastically limit the extent to which it competes on price. The 120-store Moss chain has been known to offer £49 suits in the past, but Brick now wants its cheapest suit to be priced no lower than £100 (even though he will pass some of the impending January VAT rise to 20% on to customers).
“To me, £49 was supermarket territory, and I don’t want to be there. If you purely sell on price, it’s a very difficult market, so let’s not try,” he says. “What we can give is great value. We have to create the perception [of value] and I think our recent numbers are beginning to show that our customers understand.”
Moss Bros launched its new made-to-measure concept playing straight into this idea. Moss Bespoke was Brick’s brainchild, and opened its first store on Blomfield Street in London with considerable fanfare just over a month ago, offering “bespoke” suits sourced from China for up to £500 and shirts for £75.
There was also considerable animosity from traditional tailors. Savile Row suitors were unimpressed and took
Moss Bros to task for using the word “bespoke”, claiming passionately that the company was “trashing” the term. Brick clearly does not want a row, but stands his ground.
“Trash is a very, very hard word. The customers who come into our shops fully understand what we’re doing. People don’t necessarily want ‘me too’s’. They want something different that they can afford,” he says.
More generally, Moss Bros has seen a recessional trend towards sober, conventional purchases, although the emphasis is still on quality.
Brick, who is sharply dressed in his company’s attire, argues that many men regard classic suits as essential to keeping them in a job: “People do not want to be seen to be a scruff in the office when things get tough. We are selling more and we’re selling better [quality].”
If there is the renewed appetite for smart attire that he claims, Moss Bros may well see an upswing in business independent of Brick’s strategic changes.
Before last month’s emergency Budget, he told Drapers he was filled with fear about what 20% VAT might mean for retailers, although ultimately he welcomed the package of measures. Interestingly for the head of a large listed company, he was almost as buoyed by the relief for small firms as he was
by the decision to delay the VAT increase to January.
“Every small business doing well represents customers through the door. We don’t exist in a vacuum,” he explains. “I don’t worry about what we do at Moss Bros because that’s in our hands. But I do worry about the wider economy.”
Selling the family business
When I sold Speciality Retail Group I left my emotions in the business. You have a choice: you either keep the emotions or you take the money, and I decided to take the money.
What keeps him awake at night
One doesn’t enjoy playing with people’s lives. It’s very hard if I’m the person saying ‘We need to make a change’. The reality is that person’s out of a job. That’s horrible.
Moss Bros’s future
Moss Bros is a heritage brand. It’s known for certain things and it’s unknown for other things it already does very well. That means there is lots of potential.
Moving into womenswear
You think you can replicate what one does in men’s in women’s but it’s not that easy. What is a women’s suit? Is it a suit? Is it a dress? Is it a blouse and a skirt? I wouldn’t rule a move into womenswear out but it’s a very different market.
Men are always first to lose out in a recession. You don’t want to say no to your kids and you certainly don’t want to say no to your wife.
Service in store
We need to get the right staff. That’s a challenge. We’re halfway towards where I want to be but that comes down to training.
- 2009 Chief executive, Moss Bros
- 2008 Non-executive director, Moss Bros
- 2007 Steps down as non-executive director, Speciality Retail Group (SRG)
- 2005 Brick family sells SRG to Gresham Private Equity for £30m. Includes Suits You, Young’s Hire, Racing Green and Chester Barrie
- 1985 Takes over Brick’s Manshops and rebrands as Suits You. Grows business to SRG