With a sparkling new showroom facility and a portfolio of brands including Remus Uomo, Irish menswear company Douglas & Grahame’s commercial director is bullish about growth.
Five years of planning came to fruition at the opening of Douglas & Grahame’s new warehouse and showroom complex in Carrickfergus, just a short journey from the company’s original Belfast home. The facility is an impressive lynchpin in the expansion plan of the menswear company, which owns the Remus Uomo and Douglas brands, but the trouble with five-year-old plans is that they were made against a decidedly different economic backdrop.
Sat in his new office, commercial director Donald Finlay is realistic about the impact of the recession but remains resolute: “We wouldn’t have forecast so significant a downturn but it’s a long-term strategy for the business. This will strengthen us when the upturn comes.”
Though softly spoken, Finlay, like his brother and managing director Richard, is clearly held in high regard at the company. His quiet words ring with confidence. He says while year-end figures showed flat turnover, at £23m for the year, and a slight fall in margin, the company is still profitable. He adds: “The balance sheet is healthy and we have a cautious approach to business.”
Even the £7m spent on the new headquarters, he says, shows a sensible business. “We had outgrown our old home and one advantage of negotiating in a tough climate is you can get good value.”
But one rival suiting supplier that Drapers spoke to questioned the sense of opening a regional facility at all, suggesting instead that a London showroom would have made a much stronger statement if the business was committed to international expansion.
However, Finlay is clear about the strategy. “The idea of this facility is to give us an international stage and a platform to present to buyers from outside [Northern and the Republic of] Ireland. It has to appear exciting and present our story the way we want it to,” he says.
At the head office are showrooms presenting youthful tailoring brand Remus Uomo and mainstream offering Douglas alongside formalwear brands Daniel Grahame and Wellington, as well as 1880 Club boyswear.
It’s not something that could be achieved in London at anywhere near a comparable investment. But the wisdom of this strategy may not be fully borne out until the economy recovers. As for when that will happen, Finlay is circumspect. Smoothing things along until then, he hopes, will be the new group sales director Duncan Smilie – recruited from software company Psion, where he was managing director.
Finlay says: “He brings a sales expertise from a strategic level and has a good track record in managing sales teams in different markets. We have an established market and an experienced sales force but it needs a review of its strategy to avoid complacency.”
Smilie, a charismatic Scot who will work from the company’s office in Birmingham, is a confident type and certainly capable of injecting a sense of purpose. He is “very clear” about his ambitions for Douglas & Grahame: “[I want to] maintain the fantastic business we have in Ireland and to grow it initially in the UK and then beyond.”
This chimes perfectly with Finlay, who says: “We want to expand our market share outside of Ireland. Duncan will be charged with examining new market opportunities and new product areas for our established brands.”
Finlay says the goals will be achieved by strengthening the brands’ profiles. Remus Uomo is being updated, he says. “A new capsule range Green Label is part of our strategy to renew it for a younger client, focusing on 20- to 23-year-olds.” He explains that a generation has already grown up with the brand and now it needs to be refocused. Douglas, the company’s mainstream collection, is “no less important”, according to Finlay. It certainly provides a bulwark for many of the company’s stockists. When Drapers spoke to stockists about Douglas, there was only positivity, with retailers calling the company a pleasure to work with.
Guarded yet confident, Finlay is a reflection of Douglas & Grahame, a cash-rich business that has remained debt-free since its inception in 1924. Looking to the future, Finlay outlines the company’s ambition: “In the next five years we would want a 50% increase in business.”
The scale of that task though may be forbidding. According to one brand representative, formalwear is driven by price in the current climate and this means that own label is more relevant to buyers than brands are, given its margin advantage. Finlay says: “We know to do that [grow 50%] we will have to get beyond the UK and Ireland. We see getting new partners as fundamental to helping us get a foothold in markets like Russia and Eastern Europe.”
Remus Uomo has 45 stockists in the Republic of Ireland, 30 in Northern Ireland and 70 in the rest of the UK. Douglas has 40, 20 and 64 in each of these territories respectively.
But Finlay is well aware of the pressure on retailers. “Retailers’ sales are either flat or down. Consumers are asking for value for money and that is why we try to offer the best quality. That may mean compromising on margins and you have to be careful with that but we have a certain market positioning we have to keep for the brands.”
Finlay is also looking to seed more revenue streams. Following the opening of Remus Uomo and Douglas stores in Belfast, own retail has muscled onto the agenda. Finlay says the company has identified “one or two areas where a retail presence would not conflict with stockists”. He adds: “Once we understand retailing, we can look at franchise opportunities. We have two pilot schemes in Ireland – because it’s pilot stage we’ll be discreet about where they are”.
This caution is a mark of the man. He says: “I’m not the sort of guy who gets terribly emotional or excited, but I am practical. There’s always anxiety more than anything else but hopefully great euphoria when sales figures come in.”
Where do you most like to shop? It’s strange to say but I’m not a typical shopper. I always have an agenda when I shop and I look at every menswear retailer. I do take holidays in the US and there’s a lot to learn from retail over there as well as in other European cities.
Which is your favourite city to shop in? I do believe that Belfast and its recent Victoria Square development has raised it to a level not known before.
What’s the best thing about Belfast? Despite its reputation from the past it’s now got more people visiting; it’s very well serviced by airports and flights and there are dozens of ferries daily. There’s still a feeling that it’s a friendly place and there’s a beautiful drive along Belfast Loch to our showroom.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on? One of the challenges for us is width of product range including boys’ and school wear but there are movements within it. It was casual shirts a couple of years ago and we have always been strong on trouser separates. But as a brand, Remus Uomo has had the most significant growth.
What would be your dream job outside of fashion? Certainly motorsport interests me. It’s untouchable – the speed and the style, [I’d like to drive in] either Formula One or international rallying.
What do you think is your greatest achievement? I could get personal and go beyond business, as there’s a wife and family that I’m proud of.
2007 Opened Remus Uomo stores in Belfast and Glasgow
1997 Added knitwear and shirt production to responsibilities
1995 Opened first Remus Uomo retail store in Belfast
1991 Developed Remus Uomo brand
1982 Promoted to commercial director with responsibility for boyswear
1980 Promoted to head boyswear brand 1880 Club
1977 Joined Douglas & Grahame