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From the archive: The Drapers Interview with former Ben Sherman CEO Miles Gray

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As we near the 25th anniversary of the Drapers Awards on November 26 at Old Billingsgate in London, we are looking back at some of the previous winners of the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award. Today we revisit former Ben Sherman CEO Miles Gray’s big win. From our archive, here is the Drapers Interview with Gray after his win in 2010.

After leaving school at 15 with no qualifications, this year’s Drapers Lifetime Achievement Award winner conquered the denim market and turned Ben Sherman into a global force.

Miles Gray has had as many reinventions as Madonna. And he’s certainly toured the world celebrity-style, living a rock star lifestyle complete with cigars and beer and the other trappings that come with being young and in the denim industry overseas (he doesn’t mind saying so either). But the biggest trait he shares with the world’s most famous pop star is an almost obsessive work ethic. It’s this determination that has earned him massive industry respect and more than a few quid in the process.

Gray made his biggest mark on UK fashion almost immediately after he led a management buyout (MBO) of Ben Sherman in 2000. He took what was a very British men’s shirt brand, with respectable sales of somewhere between £30m and £40m, on a global tour, evolving it into a full lifestyle offer with fashion credibility and driving sales to £100m over seven years. “The retail value of those sales was actually £220m,” he points out.

Raw ambition

But his career has been more far reaching than just one supply success story. Born to a labourer/part-time professional cricketer and a school dinner lady, Gray had a “basic background” though he stresses it was a great childhood. It sowed in him a seed of raw ambition. “I did get jealous and envious of others when I was young,” he says. That ambition didn’t spur him on in education though, and at 15 he left school without any qualifications to take a factory job, where he stayed for six years. “I never realised my full potential [at school],” he admits.

Gray then flitted between a series of jobs, including driving a truck and working in a biscuit factory, until he spotted an ad in the paper for a government course run by the Department of Trade and Industry to train young people in export sales. “I wangled my way onto it,” says Gray. Within six months he was in Copenhagen and after a few false starts selling photographic equipment, Lancashire tiles and British bridlewear (of the horse rather than meringue-dress variety), he struck gold taking Gossard’s newly launched Wonderbra into Danish department store Magasin du Nord. Gossard duly started paying Gray commission. He was hooked and thus began his first reinvention.

His first “proper” export job was at Wescot, a British jeans and trouser brand, known for its stay-pressed qualities. Aged just 21, Gray was hired to take the brand to Africa and the Middle East and, somewhat bizarrely, the Republic of Ireland too. Exporting to the likes of Zaire, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast would be a big ask in 2010, let alone in 1969.

“It was rough and ready. I’d go round the shops and take orders and send the goods by parcel post. There was some sort of civil war or siege raging in Nigeria but I wasn’t a war correspondent or anything. I was young and single and had a great time,” he says. It’s hard to imagine many 21-year-olds taking on such a task today but a sense of fearlessness is almost certainly at the heart of Gray’s many achievements.

Settling down

By the early to mid-1970s Gray had settled down with a family and left Wescot to work as an agent for Lee Jeans in the south of England, including London, with sizeable customers such as the 50-plus store Jean Machine chain. He had the Republic of Ireland as a territory too, because of his knowledge of the market from his days at Wescot.

Gray’s appointment as an agent couldn’t have come at a better moment. There was a major shortage of indigo dye at the time and brands like Levi’s and Wrangler didn’t have sufficient supply. Lee, however, did and Gray ended up earning more than Lee’s US president in commission.

His dealings with Jean Machine led him to spot a gap in the market. “It had an own label called Fu’s, which, because of its good fit and concept, I knew Jean Machine could wholesale. But it wouldn’t, so instead I created another brand called Razzy, which Jean Machine came in on as partners.”

Razzy was a jeans brand, which stood out for its colour co-ordinated labels - for example a brown jean would have a woven waistband and back pocket label in similar brown tones. Between 1978 and 1982 the brand exploded, growing to sales of £6m (equivalent to £17m today).

Losing the lot

Its success was down to Gray, who in all of his jobs has been happy to pick up his case and go out to see the customer. His unwavering persistence has been another reason for his many successes.

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However, Razzy was, in Gray’s words, “under-invested”, and fell foul of the introduction of quotas from Hong Kong and currency fluctuations. It collapsed like a pack of cards, taking with it Gray’s entire fortune. “I’d guaranteed the business against the house, my kids were at private school… everything had to go.”

He recalls: “I was sitting in the big kitchen in my big house wondering how I was going to pay the next term’s school fees when my wife tapped the gold watch on my wrist. I sold it to raise the money. The next term came though and I tapped her wrist…” Gray smirks, his sense of humour coming to the fore in spite of the painful memories.

It wasn’t long before he picked himself up and went off on his next adventure, moving to Germany aged 40, where ironically he was hired to wind down Wescot’s failing German operation. In typical style, Gray wasn’t fazed by not being able to speak any German and headed to Düsseldorf to sort out “a lot of trouble”.

When his contract with Wescot came to an end, Gray was contacted by Pepe Jeans founder Nitin Shah and took up his offer to run the brand in Germany.

He took Pepe’s sales from zero to between £20m and £30m in just three years, with an operating profit of 20%: “I sold the first pair of jeans and packed the first box. I would just see a town, find a shop, go in and sell them some jeans.

“I was 41 or 42. It was quite a big deal for me to be doing that. But I embraced it and reinvented myself. I was just some bloke out there seeing customers.”

One such customer was Karl-Heinz Müller, founder of trade show Bread & Butter, who later worked with Gray at Pepe Jeans but who at the time was running a store in Cologne.

Gray then ended up running continental European export sales for Pepe, under Fred Gehring, now chief executive of Tommy Hilfiger. Gray cites Gehring, along with Shah, as two of the people he admires most. “Fred was a bit of a hard taskmaster but he worked so hard himself. We didn’t always see eye to eye but he was a clever guy.”

Although Gray’s hard work earned him a “job for life” at Pepe, he moved on, joining Crescent Greenwood in 1997, one of the biggest denim manufacturers in the UK, which was setting up a massive jeans factory just outside Lahore in Pakistan. “It was a nightmare,” says Gray. “We couldn’t sell 1,000 pairs, we had to sell 50,000 to make it work. But we managed to get brands like Levi’s on board.”

Enter Ben Sherman

Gray didn’t enjoy his stint in Pakistan, and when his son, Nick Gray, who was working as marketing director at Ben Sherman at the time, told him of a role to head up export and international sales at the brand, Gray took the opportunity to meet then chief executive Bill Walker. Walker hired him of course.

Gray was appointed chief executive two-and-a-half years later, after an MBO backed by private equity fund 3i, which took an 80% stake. The business evolved from selling 100% shirts when Gray took over, to shirts contributing just 40% of total turnover. His overseas expertise also meant that more than half of total sales eventually came from outside of the UK.

“In the UK, the brand was so big it was easy to add on sales. People were ready to buy other products from Ben Sherman. It was the Britpop, Cool Britannia era. We were a bit over-distributed and we set about making the brand more aspirational to increase its appeal to younger people.”

Gray did that by introducing sub-brands - Blue Label was highly commercial and UK-focused while Black Label and Orange Label were more trend-led, bringing in slim-fit shirts and the like. As time went by and Gray was able to re-educate stockists and consumers, the collections began to overlap and were eventually phased out to reveal his new-look vision of Ben Sherman.

He is quite open about the challenges Ben Sherman faced, having a private equity house as a majority shareholder, cracking the whip for speedy turnover and margin growth. It was only when US supply giant Oxford Industries acquired the business in 2004 - after Gray saw out a battle of wills with former Ben Sherman chairman Bob Brannan, who was desperate to buy the business - that Gray was able to pursue a strategy to ensure the brand had longevity. His decisions were tough and involved him slashing distribution and licensing partners to reposition Ben Sherman away from the Matalans. For a short time sales went backwards - something private equity would never have allowed.

Oxford Industries actually came late to the table with a bid and, although Gray refuses to talk about the rumoured rivalry with Brannan, the story goes that Oxford Industries was Gray’s last throw of the dice at flipping the business himself. Sources say Gray flew at the last minute to a meeting with the supplier’s chief executive Hicks Lanier thinking it was already too late to take the business deal from Brannan. On the plane he is said to have ripped up the investor presentation he had spent hours giving to other investors and decided to open with the three reasons Oxford Industries might not want to buy Ben Sherman. The first was that the brand sold

1.5 million plain shirts a year, but they had fallen off trend and a drop in sales was coming. Whatever the truth is, Gray won Oxford Industries over.

Burning ambition

Gray had six more years at Ben Sherman and probably wouldn’t have retired had it not been for his second wife Pia’s insistence. He says that although he’s now 64, he still can’t repress his burning ambitions: “I still feel like I did when I was just out of school. I can’t help it. I’m off to Istanbul for five days to work tomorrow.”

His retirement (if you can call it that) back in January has proved short-lived. He has joined ethical young fashion denim brand Monkee Genes as chairman, spending about half of his working time driving the business into new international markets and new product categories. His eyes light up when asked about its potential: “I’d always been sceptical about the eco stuff - thinking it was all earth mothers and sandal wearers. But this is really affordable and fashionable. The two together make for a quite compelling offer.”

He is also advising Turkish denim brand Mavi Jeans, with a special focus on the German market.

Fashion is Gray’s reason for being. His vision coupled with his hard work has made him and a lot of other people a lot of money, though he stops the interview at one point to say: “I’m no Philip Green or Stuart Rose”. He may not have their bank balance or their notoriety, but his achievements are no less impressive. The colourful nature of his career and his ability to overcome setbacks may be even more so.

Gray on…

Who he admires…

[Inventor] James Dyson. He had so many setbacks and just thought ‘bugger, oh well’ and carried on. I’ve had lots of nights where I’ve gone home and put my head in my hands. But however awful things seem, they’re never as awful at 9am the next morning. I’ve learned that things aren’t always as bad as you think.

What he misses…

Running a team. You don’t have to shout and scream to run a team correctly. All my life I’ve played rugby and what I miss now isn’t the business [Ben Sherman] but working in a team.

Launching a brand…

It’s much more difficult today. There are brands like Henleys and Superdry - there are always a few. But in reality there are fewer opportunities. There are fewer wholesalers and fewer retailers for those wholesalers to sell to.

The independent retail sector…

The middle-market indie sector is really tough because the high street chains are so on the ball. They’ve had the biggest attack from the likes of Primark and Tesco, which must have taken 25% of the business in the past 10 years. Aspirational labels with exclusivity are the way to go. Having said that, you still, out of the blue, find the odd indie succeeding with two or three stores.

On the recession…

This recession has been the worst by far. Previous ones were just blips. Even when you get an order you have to make sure the customer is credit-worthy. All the stuff you thought was easy became really difficult. Not only were there the macro-economic issues but the pound was weak.

What the industry says

“In more ways than one, Miles isn’t the retiring type. His biggest achievement was to go from being ‘one of the lads’ when he had his own small label to running international businesses for Pepe in Germany and then globally for Ben Sherman. Not bad for a bald, old, jeans salesman.”

Eric Musgrave, chief executive, UKFT

“I worked with Miles for five years and there was never a dull day. His humour, his singing with the Irish agents at conferences, his cigars, are all part of the rich tapestry that makes Miles a legend.”

Kevin Stone, sales and marketing consultant, and former UK sales director at Ben Sherman

“Miles has that rare gift of being modest and charismatic simultaneously. And through this, combined with his commercial acumen, he has enabled the rebirth of Ben Sherman as a global brand against the odds.”

Adam Creasy, trading director, Debenhams

“When Miles worked for me he didn’t speak a word of German but he quickly learned the language and eventually married a German girl. People just tend to gravitate towards him.”

Nitin Shah, founder, Pepe Jeans

“Miles enjoys living very much and worships all things that are nice (and forbidden) in life. He has a great sense of humour and is very charming towards women. He knows what’s good, but at home his wife wears the breeches. In his heart he remains a little boy and in his mind he remains very young.”

Karl-Heinz Müller, founder, Bread & Butter, and former managing director of Pepe Jeans

 

Secure your place at this year’s Drapers Awards, which will be held at Old Billingsgate in London on November 26 to see who will pick up the 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award by contacting Francesca Verdusco on 020 3033 2660, francesca.verdusco@emap.com or Flavio Rispo on 020 3033 2350, flavio.rispo@emap.com

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