The former Marks & Spencer director is kept busy with investments in Kookaï, Long Tall Sally and footwear brand Oliver Sweeney - but that doesn’t mean he’s not open to further opportunities
Maurice Helfgott is sometimes called “frighteningly bright” by those who know him in the fashion industry. It’s undoubtedly true.
A high-flyer at Marks & Spencer in the 1990s and early 2000s, he rose to become head of menswear but he packed in the biggest job in UK men’s fashion to set up investment firm Amery Capital in 2004. His partners were the Bennett brothers, who rose to retail fame with the Oasis, Warehouse, Coast and Phase Eight chains, some of which they set up, others they bought and sold. That the notoriously secretive Michael and Maurice Bennett opted to found a private equity firm with Helfgott is in itself a ringing endorsement of his bright brain.
Last year, Helfgott and his Amery Capital fund joined forces with Tim Cooper, owner of footwear supply business OPS, to buy footwear company Oliver Sweeney. Helfgott knew Cooper from his days at M&S - Cooper was and remains a major footwear supplier to the retail chain.
The duo heard that Oliver Sweeney had fallen on hard times - the business was struggling to make its stores work, while Sweeney himself had fallen ill and was unable to spend as much time as he once had at the business.
“It’s a wonderful brand. Oliver Sweeney is about original design at extraordinary quality,” explains Helfgott, who felt there was lots of potential for expansion at the company, which is now on track to turn over £5m this year. However, Helfgott points out that because much of the business is wholesale, retail sales of the brand are actually somewhere between £8m and £10m.
Helfgott and Cooper rescued Oliver Sweeney in June 2009 after a pre-pack administration, through which it retained three standalone stores. They quickly set about adjusting pricing, launching a lower-priced sub-brand called Oliver Sweeney London, with average prices of a more accessible £150. The core line nudges up to £300. They have also shifted the mix to include a lot more casual options to increase the volume of purchases by the Oliver Sweeney customer.
Helfgott says: “We’ve picked up new independent wholesale accounts - both traditional footwear retailers and high-end clothing retailers. We’re stocked in 100 indies.
“Some accounts have come back to us and we’ve got some brand new accounts with leading fashion stores.”
A hand in design
Sweeney himself is still involved with design. Highlights from the spring 10 collection include a pair of pink Goodyear-welted brogues at £220, which got Helfgott noticed by Prince Philip when he attended the fashion industry reception the Queen hosted at Buckingham Palace (the Prince told Helfgott he would not allow Prince William ‘in the house’ in such a pair of outlandish shoes).
In addition, Helfgott has launched Oliver Sweeney outerwear, and has ambitions to turn the label into a lifestyle brand.
Earlier this year, Helfgott and Cooper shuttered the Oliver Sweeney store on Bond Street, relocating it to Conduit Street to pick up trade from nearby Regent Street, which is popular with tourists. So far the store has had a good reaction, and is a more viable option because of lower rents, explains Helfgott.
Helfgott is chairman of Oliver Sweeney, and Cooper managing director. The set-up is different to that of Amery Capital’s other investments, which include Long Tall Sally and Kookaï UK.
“The way it usually works is we take on a business, do the deal and then put in management. My role is challenging and supporting that management with key strategies,” says Helfgott. “To hire a managing director doesn’t make sense at the moment - especially when it’s so much fun to do [it ourselves].”
Next on the agenda is an international wholesale launch. Incredibly, the brand is not sold overseas at the moment. Its British heritage has already attracted significant interest.
Helfgott says: “The Oliver Sweeney brand has a lot more potential. We’re keen to reach new customers both at wholesale and direct via our own retail. We’ve had a number of approaches from potential international partners and it’s clear that there is international demand for the brand.”
Helfgott’s other investments are also performing strongly, he says. Kookaï UK, in which Amery Capital is a minority shareholder, is now trading well, having repositioned out of the young fashion market to target a 30-something woman, according to Helfgott. “The product is good and now much better value. Where we’ve relocated concessions from the young fashion area to the contemporary area in department stores, we’ve seen major uplifts this season,” he says.
Meanwhile, Long Tall Sally is also on a firmer footing. Amery Capital owns it outright and Helfgott sits on the board as a non-executive director. Canadian chain Tall Girls was acquired last year and bolted on to Long Tall Sally, giving it more scale and buying power.
So what’s next on Helfgott’s agenda, or indeed shopping list?
Helfgott says: “When I’m spending a lot of time with a business, like with Oliver Sweeney, there isn’t as much time for looking around for things. But sometimes if you shake a few trees things fall down. We are always open to conversations and we are interested in collaborating with others, like we have with Tim Cooper on Oliver Sweeney.”
He adds: “We rarely do start-ups. We are interested in something that already exists, but which can be radically improved or transformed.”
Helfgott agrees that the investment appetite for the fashion sector appears to be coming back post-recession, saying: “Prices are rising - look at the float of SuperGroup.”
And it’s price that sometimes beats Amery Capital, whose members’ backgrounds in retail make them perhaps more acutely aware of the value of a brand or business than perhaps non-specialist investors would be.
Helfgott says: “We approach businesses as merchants and retailers. Of course, we are investors, but we approach it the other way round to typical investors.”
To date, all of Helfgott’s investments have been rescue deals - apart from Retail Profile, a business that rents the kiosks seen in shopping centres to up-and-coming entrepreneurs.
“We don’t just buy businesses in distress. We buy things we think we can add genuine value to. This means we invest where other people might be more cautious,” says Helfgott.
“When businesses are doing well, lots of people want to chase them and then the prices get high. It’s not that we don’t like high-quality assets, it’s just that people are sometimes prepared to pay more for businesses than we are.”
So how does working for his own business compare with Helfgott’s experience at the mighty M&S?
Helfgott says: “I don’t think it’s different at all. At M&S, it still felt like my own business. When I was made merchandiser of the sock department, I felt ownership of that department.”
He adds: “The fundamentals of retail and business are universal. You have to listen and understand people, motivate a team, watch the costs and so on. They are ridiculous clichés, but it’s what it’s really all about.”
2004 Founds Amery Capital
2004 Executive director of menswear, kidswear and home, Marks & Spencer
2003 Executive director of food, M&S
2001 Director of menswear, M&S
1985 Management trainee, M&S