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The Drapers interview- Derrick Hoyle

In his 20th year at Sole Trader, buying controller Derrick Hoyle lives and breathes the business - and is helping direct its onward march.

With store openings, an ongoing refurbishment programme, international expansion via European websites and new brands to target the luxury market, footwear retailer Sole Trader is busier than ever. And long-serving buying controller Derrick Hoyle, now in his 20th year at the family-run company, is playing a central role in these plans.

Speaking to Drapers at a bar in London’s Shoreditch, he says: “Marcel [Bordon] is the chief executive; his brothers Michael and David are involved in the business as well as directors. They are a wonderful family and I’ve been very fortunate to work with them for so long. We have a very tight team with fluid communication - that’s the great thing about being a stone’s throw from the chief executive at any time.

“The core management team has been around for years, we’re all lifers. David Mercer, our merchandiser, has been with us for over 30 years and Chris Collins, our managing director, has been here longer than that. There is a long-term commitment from staff that you only get if it’s a good company to work for. I’m very grateful.”

Right now, the focus is on expansion. In 2013 it opened new shops in Leicester, Stoke-on-Trent, Nottingham and Bromley - taking its total to 43 - and there are plans to open 10 further stores this year. It also has nine outlet stores across the UK.

Store front

Store front

“We want to open 10 [shops] a year from now on,” Hoyle says. “But they have to be in the right location at the right price. [We are] a private, self-financed business - every deal has to make sense.”

Twelve months ago a store refurbishment programme was launched. Having already refitted shops at Bluewater and Birmingham Bullring at the end of last year, as well as Manchester’s Trafford Centre in early 2014, 14 locations will receive a refit before the end of the year.

The new concept is more open plan than the previous, allowing more light into stores and creating a more “female-friendly” environment, according to Hoyle: “The last storefit was a very masculine space, and deliberately so. When we designed it the high street was dominated by womenswear retail. We offered a branded male emporium where men didn’t feel intimidated. It was very successful, but the consumer has changed. The new fit represents that.”

The “gender-neutral” shopfits have an increased emphasis on women’s styles, boosting its allocated space to 50% compared with 35% previously. The new design is also more flexible, allowing more space to be devoted to a specific brand or gender where needed, as the fixtures and fittings can be moved.

Gender neutral: the new shops have a 50/50 split between men’s and women’s styles and the proportion of premium labels has been stepped up

Gender neutral: the new shops have a 50/50 split between men’s and women’s styles and the proportion of premium labels has been stepped up.

“We wanted defined areas - a premium space, one focused on sport and a younger area - so we could really accentuate each type of branded product we had,” Hoyle says. “It’s cleaner, brighter and more minimalist. Early results have shown since having the refit, sales have improved and higher retail prices are being achieved.”

Hoyle, who started his career as a buyer’s assistant at sportswear chain Olympus Sport in Leicester in 1989, says sales and profits for 2014 are so far ahead of expectations. This follows a healthy 2013, which saw a year-on-year increase of 24.6% in operating profit to £1.08m for the year to June 29. Turnover rose 7.2% to £37m in the same period.

While some 90 brands are carried altogether, with four to five being added each season, the most recent focus has been on increasing its luxury offer. Versace was introduced in autumn 13, followed by Jil Sander and See by Chloé in spring 14, and for autumn 14 Michael Kors and Versus will be joining the line-up.

“We’re pushing on with the premium product and there are more brands to come,” Hoyle says, although he declines to reveal which ones. “There is a real opportunity in [the luxury] section of the market. The high street is awash with sports stores and our new shopfits can take that premium product. We’re making sure we have a strong offer in that sector.”
Hoyle, who joined the company on July 11, 1994 at the age of 22, attributes Sole Trader’s success to its strong relationship with brands and ability to collaborate with them to create new products.

‘We want to open 10 shops a year. But they have to be in the right location at the right price’
Derrick Hoyle, Sole Trader

“At the time I joined, the footwear business was dominated by own label. We didn’t want to sell shoes for £30 or £40, we wanted to put a brand name on them and sell them for £80 - and sell more of them. Once we got as many brands as we could in, we started to look at where the gaps were in our overall footwear offer,” he says.

“We spent lot of time talking to brands and seeing if we could carve out a little niche. We developed a lot of shoes and ranges for brands helping us build up incredible relationships with them.”

For example, Hoyle says Sole Trader had a strong role in developing Ted Baker’s footwear range in 2000: “We told the Ted Baker team what would sell, what factories to use and the price Ted Baker would pay. I said put your brand name on it and we’ll sell it - and we did.”

In 2009 it also helped design the Mukluk, FitFlop’s first boot, which has sold more than 650,000 pairs worldwide to date.
FitFlop founder Marcia Kilgore says: “I always invite Derrick to come in and look at our range first. He is incredibly insightful, happy to share his experience, full of ideas for product extensions - his designer Christie drew the first Mukluk - and very collaborative. We’re lucky to have Sole Trader as a customer, but I really feel blessed to have Derrick as a business mentor.”

For autumn 15, Hoyle is looking forward to helping contemporary clothing retailer Joules develop a casual men’s footwear collection. He says it currently has a very limited range sold through its stores, and he wants to boost this with a 16-style collection. The new range will be wholesaled, with prices yet to be confirmed, to stockists including Sole Trader.

“There is an opportunity in the casual market and I’ve got a good feeling about Joules, [the] same feeling as when we were knee-deep collaborating with Ted Baker all those years ago,” he adds.

Hoyle says the next step is the international market, and there are plans to expand the online business into Europe: “The German site went live at the end of April and we’re looking to branch into France and Italy soon. It also has scope to work further afield - in Asia and the US, for example - but we’re taking it step by step.”

‘We didn’t want to sell shoes for £30 or £40, we wanted to put a brand name on them and sell them for £80 - and sell more of them’
Derrick Hoyle, Sole Trader

He believes bricks-and-mortar stores go hand in hand with etail channels: “You need stores for customer service, marketability and trust. They are a good vehicle to get the brand noticed.”

The “micromanagement” of Sole Trader sets it apart from the competition, he says: “We’re not as big as our competitors, but we’re much more nimble. We treat each store as an independent retailer would. We tailor ranges to specific locations and micromanage each store. We should be viewed as a multiple independent - that’s where we see ourselves.”

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