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The Drapers Interview - Neil Chadwick

After a triumphant 2013, Seasalt joint managing director Neil Chadwick is eyeing more success by doubling its store count.

After torrential rain and gale-force winds left the train line from London to Cornwall impassable, video calling app FaceTime came to the rescue and Drapers enjoyed a virtual chat with Seasalt joint managing director Neil Chadwick. We even caught a glimpse of the sea from the lifestyle business’s office window.

“We’ve had suppliers ringing us up from all over the world asking if we are OK,” says Chadwick, from a soggy Falmouth. “You can see the sea from most of our shops so it’s been worrying, but we’ve been OK. Most of the shops have sandbags in, so we can just pull them out when we need them.”

On the upside, the company has been selling a lot of wet-weather gear. “We’ve been doing very well as we’ve got some appropriate clothing,” he says, referring to Seasalt’s extensive raincoat range, which retails for £50 to £145.

And it’s not just the bad weather that has brought success, with sales over the past year rising 38.1% to £21.57m. In the year to January 31, 2014, gross profit rose 40%, although Chadwick could not reveal figures as they are yet to be audited.

Family-owned Seasalt has come a long way since its beginnings in 1981, when Chadwick’s father David took over General Clothing, an army and navy store, in Penzance. It has since grown to 16 stores, all in the Southwest, and 300 UK stockists including John Lewis and Fenwick.

Alexandra Boardman, owner of womenswear retailer Alexandra’s of Keswick, Lancashire, which stocks the brand, says: “The great thing is the ordering. Seasalt has gone electronic so we can go to its website and top up in-season by ordering online. It has images you can download so you can sort it all out yourself.”

Seasalt’s product is still rooted in its heritage and the collections hark back to the fisherman’s smocks and utility shirts it originally sold, with details such as patch pockets and lightweight chambray shirting.

“What we try to do is create beautiful product that is relevant in a fashion environment but also contains all the elements of this utility product that is really useful,” says Chadwick.

The brand also has a strong ethical stance and 35% of its spring 14 range was organically produced.

What is apparent is the unassuming nature of Chadwick and his team as he explains the business is entirely customer-driven: “We embrace the role of shopkeeper and I always try to get everybody in the business to go and work [in stores] and experience the customer.”

Both consumers and wholesale stockists are regarded as customers in this sense, and turnover in Seasalt’s wholesale division accounted for a third of sales last year. Forward orders for autumn 14 are up 40% on last autumn.

“We are really passionate about wholesale, but because we grew up as shopkeepers we understand the pressures of a retail business,” says Chadwick.

Stockist Richard Harvey, joint owner of The Good Earth Clothing Company in Norwich, is largely positive about the brand.

However, he says not having exclusivity over the label in his area has been tricky as his small shop has to compete against department stores Jarrold and John Lewis, which both stock it. “They also send lots of catalogues to people in the area and invite them to shop online,” says Harvey. “[But] if the cons outweighed the pros then we wouldn’t stock them. The colours they come out with every season are absolutely lovely and look great in store. The brand is also a known brand among customers and an important one. It is very consistent in its quality and sizing and the delivery is good.”

Despite Seasalt’s widespread availability, Chadwick says its stockists have found that the brand opening a store nearby has been beneficial.

“In Exeter we had a shop for two years and then John Lewis opened and wanted to stock our stuff. We knew there was going to be a risk but they put a full range in and our shop turnover went up by 10%,” he explains. “More people are shopping between the shops. John Lewis also said that when we open a shop nearby its turnover increases.”

However, he says this does not give carte blanche to brands opening everywhere: “There is a balance to strike between brands opening lots of shops or opening the right number of shops, and increasing brand awareness and benefitting local stockists [without] swamping the shops everywhere.”

Chadwick hopes to maintain this balance as Seasalt is set to almost double its store portfolio over the next three years, with 14 to 15 planned in the Southwest.

“Last year was a very special year,” reminisces Chadwick. “We won a Queen’s Award for sustainable development, turnover and profit were up and we won the Drapers Award.”

On winning Womenswear Brand of the Year at the Drapers Awards, he adds: “I can’t really stress to people how important it is to enter these awards.

It boosts morale no end. The thing that really struck me about the people who entered is they are all really ambitious and brilliant businesses.”

The business is hoping for more success over the coming years as it plots expansion both internationally and in the UK, although Chadwick did not expand on its overseas plans as he says this is still a few years off.

Seasalt’s contemporaries, including Joules and Fat Face, have been on a similar growth trajectory and have each gone down the route of seeking additional funding through private equity investment and an IPO respectively. “They’ve been a constant source of inspiration to us,” says Chadwick. “I’m convinced this lifestyle sector is not cannibalising itself and is nicking trade off other retailers.

“Obviously with the growth and winning the Drapers Award it attracts people who want to give you money, but outside investment isn’t something we feel we need in the short term.”

Future investment will depend on the strength of Seasalt’s cash flow, he says. “On one hand we don’t want to stifle growth but on the other we don’t want to give away the company too early. Our family has been in it for a long time.

He adds: “I know it sounds funny but our family isn’t bothered about money. I really don’t care about personal wealth. What I care about is creating something that really fills a need, resonates with people and inspires everybody who works in the company.

That’s where we get our real excitement from.”

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