As part of Drapers’ 130th anniversary celebrations this year, we brought together some of fashion retail’s biggest names for a series of unique one-on-one interviews.
Today, long-time friends Sir Ian Cheshire, chairman of Debenhams, talks to maverick Ted Baker founder Ray Kelvin.
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Step into the Ted Baker headquarters near King’s Cross in London, and you immediately feel the inimitable personality of founder Ray Kelvin. When Drapers visits, 61-year-old Kelvin is all set to greet Sir Ian Cheshire, 57, his friend and the chairman of Debenhams. Cheshire has 33 years of experience in retail: since starting at Boston Consulting Group, he has worked for Guinness, Sears and Kingfisher, where he spent 17 years, seven as CEO from 2007. He holds various external directorships, won The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Leader of the Year award in 2012, and was knighted in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to business, sustainability and the environment.
Kelvin – famous for being, in his own words, ‘the closest man to Ted’ – established the business in 1987 with a store in Glasgow, and it has gone on to become one of the UK’s most recognisable retail brands. He has never sought the spotlight, so has never shown his face in photos, and says it’s simply now too late to change tack; he uses a range of face-obscuring accessories for our shoot, from the photographer’s lens to an unsuspecting plant pot. This is not going to be a standard interview.
Ray Kelvin: So, Ian, where did it all begin in retail?
Ian Cheshire: I started in newsagents and chemists.
RK: You used to be a post boy?
IC: (laughs) Not quite. I was at Guinness in my second job and, much to my amazement, I suddenly found retail and it just clicked. Both my grannies worked behind a counter – one at a chemist and one at Peter Jones – and my great-grandad had a draper’s shop in Dunstable. It turns out I came from quite a long line of drapers. How did you get your start in fashion, Ray?
RK: My father had a blouse factory in Tottenham [north London], near the football ground, and I have been a Tottenham fan ever since. What did your dad do?
IC: He ended up working for Shell all over the world, so he dragged us around to Africa and Asia, and we ended up having a very different childhood – perfect in some ways – because I got to go to the jungle and then got shipped back to school for a very good, structured education.
RK: Did you go to university?
IC: Yes, I went to Cambridge. I was talking to my parents about this the other day. They were the first people in my family to go to university – they met at university, and then, because they went to work for Shell all over the world, they had their children’s education paid for. So my granny went from working in a chemist to seeing her great-grandsons at Eton at the same time as the princes [William and Harry] were there. It’s a phenomenal story of progression, and it is all down to education and work. I have been doing a lot of work on mental health issues with the charity Heads Together, and I find myself sitting at a table with two princes and a duchess [William, Harry and Catherine, who are patrons of the charity]. If my granny from south London could see me, she would explode. What did you do at university, Ray?
I sit at a table with two princes and a duchess. If my granny from south London could see me, she would explode
Sir Ian Cheshire
RK: I did business, but I only lasted a year at Middlesex Polytechnic. I left because I was making too much money at cards (Cheshire laughs). So I had to leave and I worked as a market trader. My grandparents had shops, my uncle had a shop in Enfield [north London], and my parents have always been in retail and fashion. My mother worked in this business virtually until she died at the age of 81.
IC: In the blouse factory?
RK: No, at Ted Baker.
IC: Oh, crikey.
Photographer: Tobias Lewis Thomas
RK: She was the matriarch at Ted Baker. She worked in the shop. She was the chambray girl from hell – ‘May I measure your inside leg, sir?’ She was amazing. It has always been in our family’s blood.
IC: When did it turn into Ted Baker?
RK: I had a business from the age of 19 to 29, supplying private-label clothing to the high street. I then founded Ted Baker when I was 30, slept on the floor [of the shop] for seven years and didn’t make a penny. I worked incredibly hard and started making a little bit of money seven years later.
IC: So it was a big build-up, then?
RK: I worked hard – bloody hard. I designed every product and did everything. I then created a particular shirt that was incredibly successful [it came in bright, acid colours]. Three million metres later, we went public.
IC: At the time you opened your first store, I was at Pied A Terre, working with the founders, Nigel and Anita Davis.
RK: I remember them well. I did a tie-up with them.
IC: I remember ‘moving Jim’, the mad window guy.
RK: He’s still with me!
IC: Oh, is he? Will you say hello to him? Sorry, this is getting completely off track. He left quite an impression on me (laughs).
Drapers: How did you two really meet?
RK: [Begins telling a fictional story about an Oxford versus Cambridge rowing match at which he saved Cheshire from the water, then quips] We’ve never met.
IC: I think the first time I heard Ray in full flight up close – and I don’t know who organised it – was at an extraordinary lunch at [Carphone Warehouse co-founder and former chairman] Charles Dunstone’s house. There was a conversation about what retailers were going to do in the future. I remember just hearing this flow of consciousness going on and thinking, ‘There is nothing else quite like this.’ It was an absolute joy to listen to. One of the bonuses for me about landing at Debenhams was to find that we had the Ted Baker relationship. Then I saw some of the things they had been doing in lingerie and kidswear, which is doing phenomenally well. It is a great example of getting the right brand connection when you get the partnerships working really well. Product is so important, isn’t it, Ray?
RK: People, product, passion, profit. I don’t come to work to make money. I come here with people to make better product with tremendous passion and gusto.
IC: Most people in business look at the wrong things and don’t understand the emotional engine of the business. When I was working at B&Q, we were not selling kitchens and power tools – we were actually selling people’s dream homes. It’s about that connection with the customer.
RK: Haven’t times changed? Structurally, the industry has changed.
IC: Oh, yes, structurally. Consumers are doing it on the phone now. I think back to the day when I was at Selfridges in the 1990s, and Pied A Terre before that, and you have seen an absolutely monstrous, colossal shift in consumer behaviour. But it is great. You now have a global audience at the end of a phone.
RK: We’ve got shops in 50 countries, but we have only 20 standalone stores in the UK, and yet it’s a household name. We have concessions, but it is the work that the airports do, and the outlets that make the brand a household name, and we are opening in King’s Cross soon.
IC: It is visibility, isn’t it?
People, product, passion, profit. I don’t come to work to make money
RK: We never advertised in the conventional way in terms of paper advertising during the 1980s and 1990s. Now we use social media, and that plays into our hands, because we like to think differently, like when we did a shoppable film called Mission Impeccable with Guy Ritchie, which was really cool.
IC: It’s also important to get out into the stores. Doing the management team buyout at B&Q in 2006 was really revealing. We took everyone out bar one person, as a safety blanket, and got trained up on the payment machine and actually had to run the store. You learn so much.
RK: You learn if you are hands-on yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to do it every day. If you duck in and out, you get a feel. We’ve got wholesale in more countries than we have shops. I probably have this wrong, but I find it a dilution of my time to travel internationally to somewhere where we have all of these small businesses. I could spend days getting there, and I’m better off touching a business from here and doing that (Kelvin makes a hugging motion). But I don’t know if I’ve got that right.
IC: That’s interesting, because I would have said the flip side is that I think there are some really interesting thought-points out there, globally. I think what that reflects is how much this business is you, so you feel you need to be here.
RK: Everybody thinks Ted Baker is me. You know the reason I called it Ted Baker? It’s that I thought I was going to go bust, and I didn’t want to be Ray Kelvin the bankrupt, and I didn’t want to be named after a shirt.
IC: (laughs) That is a great piece of advice for any up-and-coming entrepreneur.
RK: It’s true! I never thought it would work, but now I’m nervous. The bigger the business gets, the more insecure I am. I have more to lose. I have so much at stake. My wealth is in the business. I mean, I have other interests, obviously, but I have never really sold any shares. When we floated, I had 41%, and I have now got 38% or 37%.
IC: That is a big slug to keep hold of, isn’t it?
RK: Yeah, because I know this business better than any other business. I am not going to sell it and, if I had the money, what would I do?
Drapers: What about you, Ian? Do you come at it from a different angle?
RK: He’s been in prison for four years – for receiving stolen goods.
IC: (laughs) I was talking to someone the other day about finding myself at Debenhams, back in fashion after a 20-year break. What I have seen over and over again for 20 years is that everyone who succeeds does it because they do something different. If you try to copy other people, it is a way of ultimately losing money. This whole thing about difference and distinctiveness is much more valuable now than it was.
RK: Looking ahead, my view of retailing is quite negative, in as much as I see that the high street will never be the same. If you have 100 retail shops with ever-increasing rent reviews, going upwards only, you are stuffed. Thank god I’m not in anyone else’s boots today – I would not want to be.
IC: I agree, Ray. I think the model has changed irreversibly. Today, retailers are selling emotions and experiences; you just can’t be so-so any more. It will be a very different landscape, and much tougher for the ‘me-too’ brands.
Sir Ian Cheshire bares all to Ted Baker's Ray Kelvin