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The Drapers Interview - Simon Cope

As the third generation of his family to run suit supplier Skopes, Simon Cope explains why its independent spirit is no obstacle to growth.

As far as UK retail success stories go, Skopes is up there. A family business, the suit supplier stocks 428,000 suits and has 66 years of sales under its belt. House of Fraser is its largest customer - Skopes takes up more than 25,000 sq ft of the chain’s retail space - but it also supplies independents up and down the country.

Suiting may be its signature, but it also sells corporatewear and industrial clothing to the likes of constructionwear supplier Arco and hundreds of businesses in the UK. Last year, this diversity translated into a total turnover of £17m.

However, Skopes, located in an industrial estate in Leeds, does not enjoy the brand recognition of businesses with much smaller turnovers. Managing director Simon Cope, the third generation to work in the family firm since it was founded by his grandfather Sydney Cope in 1948, says this is deliberate - and he likes it that way.

While Cope has been involved in the trade for the past 27 years, he almost bypassed it entirely. “I didn’t come in straight from school,” he says.

“We had management and my brother Jamie was running the company. I was off doing my own thing. I was working in manufacturing, the services sector and abroad.”

When Cope’s brother passed away in 1994, however, he came home: “I worked in the warehouse for six months, then went on the road as a sales rep for a year and a half. During that time I was deciding what to do. Do we keep the company? If so, in what form? After a year and a half I decided, ‘right, I know what to do. We’re gonna keep it and we’re gonna grow’.”

Cope’s plan was to build on the business’s strong reputation with retailers by offering what many independents lack: space.

Two decades after Cope took the helm, Skopes comprises wholesale, retail, corporate, mail order and an ecommerce site - an offering significantly more complex than the wholesale and mail-order business he inherited. He says the secret to juggling these demands is the 40,000 sq ft warehouse, which holds some £4m worth of stock.

Enabling retailers to place direct orders that are then dispatched from the warehouse within 24 hours gives a significant competitive edge. The orderly rails act as a stockroom for hundreds of independents, department stores and websites, with all the cost savings for the client that entails.

The product offer is on a similarly grand scale. Suits range from a basic polyester number for under £100 to soft, cashmere creations with platinum and gold thread woven into the pinstripe that retail at £10,000 each and target the Far East market, where Skopes has a full-time board member overseeing wholesale operations. Hundreds of suits, mainly made in China, sit within this spectrum, from own-label promwear - a “massive” source of growth, says Cope - to outsizes, another specialism.

One outsize customer is High & Mighty, which relies on the manufacturer for 70% of its tailoring range. Half of that is Skopes’ own brand.

High & Mighty head of merchandise James Malysz says: “Simon has a business that offers a lot of flexibility and consistent quality - important factors to a premium retail business such as ours. They really understand each individual account they wholesale through and work closely with them to drive business.”

Despite its impressive growth - other major customers include N Brown and Shop Direct - Cope is taking his time when it comes to increasing relationships with major retailers. Staying small allows the business to stay nimble, and he is unwilling to compromise agility for scale.

“The bigger boys can try and bully you, and we aim to try and deal with very few of them. I’d much prefer to deal with 100 small accounts than 10 large accounts. Although the small accounts need a lot more managing and they’re more intensive, I respect them a whole lot more than some larger businesses,” he says.

“Yes, we work with Shop Direct. Yes, we work with N Brown and House of Fraser. On the corporate division, we work with Arco.

These are all companies with a turnover of between £250m and £1bn. We have great relationships with them and we never fall out, because they know how we work and we know how they work. But we don’t need them. We like that each of our customers represents no more than 12% of our turnover. It gives us security; nobody can bully us.”

Cope says the recession meant department stores began looking for new brands and opportunities: “If things are going well, people don’t look for something new. They sit in a safe zone. When things are difficult, like in 2008 and 2009, companies are more willing to look at different avenues. That’s what happened when House of Fraser approached us.”

Skopes has been working with HoF for three years, in a relationship he says has proved to be a happy marriage for both. HoF says sales of Skopes product through its website are growing at more than 100% a year, with online sales of the brand projected to be more than £3m a year by 2017.

HoF told Drapers Skopes is “top of the list for stock availability, especially when it comes to online trading. It is always keen to push the boundaries on marketing its brand, whether through a gift with a purchase or exclusive offers. It is constantly talking with our customers and giving them what they want.”

Skopes itself only ventured into etail in 2012, when it launched a website selling a selection of own-brand products.

Forward ordering is also on the increase, with Cope saying it has doubled in recent years: “About 35% of the wholesale turnover comes from forward orders.”

The area of the business he seems most proud of, however, is the stock service, which makes up the remaining 65% of sales.

“Indies call us on a weekly basis and say: ‘This week I’ve sold four jackets, 12 suits and 30 trousers.’ Then they replenish. When they buy it from us, they get 30, 40 or 60 days’ credit. They’ve frequently sold the product before they’ve even had to pay
us. By the time they do, they’ve sold the product and got the cost of it back, plus their profit. We’re almost helping to finance some of these businesses,” he says. “We give them as much support as we can. The company has been trading with independents for more than 50 years, and I feel very strongly about this division.”

Cope is pushing the business into new territories too, with Ireland having proved a success. Annual sales there grew from £50,000 in 2012, when it first entered the market though a deal with McQuillan’s Menswear in Portadown, County Armagh, to £950,000 in 2014. It now has 200 stockists in the country.

“This is in a market crowded with suppliers,” Cope says. “I think it shows if you offer the right garments at the right price and with the right service, there are always opportunities out there.” The rest of Europe is also on the radar, he adds: “Once we believe we have secured up to 70% of the potential UK business, we’ll start to look at export. For now, we need to stay focused on the UK.”

Skopes currently sells to China, Ireland and France, but export makes up just 5.5% of its turnover.

Cope’s philosophy towards balancing the books is a simple one. “I was taught by my father that ‘turnover is vanity, profit is sanity, and cash flow is king’. You live by that and I promise you, any company will survive. You’ve got two main cogs - money going in and money going out. As long as the cog of money going in is spinning at the same speed as money going out, if not faster, you’re OK.”

This somewhat Dickensian way of looking at finance helped Cope and his management board steer their ship safely through the turbulent 2008 financial crisis.

“We were lucky because we don’t have big bank borrowings; we had a very strong balance sheet,” he says. “The company has never made a loss. In my 20 years, we’ve always made a decent profit. When we grow, we fund it from our own growth. We don’t go cap in hand to the bank, we don’t go to investors and we still own 100% of the shares. We could quickly double our turnover - but we would have to take on investors and we would have to give away part of our soul. We’ve kept true to our family values. To us, that is more important than growth.”

Embedding a family-focused attitude into the head office, which adjoins the warehouse, also pays dividends. Staff retention is high - many of the 35 to 40 employees have worked there for decades, and the newsletter distributed to clients regularly carries news of staff marathons and marriages.

Cope is keen to stress his is a company focused on moving with the times, and has as much respect for his new recruits as his veteran workers: “The new blood that’s coming in here, who are hungry to prove themselves, they’re showing the way. Just because we go back 50 years doesn’t mean we’re staid and old. It means we’re established, that we’ve got provenance, but our concern is with ensuring we’re offering what’s relevant to the customer.”

Such commitment may be the reason for the company’s quiet success. “There’s a saying: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you’ve always got,” Cope says. “If you do that in this industry, then really, you’re sliding backwards. And we don’t - we want so much more.”

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