By netting sales from Scotland’s hunting and fishing set, countrywear specialist The House of Bruar has discovered that isolation is bliss.
Situated more than 80 miles north of Glasgow and Edinburgh, halfway to Inverness and at the edge of Cairngorms National Park, The House of Bruar must be doing something special to become a retail destination in such a remote spot.
Founded by 65-year-old Mark Birkbeck in 1993 after he sold knitwear chain Jumpers, the 250,000 sq ft store is a mecca for the hunting and fishing crowd, who drive up the nearby A9 - described by Birkbeck as “the Bond Street of the sporting world” - to their country pursuits.
A unique department store-style concept housed in several buildings about 10 miles north of Pitlochry, Perthshire, The House of Bruar offers a wide selection of clothing with a focus on stylish country clothing and Scottish knitwear.
A dedicated central knitwear hall houses the largest range of cashmere in the UK. The womenswear department is split across four halls, where The House of Bruar’s tweedy own label sits alongside brands including Gerry Weber, The Masai Clothing Company, Gardeur and MaxMara. Menswear is spread over four rooms: the first is dedicated to casualwear, with brands such as Johnstons of Elgin, RM Williams, Gant and Brax as well as own-label products including cords. The second is a central room that includes footwear from brands including Northampton shoemaker Crockett & Jones, while a third is dedicated to tweeds. Finally, there is an outdoorwear department with specialist country and hunting brands like Schoffel, Seeland, Barbour, Musto, Mackintosh, Yeti, The North Face, Jack Wolfskin and Aigle.
But that’s not all, as there is also a 10,000 sq ft country living department offering clothing from brands including Joules and Crew Clothing, as well as a fishing department, art gallery, restaurant, cook shop, food hall, butchers and a 10,000 sq ft Sale
hall full of end-of-season lines. And this sprawling, comprehensive country lifestyle offer is surrounded by a dramatic, picturesque landscape.
Oliver Platts, sales director at cashmere specialist Johnstons of Elgin, worked for The House of Bruar for six years until 2011. “It has flourished,” he says. “Situated on the A9, it really is the gateway to the Highlands. There is a drive for standards there which sets it apart. It’s a great fit for Johnstons.”
The involvement of Birkbeck’s two sons means The House of Bruar is family-owned and run - 41-year-old Patrick is managing director and 29-year-old Tom is menswear buyer.
Together they are the driving force behind the business, which reported a 3% increase in turnover to £20.66m and a 13% rise in operating profit to £4.26m for the year to January 31, 2013, its last reported results. This year, £2m has been invested into the company, the direction of which has been overseen by Patrick and his senior management team.
The on-site restaurant has nearly doubled in size, the food hall has increased by 4,000 sq ft, the gallery, fishing tackle, gift and country living departments redesigned, and all of the womenswear halls refitted. Further down the road, land has been acquired to expand warehousing and distribution for mail order.
“We can quadruple the size of our existing warehouse facility on that site, given we get the support of the planning authority,” says Mark Birkbeck. “And I feel they are likely to support us - not just because of jobs, but because we do bring a huge amount of tourism to Scotland.”
Having just returned to The House of Bruar following an extended trip abroad, during which many of the changes took place, he is quick to add: “I think Patrick has done a hell of a job this year. The workload he has had in spending £2m on this expansion programme is no mean feat. What he has achieved - with the support of his heads of departments - is fantastic.”
The business’s product offer, along with its innovative retail concept located in relative isolation, is what makes The House of Bruar stand out - something Birkbeck is proud of.
“The House of Bruar is completely and totally unique,” he says. “There isn’t another shop in Great Britain that comes anywhere close to doing what we do. It is really a centre of excellence promoting and selling the best of British brands. We are referred to - not by ourselves, I hasten to add - as the ‘Harrods of Scotland’.”
Vanessa Carter, technical representative for Scotland and the north of England at outerwear brand The North Face, agrees: “I can see the similarity [with Harrods], it is a business with heritage, a family-run, upmarket, department-type store, showcasing not only many Scottish and local brands, but also some of the finest brands in clothing. It doesn’t try to compete with any other stores; what it does, it does exceptionally well.”
Birkbeck describes Harrods as the “best shop I have ever been in”, but adds that there is one key difference with The House of Bruar. “Harrods is the best of the best at promoting and selling international brands, the vast majority of which, I have to tell you, are not British,” he explains. “It was a prerequisite for us to sell first and foremost British. And I think I’ve done a great job doing it.”
Tom Joule, founder of countrywear brand Joules, heaps praise on Mark and his sons: “They are good, old-fashioned shopkeepers with visionary thinking. What they have created is unique, something that’s not been done since the days of Mr Selfridge.
Mark gives a great insight into what his customer is thinking, allowing us to deliver a strong offering.”
The House of Bruar’s proposition is equally split between branded and own brand, the latter of which is designed in-house and manufactured in Scotland, England, Portugal and Turkey. The men’s range starts with cotton socks retailing at £6.95, rising to £495 for a cashmere coat. The women’s offer is between £29.95 for a tweed cap to £445 for a cashmere coat.
Birkbeck compares The House of Bruar’s product strategy to that of John Lewis: “John Lewis own label rides on the back of its association with other brands, and that is what we do here. If we are choosing a brand, it has to be a significant one, ideally British, and if not it has to be relevant to country clothing. Timberland for example is American, but we stock it because it is part of the country uniform, which gives our own product that lift.”
While The House of Bruar is usually successful in securing brands, given that its location ensures it doesn’t encroach on other bricks-and-mortar stockists, this isn’t always the case, says Birkbeck: “We don’t stock Burberry because it is too expensive for our customers and because it wouldn’t supply us, but it is a British brand of huge significance. I’m not sure we would ever entertain having it here [now] because £700 to £800 for a mackintosh is too much money.”
Sales are split 60% women’s to 40% men’s, with a focus on separates in own label. On the branded side, he says Barbour, Gardeur, Joules and Gerry Weber are among the bestsellers.
The business attracts a slightly older customer, aged 45 to 50, though Birkbeck says this is changing as efforts are made to attract younger shoppers. They are typically wealthy but looking for value. “People come here to buy a cashmere jacket at, let’s say, £400, where anywhere else it’ll be £800 to £1,000 or more,” he says. He explains that prices are kept down by the practice of buying in large quantities - for example, The House of Bruar orders 50,000 lambswool sweaters and 25,000 cashmere sweaters a year, working to a “sensible margin of double plus VAT, which is very low by industry standards”. Top-end retail prices are around £2,000 for a woman’s coat.
And Birkbeck doesn’t mince his words when it comes to paying suppliers on time: “We pay all our bills in seven days. The immorality of the big corporations withholding money from small producers is disgraceful.”
Mail order is also a key component of the business. The House of Bruar produces 1.5 million catalogues each year, which account for a third of sales - the category saw a 25% increase last year. Birkbeck says he began the catalogue after five loss-making months in the first year of business, but that it remains an integral marketing tool and sales channel.
One area where there is room for development is online. The website, www.houseofbruar.com, is transactional but is fairly simple in design and does not successfully communicate the store’s unique environment and offer. Currently one third of non-store sales are processed online, but when I ask about mobile traffic and sales, Patrick replies: “We are [mobile optimised] but we could be better at it.”
There is a finite number of people travelling up the A9 that will pull off it and stop, so the future is for the business to do more online.
One of the secrets of the business’s enduring success is its experienced management team. As well as being menswear buyer, son Tom brings a creative eye to The House of Bruar, which complements the managerial skills of Patrick; Tom works with Mark on the design, fabrics and garments. Mark’s wife Linda heads up the gift department and oversees administration, systems and training; Lorna Mcleod manages textile buying; David Whitfield, who in the 1980s worked at Birkbeck’s retailing venture Jumpers, which had 120 to 130 stores at its height, is merchandise director; Robert Day is retail manager; Robert Thain is food hall buying manager; Jannek de Bruijne is catering manager and Richard Christie is in charge of housekeeping and visual merchandising.
“Of those people on our senior management team, no one will have been with us for less than seven years,” says Patrick. “They have grown with the business.”
But given The House of Bruar’s location, do they find it hard to recruit? “Yes,” Mark answers without hesitation. “We struggle like hell because we don’t suffer fools at all. Everyone is given a fair chance but we have to make a decision quicker than most because we don’t have the cover of a lot of other businesses.”
He adds: “I have a bit of a reputation of being a hardliner, and I am. I can smell 100 miles away whether someone is up to it - you can tell by the speed at which they walk. That is my reputation in the trade, but equally is my reputation of being very straightforward and very fair.”
This approach seems to have worked. Opened with an initial investment of around £4m, today The House of Bruar attracts around 1.4 million customers a year. Mark owns The House of Bruar retail site, which is situated on the Atholl Estate, and pays a percentage of gross on-site [excluding mail order] retail sales to the estate, as rent for land for car parking.
So at 65, does Mark plan to hang up his country boots any time soon? “I’ll never retire, but it’s important the business can go forward without me,” he says. Patrick has his “complete endorsement as managing director”, although “he isn’t a product man”, so The House of Bruar is currently looking for someone to step into that role.
Longer term, he sees son Tom moving up to take creative charge. “He has got a way to go yet,” he says. “However, he is learning immensely quickly. And he does have a level of creativity that is equal to that of mine. But yes, he has the answer to it eventually. If he didn’t - this is the really important statement - we wouldn’t still own this business.”