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The Four guys

Distributor Fourmarketing’s co-founders say their more diverse portfolio will open up greater opportunities.

Ben Banks has been talking at length, describing the flexibility that Fourmarketing offers its customers, when, out of the blue, Gino Da Prato cuts in: “The tree that bends with the wind lasts the longest.” We all start laughing, teasing Da Prato for his lyricism. “Alright, alright, let’s wind it back,” says Da Prato, trying to silence us.

Sitting at Fourmarketing’s showroom in east London, co-founder Da Prato expands on his metaphor: “We were talking earlier on about minimums. We don’t say to a retailer, ‘You have to spend 10 grand’. What we do say to them is you have to buy into this if you believe in it, represent it in the right way and make sure we can support each other to drive that sell-through. We probably have about six different models [of working] for our brands.”

Fourmarketing is essentially a distributor, with a portfolio of brands that includes Stone Island, Tween, M Missoni and Just Cavalli, to name a few. But it also has a PR division and retail operation that includes premium menswear indie Oki-ni and flagship stores for some of its brands.

“There’s no cookie cutter way. We have hybrid relationships where we’re part agent/part consultant; part consultant/part distributor.

We have retail stores – CP Company, Blauer, Stone Island and Woolrich. Every dialogue is different,” adds director Banks. “One of the biggest challenges to the business now – to all distributors and retailers – is that there is almost no credit insurance in the market.

Some companies are falling by the wayside, not necessarily because they’re poorly managed but because they can’t get access to any credit. We offer flexible payment terms that last the whole season. We’re beyond the ‘It’s 30 days and we put your goods on hold’. If someone has a cash problem, we say send the stock back. We’d rather have the stock back and help you. Flexibility is the big word for us.”

There’s no arguing with Fourmarketing’s flexible approach. In today’s volatile climate – economically and meteorologically – retailers, particularly indies, need the support of their stockists. “It does expose us to credit risk which, in turn, the banks we rely on sometimes get a bit twitchy [about],” Banks admits.

“They look at where we’re sending the stock and, of course, we’ve been burnt with CVAs. The banks are broadly supportive but it’s not as straightforward as it once was.”

Having a varied portfolio, not just of brands and sectors, but also in terms of its business models, allows Fourmarketing to better mitigate risk. The business is broadening its expertise even further, after acquiring seven womenswear brands from west London-based distributor Mirabel Edgedale when it fell into administration in June. Designer and premium labels Halston Heritage, Milly by Michelle Smith, Amen and Autumn Cashmere, and jewellery label Rosantica should help boost the womenswear business of Fourmarketing, whose roots lie in menswear.

“It’s not a golden egg because it wasn’t handed to us on a plate, but it’s a golden opportunity,” says Banks, trying to get one over on Da Prato’s earlier poetry. “What we have to do now is to work very hard, be very focused and make sure we perform. We have to find selling space in Milan and Paris because the international part is a significant part of the overall opportunity.

“It probably does mean that heading into next year, group sales on womenswear overtake menswear. The UK has been a good market for us but it’s a limited market especially in terms of higher-end product. There is a limit to how much product we can carry so we need to find product with a wider territory reach,” says Banks.

The Mirabel Edgedale acquisition could boost Fourmarketing’s international business from under 5% of total turnover to almost 25% in the next 12 months. “This opportunity is the catalyst,” Banks explains. “You need critical mass. You can’t do a showroom in Paris with one collection, so we need four, five, six collections that don’t conflict. Within the next six to nine months, there are opportunities for us to take on further brands and look at different territories.” But there was one potential route for expansion that was eventually turned down: partnering with JD Sports.

“Never heard of them,” jokes Banks. “[Is he] a golfer?” adds Da Prato, before he and Banks burst into laughter. “We’re all laughing because we went to the golf last week and there was a Taiwanese golfer called Jaidee. We were going to put a tenner on him then we thought, let’s not waste any money on Jaidee…”

Joking aside, Banks confirms that Fourmarketing is no longer involved with the reported joint venture last year called Premium Fashion. “We have a retail division based around flagship retail and Oki-ni, which is tidy but it’s not tens of millions. We ended up deciding that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have some stores in key locations, because we’re not experts on multi-door retailing. We formed a company with JD and the idea was to roll out some stores, possibly under a derivative Oki-ni-type fascia, [that were] menswear focused and to try to move on the premium men’s sector,” Banks explains.

“In reality, it wasn’t quite right. We had a very difficult autumn last year where there was a lot of discounting in the premium sector. I think that slightly unnerved JD, and perhaps in the end the cultural differences of a massive PLC coming together with three owner-operators of quite a high-profile, but small medium-size enterprise…”

Banks trails off, before adding: “No hard feelings, I still have a very healthy respect for the organisation.”

So, does Fourmarketing think JD Sports and Sports Direct are good for the fashion industry? “Oooh,” says Da Prato, sensing the controversy. “At the end of the day the market needs investment. And where these guys have backed Tessuti, Originals, Flannels, Van Mildert, it means it keeps these independents alive with a clear direction and opportunity.

“These retailers have been so important to the UK over the past 20, 25 years. Without them, where is the opportunity for brands?

The level of professionalism and expertise – with Neil Prosser [managing director of Flannels], Cyril Williams [managing director of Van Mildert] – these guys have huge experience. It’s an investment in the fascia, in the people, in the brands.”

Banks agrees. “JD is a huge respecter of brands; the business is built on brands. We have the conversations with Cyril Williams, with Neil Prosser and as far as we can see, the big brother organisation, they ask for a plan, they agree to it, and let these guys go off and keep running their business. We have to trust and believe in it, until we see otherwise. There’s nothing to suggest that it’s anything but a positive story.”

The point that Banks and Da Prato are making is that, despite concern in the sector over a Sports Direct/JD Sports duopoly, the way these sportswear giants give their respective acquisitions the power to run their own businesses means they can stay independent as much as possible.

“The UK has always thrived on the diversity of shopping choice. We believe – and I’m sure some indie is going to write you a letter to say it’s rubbish – but we believe we need those small boutiques, with their intimacy, with a community focus,” insists Banks. “Diversity is the keyword.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • I actually also believe that the boutique business is growing again and that larger numbers of consumers also want that intimacy they get with those smaller owner driver stores. People are getting fed up with the same old same old High Street fascias.

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