Grapevine Stories

An Interview with Johnnie Boden

Johnnie talks very honestly about his hugely successful Boden brand and the ups and downs he's encountered along the way.

You used to be a stockbroker, which is a big leap to running a clothing brand; how did your career grow from leaving university to starting Boden?

Well, I wasn’t very good at being a stockbroker and I didn’t enjoy it either! I’d always been interested in clothes and when I was 17, I was male Fashion Editor of the teenage edition of Harpers & Queen in 1978.

I was working in America for my broking firm and when I was there, I noticed everyone was buying things from catalogues and I thought well, this could work in Britain. I then met Sophie, who is now my wife, and she said to me, “You’ve had this incredible start in life and you are basically a failure!” So I said “Okay, fair point but I’ve got this idea for a clothing business.” She then famously said, “If you don’t do it, I’m going to leave you!” So I gave it a go in 1991 and haven’t really looked back.

Have you encountered any moments during the building of Boden where you have thought, “this is a total nightmare”?

I have those thoughts quite regularly! But the nightmares change really. We didn’t really make any money for 10 years, we bumped along the bottom for quite a while and I was defrauded by a very plausible chap who wore a tweed jacket and a signet ring, who then then went onto defraud about four other companies. 

Interestingly, he told all those companies he defrauded that he had worked for me; yet not one of those companies asked me for a reference and they were all well-educated people. He spun them some yarn about what a nightmare I was, which was probably true! However, they didn’t think to check it out and he defrauded them as well. Anyway, that was a particularly nasty time, I ran out of money and had to give my house to the bank which wasn’t much fun with two small children.

There are constant worries really, even now is a bit of a worry, actually a huge worry because in the summer people buy a lot of clothes for holidays and parties and those things aren’t happening. There’s always a worry but I’ve always enjoyed doing it and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do, so I think ‘Well, I’ve just got to find a solution to these problems.’

If you could build your business again is there anything you’d do differently with the benefit of hindsight?

I think there are two things really; one is you have to listen to your customers and listen to people, good people. I think there have been quite a few occasions where I haven’t listened as closely as I should have done to the customer and they were telling me things I didn’t really want to believe. So I think my biggest advice to anybody is, one is quite often wrong and you can’t contradict the customer. If the customer is telling you they don’t like a certain shape dress, even if the press tells you it’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened, you have to stop selling it, don’t persevere.

I love menswear and unfortunately men just don’t spend enough money on clothes for menswear businesses to be really successful. That may be sad, but I have to follow the market. So, listening is key, even if it’s painful.

The second thing I think is that I have been fairly good at hiring people who are better than me. Jack Welch, who was arguably one of the most successful businessman of the 20th century, said you should always fire at least 25% of your staff every year, now that’s harsh, but I think sometimes I have persevered with people even when I’ve known they aren’t quite right and I think I ought to perhaps have been a bit more ruthless.

What advice would you give someone looking to start their own company for the first time?

The most important thing (and I don’t want to sound pompous, but I tell them this and they often don’t listen) is you must have a product which is unique - you’ve got to have a reason for people to come to you. It may be because of the design or the pricing or the service, but you have got to be really, really clear what that ‘thing’ is. A lot of people just believe their own hunch and they don’t try it out. 

You can try things out quite cheaply nowadays so then if it doesn’t work, try something else, change it rather than persevering. Frankly, you do know when it’s ‘right’. I get quite sad when I see people who have quite a good idea but it's not working very well and they just keep plugging away doing the same thing rather than saying ‘Hang on, this isn’t quite right, let’s tweak it.’

So in essence, concentrate on getting the product really right as well and the service; and everything else falls into place. A lot of people setting up their own business get worried about the rather minor things but actually the most important thing is having something that people really want to buy.

How do you think the market for fashion has changed over the last two decades?

I think the biggest change is that there is even more competition than there ever used to be. Whether this will last or not remains to be seen but people are so spoilt for choice now and there are so many good fashion brands available; the market used to be much less crowded, so that's one big change.

The second thing is, women seem to want new things a lot more. Twenty years ago women would ‘make do’ and bring out a dress which they had worn last season but, (and not wanting to sound cross!), but many women have a thing about wanting to ‘save the environment’ etc, but simultaneously, they also don’t seem to be able to resist buying something new!

It’s in their nature and fortunately we’ve benefited from it! That said, it’s still much harder to make money these days; there’s price deflation and people have also become addicted to ‘offers’. We’ve had to do a lot more offers; people wait for an offer and of course, if one of our competitors is doing a 40% off, we then have to follow.

Have you had a particular product over the years, like a certain shirt or dress, that's really smashed it?

We’ve had quite a few, we have a very successful swimsuit called the Santorini swimsuit, which is great and we’ve had a lot of jersey dresses that have proven very popular. I wouldn’t say there is one particular thing that's been amazing but each season we’re ordering a lot of stuff and there are some designs we need to sell tens of thousands of; but the big thing that's become a huge category for us is dresses. We’re quite good at dresses and they’re such a great thing as women don’t have to worry about anything else; if you have a lovely dress, you feel a million dollars!

We have jersey dresses that are great for us, it’s a great mail order product because they are not too ‘fit sensitive’ and they're not too expensive. They’re also perfect for ‘versatile dressing’ which is a big part of what we are trying to create. The best products are those that people can wear for lots of different occasions and lots of times.

Would you say your target audience has changed over the years?

It’s pretty similar but obviously as we have grown, we have needed to appeal to more people - and that’s meant less affluent people. But, we have been very successful in America so that’s actually been the big change, we are bigger in America than we are in the UK now and that’s slightly changed the business because Americans are slightly more conservative and that’s slightly affected the innovation. They need products that are going to suck them in, they don’t like floaty styles so much.

The target customer has been the big change - the idea that we were just selling to yummy mummies and sloane rangers - we’ve got 1.5 million customers now so a broad spectrum. They are united in liking colour and fun, we like merging fun with style.

How has this nightmare pandemic affected Boden? Are there any positives to be taken out of this?

Well, obviously it’s been very bad for trading as I said because in the summer, particularly, clothing is bought for holidays and parties, those have gone but hopefully not for too long but that's really hurt our sales. 

We only have two shops so we are not as badly affected as others but we are still very badly hit by it. We’ve had to make some redundancies so it’s not much fun to be honest.

I think the positives are - well, there aren’t many, but I’d say it’s taught us all to work in a different way and this remote working will mean people can be slightly more flexible and have a better work/life balance in the future but apart from that, I really can’t think of many!

How do you think Coronavirus is going to change retail and the ‘high street’?

I’m afraid a lot of retailers are going to struggle; we’re struggling but I think others, poor things, have probably got it a lot worse, those who have borrowed a lot of money and those with lots of shops. The problem is the government in my view has been too successful in scaring people and once you put fear in peoples’ minds, it’s very hard to get it out of there and I think people are going to be nervous about going shopping for quite a while and that is a huge worry not just for fashion, but for the economy.

So, moving onto other things; you have three girls, do you have any advice for parents?

I don’t think I’ve got it nearly right enough!  My girls are 25, 23 and 20; if I were to critique my ‘child rearing’ I would say that, with my youngest daughter, who was very mature for her age growing up, I think I allowed her to be too grown up too soon and I think I possibly should have been a little more strict; but it’s hard as she had two older sisters, so it’s easier said than done.

I think just listening and accepting that they are all going to be very different and they may want different treatment in their schooling and their hobbies; when you're busy and tired it's easy and tempting to try and make them do all the same things because it suits you when in fact they want to do different things. If you don’t do that, you slightly pay the price for it; as we have done actually.  

They are lovely and totally amazing but I think that that is what they would say is their grievance about us as parents - they’ve probably got plenty more than that actually!  I think listening is the most important thing though for all of them.

Are you looking forward to retirement or do you always need to be doing something?

I do always need to be doing something; I'm scared of that and I do need a project. I’m impressed with the types of people who have used lockdown to, for example, learn a new instrument, because I simply don’t have the temperament for that as I am always thinking about the business and I do find it hard to relax when there's a lot going on.  

The nice thing about this job and having my own business is that you can structure the business around your own skills and I've always been quite good at recognising the things that I am not good at; I’m good at delegating though so it’s important to hire people who are better than yourself.  

You often come across people who are really brilliant at what they do and they can take away quite big chunks of what you're doing, so I think it's possible to delegate more and more but still have ‘your role’ and if you can gradually do that then you can possibly get to the stage where you are still involved but spend less time within the office and you are on your own terms - fewer meetings, but still a having a significant input at the level that you want. 

However, the majority of my wealth is tied up in the business so I don’t really want to just walk away from it because a) I enjoy it b) I’m still quite good at it and c) I’d be pretty foolish to let go completely.

Do you find it quite hard to ‘switch off’ then?

Yes and no. If I find something which I enjoy and find challenging, then I turn my attention to that; I love riding in the winter and jumping big hedges; and in the summer I enjoy bicycling. I’m a fat bugger and I’ve recently become quite keen on cycling - if only just to stop myself getting even fatter!

I also have a farm; I potter around there being annoying which is lovely but it’s not quite enough for me. To be honest, the business and work is always there though so I never totally switch off.  

What is your ideal way of spending your perfect day - which doesn’t involve work?

In the summer, if I’m being honest, I would get up early and look at my emails and probably read a bit, make Sophie a cup of tea and cook breakfast. Then I’d take the dog for a walk, which I love; she's quite feisty and can be annoying but it always amuses me (though it doesn’t seem to amuse anyone else!). Then I’d go for a bike ride, play tennis, read the papers, read a book - so a mixture of mental and physical stimulation really. I’d love to round it off with a fun, family supper; I’m hugely fond of my children's friends; they’re much more fun than my friends really! So, having a family supper with my children and few of theirs would be great fun.

Where is your favourite place to go on holiday?

Well, when Sophie and I were first married - and could afford it (!) we used to love going to Positano but it's got rather spoilt now so it's rather off the list. 

In terms of family holidays, we love Greece. A lovely villa in Greece with a boat so we can potter around the coast exploring and maybe stop for lunch at a taverna or have lunch on board; then jumping off the boat into the sea for a swim - I don’t think much can beat that actually!

Johnnie, so many thanks for talking to me today and lets all keep our fingers very much crossed that the world and the economy can get back on it's feet as soon as possible.

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