A rags to riches tale when Joe Bloggs meets Moss Bros

Shami Ahmed is pitching himself as a serious suitor for the century-old menswear retailer
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The Independent Online

Shami Ahmed looks every inch the slick young businessman. Immaculately turned out with a grey pin-striped suit, white shirt and black tie there is a touch of the fashion statement in his goatee beard and huge, diving-style watch.

Even so it is not the image you necessarily expect of the man behind the Joe Bloggs fashion empire. The Manchester-based enterprise which made his name and fortune, was synonymous with the "Madchester" days of the early Nineties – huge baggy trousers, Happy Mondays music and the burgeoning club scene.

But this time it is different. Mr Ahmed confirmed in a Stock Exchange statement last week that he is "considering entering into discussions" that could lead to a takeover bid for Moss Bros, the struggling menswear retailer. So it is time for the serious face and the City suit.

The statement came after it emerged that Mr Ahmed had built up a 5.42 per cent stake in Moss Bros, whose portfolio includes the formal hire business, Savoy Taylors' Guild, Cecil Gee and Code. The stake was held through Legendary Investments, the AIM-listed investment vehicle in which Mr Ahmed owns a 42 per cent stake.

Critics said he was not serious about Moss Bros and that he has dipped in and out of retailers before with stakes in Austin Reed, House of Fraser and Matalan. Keith Hamill, the Moss Bros' chairman, said it was "doubtful that this would give rise to a credible bid". But the 39-year-old entrepreneur has stepped up a gear with the appointment of West LBPanmure as his financial adviser as well as a financial PR firm. And, crucially, this represents the first time he has taken a tilt at a publicly quoted company. Before this, his most high-profile deal was the acquisition of the fashion business of Elizabeth Emanuel, who designed the wedding dress of Diana, Princess of Wales.

That went horribly wrong when Ms Emanuel quit after an epic fallout that was encapsulated in a television documentary. One of many arguments included the decision to move Ms Emanuel's businesses from central London to unfashionable Wembley. "If you were a good designer you could design in a toilet," she recalled him as saying.

Was that all a horrible mistake? "It got personal. But you live and learn," he says.

The current intriguing stand-off, which pitches the young Asian wheeler-dealer against Moss Bros, a rather staid family dominated business with a history dating back to the late 19th century.

Flanked by his investment banking "policemen" Mr Ahmed is careful not to speak out of turn on Moss Bros. But he alludes to his interest in general terms. "I've always been interested in brands and businesses that have inherent value," he says with just a trace of a Manchester accent. "Some need to be updated, refreshed and refocused. Sometimes there is potential for something to happen. Brands are what you make them. In a lot of organisations that are multi-branded offerings (like Moss Bros) some brands are good some are worse. And some you should not have. There are things you can do."

He hints that Moss Bros has fallen behind the times. "High street fashion is moving fast, particularly as we get into difficult times. Menswear has become more competitive. Menswear is much more brand conscious, more even so than womenswear. Everything at the moment is too bland, too much of a muchness."

Is he really serious about a Moss Bros bid? There are plenty of people who say that he is not. One analysts says: "What he's done in the past is buy a stake in a business, make a turn and then he's off. I'm not sure this is any different."

Another clothing retailer says the appointment of advisers may not be the demonstration of serious intent some suggest. "You could say 'oh well he must be serious if he is prepared to pay out serious fees. But lets' face it most merchant bankers are not exactly over-employed at the moment. He is probably not paying them anything. It'll all be success-related."

Mr Ahmed bristles at suggestions that his interest is not "credible". With a fixed stare he says: "Some people may have eggs on their faces, or have said words that they will come back to haunt them. I'll take my time and hopefully, whatever we do will be professionally approached." While some question his intentions, most say Mr Ahmed is a smart cookie. Richard Ratner, retail analyst at Seymour Pierce, says: "He a very nice man and I like him a lot. He's direct and there's no mucking about. Whether he's going to win or not on this one is another matter."

The key is the view of the Moss and Gee families, which between them own 38 per cent of the shares, making a hostile bid almost futile. "I'm sure there is a totally different view on the value of the business between Shami Ahmed and the Moss and Gee families," Mr Ratner says.

There is no doubt that Moss Bros has lost its way of late. Once a sizeable company it is now worth £33m after a series of profits warnings. Keith Hamill, the new chairman, is restructuring the board and seeking to stabilise the business but now finds a possible bid on his hands too.

Shami Ahmed was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and came to England when he was two. His family settled in Burnley where his father worked initially in engineering before setting up his own clothing business. It also opened a few shops and the young Ahmed started to get involved. "I had always helped in the business," he says. The family moved to Manchester in 1976 and the business expanded into the wholesale trade.

Mr Ahmed left school at 15 with no qualifications but soon developed a flair for the rag trade. He developed the Joe Bloggs brand in 1986 when he was just 24. He was soon one of the richest young businessmen in the country and a torchbearer for Asian entrepreneurs in the UK.

He recently moved to London and settled down with his wife and two-year-old son. Now it is time for the next chapter though it could damage Mr Ahmed's reputation if he decides not to launch a bid for Moss Bros. 'I can't change other people's views. But I'll take my time. I wouldn't do anything for short term glory."