Harold Tillman: the rag trade raider who's dressing for the City, not the golf course

Retirement isn't an option, the clothing entrepreneur tells Abigail Townsend - there's a float to prepare and bids to be made
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The Independent Online

Harold Tillman - legendary rag trade entrepreneur and, apparently, a man who can't say no. Two years ago he had agreed to sell a tranche of shares in the clothing distributor BMB Menswear and, in his words, "having been quite successful and having made a reasonable amount of capital", he was set to go into retirement.

But then along came Jaeger, the ailing womenswear brand. Unable to resist, the millionaire snapped it up for an undisclosed sum from fellow businessman Richard Thompson, who in turn had acquired it just weeks before from cloth and thread group Coats for £1.

With a shrug of his shoulders and a smile, Tillman explains his volte-face away as just too good an opportunity to pass up. "Jaeger has been around for 130 years. There's nowhere in the world that you can go and they won't know Jaeger. That's worth a lot."

But the brand was in a state. In its final year at Coats, it lost £12m after an attempt to widen its customer base backfired. Since taking over, Tillman has invested £10m, bought out the lease on the flagship Regent Street store for £25m and scaled back annual losses to £3.5m. He also persuaded Belinda Earl, the highly respected former boss of Debenhams, to join as chief executive.

And the formula appears to be working. The company says Christmas trading was strong. "Against a backdrop of a declining retail sector for the period, we at Jaeger have outperformed both in the pre-Xmas period and after the Xmas sales commenced, and I am extremely pleased with our performance," Tillman enthuses.

With Earl in place, he is taking a backseat role. "It's very difficult when you have been involved for so long, but you cannot have two captains. Will we talk on a daily basis? Yes. Will I be involved in the management of the business on a daily basis? No."

But then, the 58-year-old chairman does have a number of other interests to occupy his time. He rounded off 2004 by bidding for Barneys, the iconic New York department store business. It eventually went to US group Jones Apparel for $295m (£154m), which Tillman says was around $25m more than he was prepared to pay. "Good luck to them. But it wasn't worth it to us."

He has also invested heavily in Acquility, a new software system intended to improve service levels in fitting rooms. Then there's his west London celebrity hangout, the Notting Hill Brasserie, and a potential move into boutique hotels, with Tillman already eyeing up Jaeger's Soho head office as a possible site. "With Belinda now at the helm," he says, "the pressure is off and it gives me an opportunity to go back to the things I enjoy."

The son of a garment manufacturer, he left his south London grammar school aged 15 to study at the London College of Fashion before joining the clothing supplier Lincroft. Within three years he had bought the business and, at 24, become the youngest person to float a company on the London Stock Exchange. He is now an industry veteran and numbers retail adversaries Philip Green and Stuart Rose among his friends.

An impressive rise, without a doubt - but also not without the odd disaster. In 1990 Honorbilt, an operation Tillman had acquired from Austin Reed, went bust owing nearly £11m. A few years later another company he was involved with, Launchexcept, the owner of the trendy O Bar in Soho, was wound up. That caught the eye of the Department of Trade and Industry, which tried to ban him as a director. He successfully fought the application but then struck a deal agreeing not to serve as a director for three years.

But he is not easily put off, particularly when it comes to his first love. For Tillman - be it clothes, hotels or even his son's chain of delis, Harry M's, which he shows a keen interest in - it's all about fashion.

"In 1978," he says, "I opened the very first cocktail bar London had ever had, called Rumours, in Covent Garden. Over the years I've owned several clubs and restaurants - bought them, sold them, enjoyed them. The things that I look at are fashion related, hence the restaurants. It's hard to explain. But it's got to be related to being in the fashion industry."

As for what the future holds, he has long been associated with a possible bid for Austin Reed. Tillman declines to discuss any approach he may or may not make but concedes: "We had a really good look [prior to buying Jaeger] and ran a slide rule over it, and nothing's changed. It needs to go private to sort it out."

In comparison, his long-term vision for Jaeger is to take the company public. It is hardly surprising. Tillman is open about his plans to "do a Burberry", where an underachieving brand is turned around and given an almost iconic status (though whether many football fans will turn up to games clad in Jaeger is debatable).

In the UK, 12 more stores are planned but the main focus is on international sales. Jaeger opened in Tokyo last year and, adds Tillman: "We're in talks with partners for Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Korea. Then there's lots of branding opportunities: we're moving into sunglasses, homeware and fragrances. All very Burberry-ish."

All of which takes money, but Tillman says he is in no hurry: "We have sufficient capital to continue plans for expansion and have no problems raising additional capital if need be." Which, he confirms, means he is prepared to put in more cash. He continues: "The City puts pressure on public companies to perform. That pressure means they take risks, they over-expand. So they get there for two or three years and then suddenly a hole comes up."

But, eventually, Tillman will float Jaeger. Such a move will return him to the public stage, and also help swell that pension fund. But don't imagine his retirement plans will be dusted down any time soon, for there is no end of pies Tillman can't resist putting his fingers in. And anyway, he concedes with a laugh, although he's just started learning to play golf, he's so bad at the game he might have to give it up. Instead, it looks like he will stick, for the time being at least, with the knitting: the wheeler-dealer world of fashion.

BIOGRAPHY

Harold Tillman

Born: 15 October 1945.

Education: studied design and pattern cutting at the London College of Fashion.

Career (1963): trainee at the clothing company Lincroft.

1966: buys Lincroft.

1969: firm floated as Lincroft Kilgour.

1974: sells stake in Lincroft Kilgour.

1981: acquires textile company Sumrie Clothes.

1984: sells holding in Sumrie Clothes.

1986: acquires Honorbilt, a division of Austin Reed.

1987: floats Honorbilt.

1990: Honorbilt collapses.

1990-95: consultant.

2000: acquires Baird Menswear Brands for £19m from William Baird.

2003: buys Jaeger from entrepreneur Richard Thompson.

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