Johnnie Boden: 'Hysterical and passionate' - he doesn't act casual but he knows how to wear it

The founder of Boden, mail-order company to the middle classes, tells Maggie Lee how failing in the City made him a success in fashion
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The Independent Online

Johnnie Boden is a walking advertisement for his brand. Fresh-faced, slim and casually attired, the former public schoolboy looks just the sort of person who'd buy clothes from the Boden catalogue.

The entrepreneur is also very candid, admitting that he regards failure as a companion and work as an antidote to boredom. "I think I'm really driven by the fact that I was a failure in my previous life as a stockbroker," he laughs. "I was useless at it, and very unhappy. I learnt that it's important to play to your strengths in life."

Capitalising on these strengths has paid off. In 13 years he has developed an award-winning mail-order clothing company that employs more than 500 staff in the UK and is anticipated to generate sales in the region of £100m in 2005. Around 500,000 "active customers" now order clothes for adults and children from his catalogues - by telephone, mail or over the internet - at least once a year.

Retail, however, was not Mr Boden's first choice of career. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he originally worked in the City "by accident and because everyone else was doing it". It was a posting to America in the late Eighties that was to provide him with the inspiration for a different outlook and a different way of earning a living.

"I learnt that the British are frightened of failure, unlike the Americans, who just pick themselves up and move on. Working in America helped me recognise that mistakes are necessary in order to find out what you're truly good at."

A keen shopper, he noticed that "many of my friends stateside were buying nice-quality, fun clothes by mail order". By contrast, trying to purchase classic clothes in a similar way in the UK seemed impossible.

Although Mr Boden had always been interested in fashion, he had never wanted to be a designer. He says: "I felt I was stuck at this stage of my career and was pretty miserable, because, as someone else put it, I was too square to be in fashion but too gay to be in stockbroking." It is typical of his style that he uses "gay" in its more archaic sense.

His break came unexpectedly when, after the death of an uncle, he inherited enough money to buy a flat and leave his City job. He hesitated for a year - working as a teacher and in a pub - before summoning the courage to go solo and put his ideas into action. "It was really when Sophie, who is now my wife, told me to stop fiddling around and get on with it, that I did."

Over the past decade, quality fabrics and classic practical designs have become the hallmarks of the company, as have swift distribution and creative marketing. Each season's range is advertised in the firm's family-friendly catalogues (the first models were in fact family and friends). Adorned with chirpy descriptions of the models' habits and predilections, the brochures are mailed direct to customers' homes and posted on the web. More recently, in a drive to increase market share, they have been included as inserts in targeted publications.

Mr Boden, however, admits that the business model has not been without its chinks in the past. He cites the early years, when his fledgling business specialised in menswear. He quickly learnt that the margins and volume were in womenswear, and that to be profitable he would have to develop new lines.

In the mid-Nineties, he also saw that the company was "massively under-resourced and poorly managed". Julian Granville was hired as finance and operations director and then made managing director in 1997. Together, they have assembled a management team to provide the stability to grow the business.

But it still took Mr Boden seven years to hire a full-time designer. "It's embarrassing when I look back," he says. "I was doing the designs on the back of a cigarette packet. We were so fortunate to launch a few products that really captured our customers' imagination."

Ranked as one of the fastest-growing profitable unquoted businesses in the UK, and a regular in the Indy 100 listing of expanding companies, Boden recently started to market its range more aggressively in the US. Its founder believes there are also lucrative opportunities in Japan and across Europe, particularly in Germany. He is confident about funding future growth and retains the majority stake in the business. Despite regular overtures from the banks, he shows no desire to sell up.

An entrepreneur to the bone, he believes it is important that business founders are willing to invest their own capital. "We are actually ungeared - we don't have borrowings at the moment and we have a reasonable amount of cash," he says. "But I am sure we will need significant sums of money at some stage.

"If we can find it from our own pockets, that is so much the better, as I've had some nasty scraps with the banks. There was a period in the early years when I had to mortgage the house, which my wife wasn't very happy about. It was a nasty feeling to be in hock to the bank, although I don't think it does you any harm because it shows that you believe in your product."

Press him about his faults and he will admit to being inconsistent and impatient. "I get hunches about things, and people can find it hard to read me." He fully subscribes to the view that entrepreneurs are usually extremely bad managers, explaining: "The skills to set up and then manage a business are diametrically opposed. In order to set up a business you have to be slightly emotional, hysterical and passionate; to run a business you have to be fair, which I'm not always. Which is why I now have a good team around me."

Although optimistic about the future, he is acutely aware of his industry's volatility. As he says: "What you learn in retail is that you're only as good as your last range. You cannot expect customers to come back to you just because they bought from you before. Every time I see a retailer struggle, I think, 'There but for the grace of God go us'."

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 1 June 1961, London.

Education: Eton and Oriel College, Oxford.

Career (1982-89): stockbroking at BZW and SG Warburg.

1990: started working on the idea for Boden.

October 1991: Boden started trading.

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