Ray Kelvin: A passion for fashion – but not for the spotlight

He has built up his global £1bn Ted Baker brand without becoming a household name. As he tells Simon Neville, that's just the way he likes it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

He is probably the most famous retailer you've never heard of, despite building up one of the UK's best-known fashion brands from scratch to a £1bn behemoth, but Ray Kelvin likes it that way.

And while other boardrooms may be stuffed full of suits, spreadsheets and pie charts, Mr Kelvin runs his Ted Baker empire very differently.

Only a handful of staff have left for competitors in its 26-year history; everyone gets a bear hug from Mr Kelvin, from the receptionists to institutional investors; and Ted Baker buses are laid on every evening to take staff to the nearest Tube stations.

He also knows his 400 workers intimately, and uses straightforward language that appears almost at odds with other listed companies.

On the business and its future he makes it simple: "We want to do what we do and do it better. We've got online, which is good; we've got to keep making better clothes; and we've got to look at what countries we can expand into.

"We've only got one store in Japan, so that's an opportunity. We've got three shops in China; two in Turkey – that's a growth market."

And with this laid-back, caring atmosphere, which might be better placed on a 1960s hippy commune rather than a warehouse in north London, he has seen the company boost profits by around 13 per cent almost continuously since its 1997 stock market debut.

Next week its full-year results are expected to follow that trend, after reporting a strong Christmas in its 300 stores across the world.

So it probably comes as no surprise that in London last night he was honoured at the Oracle Retail Week Awards for outstanding contribution to retail, at the industry's equivalent of the Oscars.

Last year's winner, Sir Philip Green, received his award from the showbiz mogul Simon Cowell in a glitzy affair, but last night's winner could not be more different.

He says: "I was surprised insomuch as I always feel like I'm off the radar. I don't go to these events, so I thought if you don't go to these events and don't show your face, which I never do, you don't get these things.

"I'm not a lover of the attention and I don't think these things are particularly cool. I'd never rebuff it. But it's not what I came to business for."

So keen is he to avoid publicity and take away the intrigue of Ted Baker that he's reluctant to be photographed because of his "ugly" face – in his words.

And unlike last year's winner, who is regularly snapped stepping out with Kate Moss and other celebrities, Mr Kelvin feels it's not for him.

"I don't think being famous in that way is particularly cool. My kids wouldn't like it and don't lead that type of lifestyle. Being wealthy and showy is not what I do.

"I don't have a yacht, and never will have one, and I don't own a plane. I just don't come from that type of background of being showy, and I don't like it."

Growing up, the 58-year-old knew he would have a career in fashion retail, from the days when he started work in the family shop in north London, aged nine. His father also had a blouse factory in Tottenham, north London, where Mr Kelvin could watch the clothes going from factory to shop floor.

But beyond being a retailer and trying to grow up sounding middle class – his mother made him call his suburb of Cockfosters "Co-fosters" to sound "more posh" – there were few aspirations.

He says: "When I started the business I just hoped I'd make it past the post making a profit. I never thought for one minute it would be a global brand in 33 countries, with wholesale presence in God knows how many more."

The company first opened its doors in Glasgow in 1988 – the same year it was named European city of culture.

Mr Kelvin admits that in the early days he had to be assertive to get what he needed, but now the business has grown to the size it is today, he no longer needs any hint of aggression.

"A lot of people in retail are quite aggressive and ugly and I don't think there's any need for it. I don't shout and scream. I'm not here shouting at landlords or suppliers, because people work better when they're happy."

Whether his laid-back approach will catch on elsewhere along the high street remains to be seen, but it certainly works for Ted, Ray and his brood of worldwide customers.