The quiet man trying to stitch together a recovery at Moss Bros

Business Profile: The shadow of Shami Ahmed hangs over Adrian Wright's rescue of a fashion group fraying at the edges
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The Independent Online

Adrian Wright is having his picture taken standing between four headless mannequins. "I don't want any headlines like 'which one's in charge'," he jokes in his heavy Bristol burr. The chief executive of the Moss Bros menswear retailer judiciously avoids any reference to 'who's the dummy in the middle' gags, or Kipling quotes about keeping your can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs.

He's dressed stylishly, as you have to be when you're running a fashion group. Is it all Moss Bros gear? "Of course," he says, pointing proudly to his pale summer suit, white shirt and tie. But where did he shop before he landed the job? Not Moss Bros, he concedes "It was Austin Reed and Jaeger."

After 15 months in the job the 50-year-old Mr Wright feels like he is starting to get somewhere. Moss Bros has promised return to profit this year and returned to the dividend list while a trading update in May showed like for like sales up six per cent.

He also reckons most of his rivals are "all over the place". "M&S has had some successes in menswear such as Blue Harbour but the rest is a disaster," he says. "Austin Reed is a disaster. Ciro Citterio may be up for sale. So where do you go for a really good suit? Moss Bros is it."

But this tall, softly spoken west countryman, is having to engineer a recovery with the figure of Shami Ahmed, the Joe Bloggs entrepreneur, in the background. The Manchester-based fashion specialist now controls 21.5 per cent of Moss Bros shares though ownership of the stake resides with the stockbroker Cantor Fitzgerald via a series of complicated contracts for differences deals.

Has Mr Wright met his stalker? "No, I never have. He's not asked us for any meetings. He's not invested in the company. He's bet on the company. What his end game is, I don't know."

There are rumours that Mr Ahmed might be planning to merge Moss Bros with Austin Reed, in which he has built up a seven per cent stake. All this has pushed Moss Bros shares up to 62.5p from just 28.5p a year ago and it is hard to believe the surge is entirely because of the group's nascent recovery. "I don't see how he can bid for the company," one analyst says. "You'd need money for that."

Some say Mr Ahmed's plan might be to increase his stake further so he can exert greater influence over the company. Others say the shape of both Moss Bros and Austin Reed could be very different by the end of the year with Mr Ahmed somehow pulling the strings.

While his shareholder register becomes increasingly complicated, Mr Wright has been trying to get the basics right at a business that had fallen apart at the seams. A new management team has been brought in including Philip Mountford - formerly trading director of Versace and Daks Simpson. Furthermore Mr Wright has stripped down the number of fascias to three main brands; Cecil Gee, Moss and Hugo Boss, across 143 stores. Cecil Gee is becoming more "edgy" with brands like Religion, Rare and True. The Hugo Boss stores, which are operated under licence, will continue aiming at the upmarket designer market while the formal hire business has been put in all 94 Moss branches and is apparently enjoying "phenomenal growth". An Ascot collection got off to a winner earlier this year and the company is also selling liner loads though new deals with cruise companies. "We'd cut costs to the extent that we were not even in the Yellow Pages," he says with exasperation. One plank of the recovery is the re-launch of the Blazer brand, which was canned during one of the company's many strategic blunders over the years. Having bought the upmarket chain from the old Storehouse group Moss Bros re-branded it under the Code banner only to find things got worse rather than better. Now it is bringing the "preppy Hamptons"-style brand back.

From September, Blazer will be re-launched in 12 Moss Bros stores including Birmingham, Manchester and Bluewater as well as Oxford Street and Regent Street in London. The range is a smartcasual collection including moleskin jackets in chocolate brown, soft twill trousers and Italian fabric tailored shirts with soft button down and cutaway collars. Shirts will be priced from £45, jackets from £150.

Mr Wright says: "We will try it for a couple of seasons and see how it goes. If it works we could expand it to more stores and do an extended range. If that works we could expand it through concessions in department stores, do standalone stores or licence the name to third parties."

The cost so far is just £500,000 which is modest compared with the £4m blown on the Code fiasco. "The history of this business is that every time it tries to do something radical, it fails," he says.

Mr Wright was born into retailing as both sets of grandparents ran shops, though his father worked in security. "My first job was sweeping floors in C&A. After that it was Fine Fare (foods) and Lewis Meeson, newsagents, before a job at Sears menswear," he says. He joined Moss Bros from the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent where he was managing director.

After a quiet start at Moss Bros Mr Wright seems to be winning over the critics, many of whom said the company was beyond saving. His chairman, Keith Hamill, is certainly happy. "He's put in a good team and encouraged them to get on with it. He's got a good sense of humour and is easy to deal with. He's a relaxed kind of guy." He is also fit thanks to his liking for the gym as well as an interest in Pilates, an exercise which helps strengthen the back muscles.

Mr Wright has recently moved house from Cambridge to Esher in Surrey, which is more convenient for the Moss Bros HQ next to Clapham Junction railway station in south London. There he has a small, bare office with apricot coloured walls and not a single photograph or painting. This, it seems, is a reaction to the décor favoured by the office's former resident, Rowland Gee, the previous managing director and member of one of the company's founding families. "When I arrived there wasn't a square inch of space on the walls," Mr Wright says. "They were full of Moss Bros memorabilia, tickets, posters, you name it."

Turning round Moss Bros is a tall order but the quiet man from Bristol seems confident he can manage it, even with Shami Ahmed hovering behind the scenes. "Moss Bros has got to re-find itself, win back the customers it lost and start expanding," he says. "All the elements are in place now."

ADRIAN WRIGHT - SUITED AND BOOTED

Title: Chief executive, Moss Bros

Age: 50

Education: St Bernadette's Catholic School in Bristol: didn't go to university.

Career: Early years spent at C&A, 7-Eleven and Sears. In 1989 he joined BAA where he was airport retail director. Became MD of the Bluewater shopping centre in 1999 and was appointed Moss Bros CEO in February last year.

Interests, background: Pilates and going to the gym. Married to Elaine for 27 years, two children.

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