My Biggest Mistake: Brian Duffy

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The Independent Online
The managing director of Playtex UK qualified as a chartered accountant with peat Marwick Mitchell in 1976 and was a senior financial manager at Polaroid UK before joining Playtex.

MY BIG MISTAKE began 10 days after I moved to Connecticut in the US. Playtex Apparel had only recently become an independent company, and I arrived to find we had embarked on what was seen as an exciting venture.

We had designed a product line aimed at the younger consumer and had licensed a name that was already established. It was everything Playtex wasn't - fashion that was short-term, low-cost and low-margin.

It clearly wasn't our business. Our experience was with the more mature consumer who needs support and comfort and is more interested in how a garment performs than how it looks.

I was immediately nervous that it was something we were ill-equipped to manage. I decided to raise the issue at the first opportunity. But when I voiced my concerns, I got a hostile reaction. The entire organisation was committed to this proposition; it was seen as a way of solving all our problems. Even my finance group had got caught up in the enthusiasm.

Unfortunately I hadn't gone to the trouble of analysing and validating my concerns, so I couldn't substantiate my argument. I felt extremely insecure. I was much younger than anyone else in my peer group: a new kid on the block with an accent nobody could understand. Never before had I been so aware of being a working-class Irish Catholic from Glasgow.

Despite a reputation for speaking my mind, I took the easy option for the first time in my career and decided that winning the support and affection of my colleagues was more important. I said I would look into it further. Eventually, I found myself in the position of publicly supporting something I knew not to be right.

The first season was fairly successful, which convinced me that I was smarter than I had thought to have gone along with popular opinion. But manufacture in the US was expensive, so we turned to the Far East, making the potential profitability look even greater because we had lowered our costs. But because the sub-contractor wanted his risk covered all the way down the line, we had to add to our long-term commitment. That was when it all went wrong.

Unlike Playtex products, the younger range was only distributed in six retail chains, one of which accounted for more than half of sales. It didn't like the initial feedback from the new collection and decided not to go ahead - so 50 per cent of the business we had just committed ourselves to evaporated.

With a small margin on a low retail price, there was no scope to discount the inventory and cover the losses. We lost more than dollars 5m.

I only escaped with my reputation intact because once the evidence became clear, I could base my assault upon fact, but by that time it was too late. The rest of the team can look back and say they genuinely thought it was going to work. Unfortunately, I can't. I knew better, but had opted out.

The moral is that, as a senior executive, you are paid for your judgement and views. In important matters, you must find a way of getting those views over, which isn't always easy. Jumping on the bandwagon may seem an attractive alternative, but it can lead to regrets.

(Photograph omitted)