Me And My Partner: 'I call him a spoilt brat, he calls me an old bag'

James Hibbert and Shirley Biggs set up bespoke tailoring company Dress2Kill in 2001. Turnover last year reached £1.5m
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The Independent Online

Five years ago I was working for a recruitment company, where appearance was very important. I got measured for a suit by chap from Leeds - he had halitosis and not a lot of personality, but I bought a £450 suit from him. All my colleagues in the office saw me getting measured up and were intrigued. So he fitted them for suits as well. I think he measured up about 15 people that day in just one office. I went back to my desk thinking, he must be making a fortune.

I did some research into the made-to-measure suit industry and put a business plan together. I mentioned it to my ex-girlfriend's dad and he said: "Oh you must go and talk to my great friend, Shirley. She's got years of experience in the fashion industry and is a real character."

I knocked on Shirley's door and was welcomed by this exuberant lady with a bottle of wine and a fag in her hand. She had recently retired as director of the Windsmore Group, a women's fashion label. Before that she'd been a director of buying for John Lewis.

She thought it was a great idea. I cheekily asked her if she wanted to come on board as a consultant, which she did. She helped me find an office and fine-tune the business plan. She brought her industry knowledge to the business and we got on like a house on fire. Within a year she'd become a partner in the firm.

The relationship worked immediately, but business was slow at first. For the first two years we didn't pay ourselves a salary. Shirley was OK with that, but I struggled. When we did have enough money, though, Shirley was always very generous, which I appreciated hugely.

It was tough. We were barely making enough to survive. If I'd have been on my own I don't think I'd have continued. The fact that she was there and we were both able to jolly each other along helped enormously.

Shirley looks after the front-of-house side. She is a larger-than-life personality. She's got all the experience, but is also still tremendous fun. Very bubbly, very chatty, not afraid to speak her mind. All the clients and the suppliers love her. She absolutely charms them. Whenever they come in the first thing they say is, 'Where's Shirley?'. I try and see the clients, too, but I'm also more in the back trying to do deals and working on strategy, that kind of thing.

Shirley is very gung ho. She doesn't care what other people think of her, she just gets on with it and is very much her own person. She's tremendously positive, too. If we're having a quiet month, she'll be reassuring me that it is going to be fine. I think some of that positivity has rubbed off on me, as has some of her flamboyance and energy. She breathes life into everything she does and gets stuck in with great enthusiasm. Her age never comes into it. She's got more energy than the rest of us put together. She's just one of the team.

There's an analogy she uses about meeting someone and trusting them enough to give them your house keys. From the start, we both trusted each other with our houses, never mind the keys.

Shirley Biggs

I was introduced to Jimmy through a friend. I suggested he came to see me and this enthusiastic young man arrived at my house. He was good fun and I thought his business idea was brilliant.

It started quite slowly - selling to friends and acquaintances. I brought in the lawyers and the judges, he got all these young guys. It's just grown from there.

Our relationship works because we're similar in our passions for the business. One thing I admire about James is his entrepreneurial attitude. He doesn't see problems, he jumps over them. He says: "Biggsy, I've got an idea..." and I say: "Not another one." But he's usually right and that's why the business is successful.

He has skills I don't have, in sales and marketing. James can cold call. I absolutely hate cold calling. I can sell snow to Eskimos in a one-on-one situation, but I'd collapse if I had to cold call.

James looks after marketing, talking to people and drawing up the business strategy. He's always in meetings, which I hate. I look after the clients. The roles have developed around our characters and skills.

I love meeting people and they treat me as a friend. We used to know all our customers by name, but because the database is so huge it's difficult now. But after you've chatted to them for a few seconds you remember who they are.

The initial business ideas usually come from Jimmy. If I disagree, we sit down and we either have a really heated row or we have quite a casual discussion. It depends how passionate we are about what we're talking about.

I tend to worry more about practical things. If we're taking on a large corporate customer, I'll be thinking about how we're going to get enough fabric and get everything done in time. And if I think it's going to be horrendous, my Irish temper comes to the fore.

James is feisty, too. We do have our moments. I call him a spoilt brat and he calls me an old bag. But all our rows are over in about two seconds. And then we laugh.

I guard against worrying too much. I try to remain calm and open-minded because I don't want the age thing to come into it. I think hard what I'm getting excited about. My background makes me practical, but I have tremendous respect for Jimmy's ability to not to let practicalities distract from the end goal.

We've grown into very close friends. We can say anything to each other. We go out socially occasionally and we still have tremendous fun. I don't let my age get in the way at all. I've told him he's got to buy me an electric wheel chair when I'm older so I can whizz along the streets into work.