Brian Brick: Moss Bros Boss hopes smart moves will pay off

The Business Interview: He has ambitious plans to increase the menswear company's presence on our high streets, writes James Thompson
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The Independent Online

Retail is in the blood of Brian Brick, the chief executive of the brand suit retail specialist Moss Bros. He vividly remembers making the tea in his father's shop in Wood Green, north London, at the age of 14, although he worked in the warehouse before then.

"My father was a good retailer and taught me a lot of things. And I don't think a lot changes. The packaging and wrapper changes, but the basic principles of business and retail don't change. I have always been interested in the buzz of retail," says Mr Brick. The Brick retail gene pool includes his brother Alex, who is the chief executive of Gordon Brothers Europe, which does retail restructuring work. "We compare notes," jokes Brian.

In 1985, he and Alex took over and turned their father's menswear business, Brick's Manshops, into Suits You. Twenty years later, the Brick family sold Speciality Retail Group – which at the time owned the Suits You, Racing Green, Young's Hire and Chester Barrie brands – for £30m in a deal backed by Gresham Private Equity.

The timing of the sale now looks smart, as SRG completed an insolvency procedure to avoid collapse earlier this year. But there are no such problems at Moss Bros, which has emerged the other side of the recession a stronger retailer.

Last month, the branded suit specialist, which operates the Moss high-street chain, delivered like-for-like sales up by 12.6 per cent for the 16 weeks to 22 May.

In an attempt to drive further sales growth, the retail group this month embarked on an innovative venture by opening its first shop selling bespoke suits made in China. Speaking at the Moss Bespoke store opposite London Liverpool Street train station, Mr Brick's enthusiasm for the project is clear, flitting from one suit to another. While its cheapest "made to order" suit costs £250, Moss Bespoke also offers a "made to measure" suit for £350, where customers choose details including their initials on the inner pocket, the colour of the collar's underfelt, angle of the pockets and inner lining.

Mr Brick came up with the idea of selling bespoke suits at affordable prices when visiting a factory in China seven years ago. "I came up with a germ of an idea and I thought wouldn't it be great if this was possible."

However, Moss Bros's use of the word bespoke has irked traditionalists on Savile Row, London's tailoring haven in Mayfair, where many bespoke tailoring businesses date back to the 18th century. For instance, Mark Henderson, the chairman of the Savile Row Bespoke Association, recently said: "This [Moss Bespoke] is figuratively and literally, several thousand miles from bespoke tailoring." But Mr Brick says that Moss Bros Bespoke does not aim to compete with Savile Row's bespoke suits, which typically cost upwards of £1,700, but he does want to "enhance, demystify and grow" interest in customised suiting.

A much bigger task for Mr Brick over the next two years will be to return Moss Bros – which owns several brands including Moss Bros Hire, Savoy Taylors Guild and Cecil Gee, as well as running the UK franchise operation for Hugo Boss – to profitability. For the year to January 2010, Moss Bros reduced its underlying pre-tax loss to £3.9m.

His timing in taking the helm at Moss Bros in March 2009 after the former chief executive Philip Mountford had departed was not ideal, given that the high street was battling a brutal recession. Before Mr Brick's time, Moss Bros had also faced an aborted £40m takeover by the now defunct Icelandic retail investor Baugur in 2008, which had seen some board members slinging mud at each other in the press.

Mr Brick pulls no punches in describing the health of the company when he became chief executive. He said: "Morale was low. We had come into a big recession and in fairness to Philip [Mountford], all retailers were having a hard time. Moss Bros had been through quite a torrid time, with people asking: 'Are we being bought or are we not being bought?'

"So there was a certain amount of morale issues. I think the problem with a lot of these deals [such as Baugur's bid] is that it takes up a lot of management time and the business had become de-focused with too many distractions. And what the business really needed was focus."

Mr Brick also had the advantage of knowing the business inside out because Moss Bros had been SRG's biggest competitor.

After taking charge, he wanted to "change the culture and get under the skin of the business" and build a team to take the business forward.

"We have got some great people in the business and we have changed some people and where they were not going to make it, they have gone. We have been ruthless and have had to be," says Mr Brick. In terms of its product offer, he has introduced plenty of changes, such as more "free size" suits for plus- and smaller-sized customers.

It has also repositioned its own brands, such as Blazer and Savoy Taylors Guild, as well as introducing new ones. In February, it reintroduced Ted Baker, "which has been fantastic", says Mr Brick, and it is bringing in new brands, such as French Connection and Peter Werth, to beef up its fashion credentials. It has also introduced its own brand of shoes, under its Blazer brand.

He has also kicked off a major rebranding of the business, the first instance of which is Moss Bespoke. The group will start refurbishing its estate including a new Moss fascia in the autumn.

"I want to be refurbishing a number of our stores and opening new stores. There are a lot of places that we are not where we should be, where we can trade well," says Mr Brick. In fact, the group has identified about 40 locations to add to its 120 Moss stores, although it has not committed to a time frame for this scale of opening.

Despite these long-term ambitions, Mr Brick says that clothing retailers will face a challenging trading environment and rising cost pressures in the second half of the year. Speaking to The Independent before this week's emergency Budget, Mr Brick said that Moss Bros and its suppliers were already planning for a rise in VAT up to 20 per cent, which will become a reality from 4 January.

But he says the squeeze that VAT will put on UK consumers is just one part of a "triple whammy", which he believes will leave UK fashion retailers with "no choice" but to raise prices from the autumn.

The other two factors are the weak pound against the dollar, which hits the cost of imports from the Far East, and the rising costs of clothing raw materials and Chinese wages.

Mr Brick says: "We have all been in a very deflationary business for the past 10 years. Clothing prices have not moved – they have gone down. That is not sustainable any more. I think we have hit the bottom."

He says the timing of likely rises in clothing prices in the sector is unfortunate. "The problem is that it comes at such a time when the general public are going to have less money in their pocket."

Despite the tough outlook for the sector, Mr Brick is fired up about returning Moss Bros into the black. "There is a real energy in the business and a desire to from the team to get this business back to where it should be. In the late 1990s, it made £20m. Why can't we do it again?"

Brian Brick: Moss Bros chief

* In 1985, Brian Brick and his brother, Alex, took over their father's menswear business and rebranded it Suits You.

* They built it up into a multi-brand menswear operation before making a mint by selling it to Gresham Private Equity for £30m in 2005.

* Mr Brick became a non-executive at Moss Bros in September 2008 and then chief executive in March 2009.

* He lives in Stanmore, Middlesex, and is a season ticket-holder at Arsenal. He and his wife celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary this week.