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Ted Baker, the rule-breaker

5 Mins

Are there any business orthodoxies left? I sometimes wonder. Especially after talking to entrepreneurs who seem to take pride in flouting them. No-one is more proud of his multiple heresies than Ray Kelvin. Ray who? The man that is Ted Baker.

“I never thought the business would be successful – that’s why I didn’t name it after myself. I wanted to make sure that when it went bust, nobody associated it with me,” admits Kelvin.

So much for the unfailing optimism and self-confidence entrepreneurs are supposed to possess.

“Apart from thinking about being bankrupt” – which Kelvin admits is something of a low bar – “I wasn’t thinking about money. You should never start a business by thinking about cost. The starting point of any business is emotion and the love of trying to achieve something. You’ve got to be emotional and caring if you want to be successful.”

As Kelvin talks about his business, you know that these words aren’t just PR. He is emotional; he can pick out any of his shirts in a crowd and loves them like children. But maybe what he loves best is poking holes in business theories.

Kelvin didn’t start by defining a target market or even a typical customer. “I wanted to create a range of shirts better than anyone. That’s all the market positioning we had – ‘better than anyone’. And we wanted to create shops that weren’t just stores, but rather completely comfortable environments. We wanted our customers to walk into them and want to stay.”

“We never advertised. We didn’t have the money – that was one reason but it wasn’t the only reason. We didn’t advertise because I always felt the whole GQ/Arena magazine scene was dishonest. I wanted to find a way to develop the brand that didn’t have to over-hype it, that just let people discover it for themselves. And it worked.”

When the company went public in 1997, it was for an unusual reason. “I thought going public would keep the brand honest. I think I wouldn’t have bothered about the company so much if it were still private. I might settle for it the way that it is. But now, every year, we improve the business by 12 per cent. I’m in a league now and I’m challenged and motivated and I want to reward the team.”

The team that Kelvin describes is mostly homegrown. He doesn’t believe in headhunting; he grows his own talent with the intense – and intensely personal – “Ted’s School of Excellence”. A clear career structure and overt investment in developing employees means that the company has never had to advertise for staff.

Kelvin talks about love a lot. Love not just for his mother (who still works in the business) but for his employees (whom he hugs on a regular basis) and for his customers whose complaints he takes very seriously indeed.

“We had one guy, who wrote in a horrible, insulting complaint about a suit. So I phoned him up and said, ‘Hi, this is Ted Baker.’ Four times he put the phone down on me – he thought it was a prank! Finally he listened and I said, ‘I’m sending a car for you. Come in and have lunch and we will discuss the problem and put it right.’ By the time we’d finished, this guy – who’d started out as a really aggressive oik – was saying: ‘Don’t worry; I’ll buy another suit’. But that’s the point: we’re fair, we’re straightforward, we don’t mess around and we take our customers seriously.”

For Ray Kelvin, there are two absolutes in business: love… and punctuality. “Don’t ever be late. I have never, ever met someone really successful who’s late. It isn’t respectful of other people’s time. If you love other people, you are not late.”

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