Forty-two year old Austen Pickles' start in textiles was something of an accident. "When I came out of university in 1992 the country was in a recession and it was hard to get a job," he remembers. His then girlfriend's father owned a textile mill and was prepared to take Pickles on. "It helped pay the bills while I looked for a proper' job." Six months later, he was offered a graduate marketing role at Mars, but by then he had realised textiles "were more interesting than I had thought. I was involved in a bit of everything; production, sales, meeting clients."
After five years at the mill he moved to one of its major clients, Berwin & Berwin, a luxury tailor. There he realised "textile production was moving east, to cheaper factories in Europe or Asia". It was after four years, when the tailor switched production from a factory in the Czech Republic to one in Hungary that Pickles spotted his opportunity: "the Czech plant was slightly more expensive, but it was a good factory capable of making great clothes". Pickles decided to quit his job and set up on his own as a wholesaler.
"I didn't need much capital as I would only tell the factory to make the clothes once I had a confirmed order." He turned his attic into an office and hired a designer. He set about phoning his contacts and trying to garner orders for his new firm, Buxton Pickles. The first sale come from designer label Ted Baker. "They wanted 800 boys' suits, but no one else was interested because it was a small order." Pickles' designer worked with the brand to shape the suit then took the design to the Czech factory. That success led to contracts with Monsoon and Next. "We couldn't compete on price, but tried to carve out a niche for higher-quality clothing." By 2003 annual sales had reached almost £800,000 and the firm was profitable. "The high street was booming and there was lots of work about." Having a European factory helped. "We could react quicker than suppliers in Asia. That's important when shops need to make last-minute changes."
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By 2007 group sales reached £5.2m, but Pickles wasn't satisfied. "I could see the retailers were making much bigger profit margins than us." He decided to set up a range of mens' suit stores, called Charcoal & Chalk. After a successful trial store in York he splashed out on a Covent Garden address for his flagship store. "Customers loved it. After a few months we were making £35,000 a month and were looking for funding to roll out the stores across the country." Yet the good times were short-lived. By summer 2008 sales started drying up as the effects of the financial crisis hit the high street. By autumn Pickles was forced to close the chain and take a £200,000 hit.
Worse, the downturn affected Buxton Pickles as demand for wholesale clothing fell. Sales slumped to £3.6m. But "the recovery happened quicker than expected. There was a sudden demand for clothing that we were able to exploit because of our shorter lead times." By 2010 sales were at £6m. Pickles is now focusing on a mobile tailoring service, Norton & Townsend. "We can make our customers' lives easier by travelling to them. It also saves on overheads." He recently bought a competitor to boost sales and is sure "there's a market for good quality suits".
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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