How Harold Tilman turned a £5,000 loan into £200m

The son of a tailor and milliner, it was hardly a surprise that Brixton-bred Harold Tilman, now owner of Jaeger, decided to study at London College of Fashion.

The son of a tailor and milliner, it was hardly a surprise that Brixton-bred Harold Tilman, 62, decided to study at London College of Fashion.

After all, it was the early 1960s, and swinging London was the centre of the fashion world. But Tilman's first job was hardly trendy.

In 1964, aged 19, he got a traineeship with ex-military clothes wholesaler, Lincroft, which sold "very conservative suits... totally unconnected with anything in the fashion world".

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But Lincroft had one big advantage. An established business, it had distribution channels to shops across London, meaning that if Tilman came up with his own designs, he'd have clients ready to buy them.

Soon "I was allowed to put my own small collection of clothes together". Supplying Carnaby Street with hipster trousers and Beatles-style jackets, within a year he was outselling the rest of the business.

Tilman's employers, seeing his obvious ability, sold him the business when they retired in 1967 for £5,000, a sum he borrowed from the bank. Aware that smart casual wear was coming into vogue, he moved into three-piece suits and tight jackets with concaved shoulders.

It was a good decision. Fashionable shops were opening in the King's Road and on Carnaby Street, and at the same time suits were becoming more trendy. Tilman, with his background in tailoring, and a father whose factories were equipped to make tailored suits, had a distinct advantage. His business began to take off.

Indeed he was so successful that in 1969 he took it public and immediately began making acquisitions. He snapped up the famous Saville Row tailor, Kilgour Stanley, and changed the name of his own firm to Lincroft Kilgour. Next he bought a manufac­turing business in Ireland, then a woollen mill, then a suit manufacturer in Leeds.

Suddenly he was running "a textile conglomerate" which, he says, was always his aim. And as he grew, the City began taking notice. Canon Street merchant bank, who'd financed him early on, decided to buy him out.

The offer was £1.6m about £65m today so unsurprisingly Tilman "was happy to sell". But at 30, he was too young to retire. "I went to New York and set up another business... getting involved in America in the early days when it wasn't really into fashion. They were light years behind us but I always maintained that they'd catch up."

Returning to the UK in 1977, he bought and sold several businesses during the 1980s. But it was his purchase of Jaeger, the failing women's clothes brand, in 2003 that brought him back into the public eye. Jaeger had a special appeal for Tilman. When he was a small child, his parents "used to walk me by Regent Street to look at it", he says. "It was the British Ralph Lauren."

The group was losing £11m a year, but last year, after Tilman put in a new design team and changed the layout and location of the shops, it made operating profits of £5m. It's an impressive turnaround to cap a successful career, but even now, at 62 and worth a reported £200m, Tilman shows no sign of stopping. "Every now and then I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and think, is that me? Because I feel a lot younger than I look."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.