Designer fashion retailer Scott Crowson arrives for our interview wearing a cool combo of £125 jeans, handmade Barker Shoes (£200) and a relaxed £150 cardigan….
Those who have known Scott from his early days in business will also notice his quiet confidence – the sort only gained by someone who has survived the challenges of years spent in an exciting, but fickle, industry.
Of course, in the early 1990s, interesting little nuggets, such as “we’ve just sold out of the Matchless jacket sported by Daniel Craig in the new blockbuster Spectre,” didn’t come into the conversation.
But it isn’t simply the fact that he can do a spot of celebrity “name-dropping”, that’s got Scott where he is today. It’s the hard “can’t buy it” business knowledge he’s learned along the way.
With hindsight, he would be the first to admit that he was pretty naïve when he burst onto Lincoln’s retail scene in 1992. The former North Kesteven School pupil who left the Army after breaking his leg, then went to work at the old Nickleby’s menswear boutique in the city’s Cornhill.
“I hadn’t been there very long before I started thinking, ‘I could do this’. However, we were still in a recession. It was an uphill struggle to find the money I needed to get going,” said Scott.
Dream almost crumbles
“I visited my bank, but the managers didn’t want to know. They were feeling very nervous and I was seen as a high risk. It was also hard to get a shop unit. Landlords were looking for prospective tenants who had a trading record. I hadn’t.”
Determined to get a set of keys and kickstart his own fashion outlet, even if it was a tricky industry to break into, Scott managed to get onto the Enterprise Allowance Scheme.
“I also approached The Prince’s Trust, which gave me a grant of £550. I had the security I needed and launched Gere in a small unit in Clasketgate.”
Back then, Lincoln’s shopping offer was very different to what it is today. There was no University of Lincoln campus, no online shopping, fewer tourists and the mobile phones of the day were like bricks.
However, getting a set of shop keys was one thing, Scott then had to get his premises fitted out and stocked.
“It was really tough. I went to the cash and carry to choose some garments, then I hoped I would sell them in time for my cheque to clear. Quite honestly, my dream could have been over before it had even started!”
Scott put his personal stamp on Gere, and when the opportunity to snap-up the neighbouring outlet came along in 1998, Scott – who had been joined by Rob McGuire (now owner of Gere) – acted fast.
“We knocked the two units into one, expanded our stock and also started selling a range of suits. We built-up a core of regular customers, increased our cashflow and sales jumped 40% over a period of six months.”
West Midlands temptation
Scott had got the bit between his teeth and he was not about to rest on his laurels. In the early noughties, he was told about a retirement opportunity. The only disadvantage was that it was two-and-a-half hours drive away, in Worcestershire!
It’s a fact that Scott has reflected on more than once. He bought the menswear outlet in Redditch, sublet it, sold it, bought it back, then rebranded it. It was yet another huge learning curve, which also highlighted how destinations differ.
Then in 2009, Scott spotted another irresistible opportunity. It was even bigger and it was one which would catapult him into the higher-spec designer men’s and womenswear market.
Boston-based and family-run Coneys – which had a proud history stretching over more than a century under its belt – was up for grabs.
After initial meetings with the directors, Scott discovered that he needed £375,000 to buy the business and goodwill, and a spare £550,000 for the stock. This was going to be a tough call. He couldn’t afford it – but he had a plan.
“I felt that the business needed me. At that time, Coneys had no website, no social media presence, its EPOS (Electronic Point of Sale) system needed attention and I felt that it had lost its way a bit,” he said.
Fired-up by the potential challenge, Scott decided to negotiate further. As a result, he took a majority 65% stake in the business and, as its Managing Director, had the freedom to set rents and plan a substantial refit inside and out. Today he owns 100% of Coneys.
“I initially pumped in more menswear, re-worked the womenswear ranges and sold off dead stock. I also put everyone at risk of redundancy but, at the end of the day, I only had to let one person go,” said Scott.
That was at the end of December 2009. Over the next 14 months profits leapt 100%, generating a turnover of £1.2 million for the year to December 2010.
“Coneys has always been a quality designer name, with more than 100 years of heritage, people know it in Lincolnshire. It commands trust,” said Scott.
Since becoming its Managing Director, Scott has had plenty of other things to think about. The dealings over Redditch and a decision to move Gere from Clasketgate where – following the inception of a one way traffic system, he saw his takings plunge – to the High Street. In 2013, he sold the business to Rob McGuire.
Switching style pays off
Spurred on by the Coneys acquisition, Scott has repositioned himself in the fashion market, by concentrating solely on designerwear. In the process he has expanded Coneys to Lincoln, opened a branch in Stamford (2012) and rebranded his Redditch shop to match. He now employs 30 people.
“The menswear market has changed over the last five years. Many brands have gone bust and banks have pulled credit insurance by tightening up during the banking crisis,” said Scott.
“Supplies-wise, it has made it difficult for small independents, which have found themselves under pressure to pay quickly for their goods. You need to have sound resources to be able to do that.
“The designer brands market is different. The distribution channels are tighter and you can be the sole stockist of a brand in a particular town or city. Because of that, shoppers will come to you and they are happy to travel a fair distance to do so.
“People who love designer fashions know what they like. If something is right for them and a great fit they will stick with it. They are brand loyal, but they may buy less frequently than they would from lower-priced makes,” said Scott.
Coneys is attracting a loyal band of followers across all its branches and Scott’s Lincoln store is certainly reflecting the changes seen in the city.
“We are benefiting from a rise in the number of visitors coming to Lincoln, including the parents of university students, some overseas students, lecturers and professionals,” said Scott.
The entrepreneur uses handpicked buyers, who are experienced in the fashion industry, and who choose styles which will fly off the shelves. Each buyer has his own budget.
“I have just seen my best ever month in respect of online sales. For instance, the Daniel Craig jacket, produced by Matchless and worn in the film Spectre, and selling for £869 is completely sold out and we are now taking orders,” added Scott.
As 2016 dawns, Scott is looking to consolidate his interests and to plough more investment into his website.
This feature interview was first published in issue 61 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.