Anya Hindmarch: The handbag entrepreneur on international business, brand Britain and Margaret Thatcher

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Portrait of Anya Hindmarch

Anya Hindmarch launched her handbag business in 1987 aged 19. Nearly 30 years later the luxury brand turns over £28m and has 41 stores worldwide. Here, the company chair and chief creative officer talks about how to remain innovative, export successfully, and why she handed over the reins as CEO

When people think about the fashion industry, more often than not they’re probably picturing celebrities strutting along red carpets, catwalk shows with undersized models, and glamorous parties – rather than the fact that the sector is worth £26bn to the UK economy. But walk into Anya Hindmarch’s Wandsworth office and suddenly the business of fashion becomes much more serious. The bright open-plan office, with the quiet hum of busy workers focusing on expanding Hindmarch’s global handbag empire, feels like it should not be interrupted.

Hindmarch herself is warm and welcoming as she shows me into her office, where she points out a picture on the wall that says ‘Scary’. “That’s to remind everyone that business is scary,” she says. It’s surprising to hear that the designer could ever be fearful of business – she set out boldly on a trip to Italy aged 18 to learn Italian and returned to the UK with handbags she thought she could sell in Britain. It was the start of a hugely successful career.

“I was fascinated by the leather-goods industry, so when I left home to go and study Italian, I chose Florence, knowing it was the home of leather. I saw this bag in a market and thought it would sell in the UK. I brought it back and persuaded Harpers & Queen [now Harper’s Bazaar] to run an offer. It was a success and after that I started designing bags and getting them into stores.”

What was her vision back then? “I’m not sure I ever had one. I’ve always thought about the business as a brand from day one. I am fascinated by the psychological influence brands have on people. Handbags, in particular, are appealing to women because you don’t have to be a size 10 to wear a great handbag. I just knew I was ambitious and believed it would take off and be big.”

By the time Hindmarch was 24 she had opened her first shop on Walton Street, Chelsea. “My youth was a benefit because I didn’t think about the problems, I just got on with it. There’s not as much to lose when you’re young – it wasn’t like I was giving up a grown-up job or I had children at that point. I was free to do what I liked.”

Anya Hindmarch Catwalk show

Managing growth

Fast-forward to 2015 and Hindmarch has grown the company to a £28m turnover, with 41 stores worldwide and more than 100 members of staff based in her London HQ as well as employees in New York and Tokyo.

The business has experienced phenomenal growth in the past few years thanks, in part, to a major deal that saw Hindmarch sell a huge stake in the brand to private Qatari investors Mayhoola for Investments – a 38.8 per cent stake in 2012 for around £27m and another 21.2 per cent for £24.2m last year. The structure of the company was also transformed when Hindmarch stepped down as chief executive in 2011, which, she says, was because the business was “getting too big”.

“We have seen exponential growth, and it was at the point where it was going to damage the business. I was trying to remain on the creative side, while still doing all the partnerships, management and wholesale aspects. I was working all weekend, every weekend, and would panic that if I didn’t start working on a Saturday morning then I wouldn’t begin the next week on top of everything.

“I had to change my role for the good of the business and for me. The creative side was less easy to replicate: I decided to become chief creative officer and remain company chair, and then bring in someone fresh as chief executive.”

Was she worried about choosing the right person? “My husband [James Seymour] was the obvious candidate – he’s our finance director and has been working in the business since 2000 – but he and I both felt that someone external would be really good for the company.”

The first person to take on the role was former Harrods chief executive James McArthur, who was succeeded by Helen Wright – her background includes stints at Karl Lagerfeld and Ralph Lauren – in May. “James [McArthur] looked at the building blocks of the business and helped rebuild our systems, structure and teams – and now Helen has come in to implement all the operations and it’s very exciting.”

Hindmarch says she and Seymour weren’t concerned about the dynamics of having an outsider as chief executive: “My husband is already threaded into the business. He does all the relationship stuff, all the deals and negotiations, the leases, legal aspects, finance, and strategy. We aren’t fussy about who has what title, but he is integral, and we both adore our CEO so it works really well.”

Aside from stepping down as chief executive, the key to remaining creative as the business has grown, says Hindmarch, has been to heed the advice of advertising executive and BBH co-founder Sir John Hegarty.

“He is an advertising god and I once remember him saying to me that if you have a brain that spits out ideas then it will continue to do so regardless of what you do. He explained to me about a tennis lesson he had once where he couldn’t get the shot right for ages and when he finally got it his coach said he was moving on to the next one to which he replied, ‘I’ve only done it once though’. The coach told him that if he could do it once he could do it again. I cling to that. When it comes to creativity you just have to hunker down and apply discipline.”

Anya Hindmarch handbags

Going global

As well as holding several non-executive positions, including a place on the board of the British Fashion Council, Hindmarch is a government business ambassador, encouraging more UK companies to explore overseas opportunities.

“I thought the role would mostly be persuading other countries to buy British goods, but it’s actually about urging people in the UK to sell abroad. I am always amazed how scared people are of exporting. I’ve always thought ‘I’ve got the whole world to export to, so let’s go!’ I’m sure people are afraid about not being paid but, for me, the web has blown that out of the water. Like it or not, if you have a website you will get orders from all round the world and why would you not want to open up? Anyone who is too insular will not be nearly as successful.”

But she believes the use of the ‘British brand’ as a USP is overplayed – UK products should compete on their own merit without relying on the ‘Made in Britain’ tag. “I’m bored of that card, but the UK is lucky because we have a respected legal system, we’re financially stable and English is the international language. There’s a fascination with this country and London, in particular, is becoming a centre for excellence for financial services and for creativity.”

On the impact of an EU referendum on business, Hindmarch is reluctant to be drawn on the subject: “Clearly Europe is a huge trading partner. We want to make sure we don’t lose any of the benefits and we have to be fair, sensible partners, but at the same time it can be quite hard when some laws are controlled from Brussels that might not suit us here. Having local governance is always more effective.”

Role models

The framed picture of Margaret Thatcher on the stairs leading up to Hindmarch’s office is perhaps a giveaway, but it comes as little surprise when she describes the late prime minister as one of her greatest inspirations.

“She was a one-off in a generation, a strong woman who was full of conviction and had to make some very tough decisions, but stuck to her guns and transformed this country – she forced enterprise, she ripped up red tape, and she oversaw privatisations. The Eighties was an exciting, fertile time for business and as a grocer’s daughter she did some wonderful things. She made the word handbag into a verb [a female politician who treats a person or idea ruthlessly] and for me that’s got to be good.”

When it comes to seeking business advice, Hindmarch admits “in the nicest possible way” that her father [who built a successful plastics company] has been her harshest critic. “He is the most honest person to go to for guidance. He sits on my board and has from day one.”

Despite her husband and father sitting on the board, and having a CEO who is not in the family, Hindmarch is adamant that there are never boardroom disputes. “It’s all about management of expectation, the management of people, and results. If you have really good communication then you shouldn’t ever get to a dispute point. I don’t feel like we are in different camps. It’s important to choose your board and investors as people you would like to have dinner with. It saves a thousand words if you are aligned naturally.”

Anya Hindmarch laughing

Leading with conviction

She does not support boardroom quotas and was previously quoted as saying she would be “really frustrated to be picked for a job just because I wore a skirt”. When asked how the UK could tackle the problem, she says forcing people’s hands will not solve the issue.

“I am all for involving women in the workplace, but I am completely aware as a mum of five that women have children and they don’t always want to work full time like men – it should be their choice. If a man is better, then he should be chosen. Do I believe a balance is good? Yes, because the world is a balanced place and that is a reflection of your customers. Do I think that women add something? Yes, because they have different skills to men. That said, I know some very feminine men and some more masculine women – there are all flavours of people and I think we get too hung up on it.”

Feeding the talent pipeline and ensuring younger women have role models, she admits, is important. “If you have examples of successful female executives then women are able to visualise themselves at the top and think ‘I could do that’. But women also have to be respectful. Being too flexible is unfair on a business – companies have needs too and I think that has to come first. Personally, I think women are much stronger than men and I think they’ll rule the world one day, but let it happen by itself.”

Hindmarch believes the secret to great leadership isn’t rocket science. “You need to be full of conviction, you need to be kind and you need to genuinely like your people.”

She admits there have been some tough times during her career, but the key has been communication and being inclusive: “When you grow a business one of the hardest things is that you can’t always afford to pay market rates, especially when you start out. Ultimately, you want people to be happy and I would hope that if my staff got calls from headhunters they wouldn’t want to leave because they feel happy working for me. Don’t underestimate people and celebrate the wins, and you are more likely to retain great talent.”

It’s clear that Hindmarch doesn’t get much downtime. But, when she does, she likes to spend it with her family. “I have a lot of children so it takes up a great deal of time, but I love a busy kitchen table with lots of friends round for supper. I also really like to travel – we do big trips as a family because that’s the one time I can get all my kids together. It’s normally full of hilarity and something goes wrong… it’s not easy moving that many people in one go, but it’s nice to be far away.”

Of her best achievements, it would be easy to assume that Hindmarch might choose the year she was awarded an MBE for her contribution to the fashion industry (2009) or crowned British Businesswoman of the Year at the Veuve Clicquot awards (2012), but, for her, the highlight is seeing her business in action.

“I love when I walk through my office and people are laughing. Seeing my team making Skype calls to China or the US, and working collaboratively. I have never worked anywhere else, but people walk in here and say it’s a nice place. There is nothing more fun than being able to work with your husband and have reasonably balanced children. I feel pretty lucky.”

But it’s not so much luck as Hindmarch’s hard work and serious business nous that got her where she is. Looking to the future, the designer says her focus will be on growing the business internationally and becoming a “really successful British brand”. One thing’s for sure, this lady is not for turning.

Anya Hindmarch is a member of IoD Central London. Follow her on Twitter @anyahindmarch or take a look at the brand’s YouTube channel

Related: Women as Leaders 2016 conference

Some of the country’s most inspirational business women will be speaking at the IoD’s Women in Leaders conference in London on 17 June. Hear fascinating stories, learn how to implement lasting changes in your company and leave motivated to accelerate your career. Find out more on the IoD website – click here (opens new window)

About author

Hannah Baker

Hannah Baker

Hannah Baker is deputy editor at Think Publishing. Previously she worked as a features writer and sub-editor for Director magazine

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