Years ago, when she was a rookie on the Marks and Spencer management training scheme, Kim Winser was introduced over an industry dinner to a group of 10 influential directors, one of whom was Marjorie Scardino.
Both women have since become respected business role models. Scardino as one of the FTSE-100’s longest-serving female chief executives, while Winser became the first woman to be appointed commercial director at M&S (the youngest person to hold the position), has been at the helm of two British heritage brands (Pringle of Scotland and Aquascutum) and was awarded an OBE in 2006 for contributions to the fashion industry. She is now chairman of luxury lingerie brand Agent Provocateur and a senior adviser to private equity firm 3i.
It’s been more than 30 years since Winser met Scardino but she hasn’t forgotten what she learnt. “I was quite young and I was so inspired by Marjorie,” recalls Winser. “She was down to earth and straightforward. I thought, ‘fantastic, you can be yourself, show your strengths and your weaknesses’. You should never be worried about being a role model. You should just be who you are.”
Meeting Winser at Agent Provocateur’s east London head office, it’s clear those three decades in the high-octane, often catty fashion industry haven’t changed her outlook. She’s polished and focused but warm and approachable. She’s full of praise for the teams she’s worked with and on her own rise to the top of the retail game, she merely credits hard work, luck, and “hopefully some talent”.
Winser has thought for some time that, like bags and shoes, the lingerie sector is about to grow exponentially (she looked at buying underwear brand La Perla before taking on the role at Aquascutum in 2006). “If you go back to the 1980s and 1990s, shoes were really boring,” she says. “But shoes have become a serious part of your investment wardrobe and I believe lingerie will do the same. I’d like Agent Provocateur to be leading that,” she says.
She’s on new ground with this role, though. First, she’s chairman and not the face of the brand. Garry Hogarth‚ who Winser has known since her days at M&S—is chief executive. Second, Agent Provocateur is a young business that Winser says is “profitable and doesn’t need fixing”.
Unlike Pringle, founded in 1815 and Aquascutum, started in 1851—both of which were loss-making when she became chief executive and are still reporting million-pound losses—Agent Provocateur (launched in 1994) has defied the credit crunch. So is she ready to play second fiddle to Hogarth, and what can she contribute to an already high-profile company?
Winser understands that this role is different and that her responsibility now is to share her contacts, advice and skills. As a former non-executive director at The Edrington Group, she adds, she learnt how to contribute to a board from the sidelines. That said she’s still involved with some of the “front-end” work, such as refreshing the brand and marketing its credentials. Without losing the soul and values of the business, she explains, it’s time for her to help this British retailer to think globally.
“When it was started by Joe Corre and Serena Rees it was groundbreaking, it was interesting, and those values are still inherent in the business,” says Winser. “What we’re trying to do is update its spin for the global market and today’s lifestyle. It’s a £25m turnover business. That’s the exciting challenge—it means its potential is much bigger. We’re very excited about development in Asia.”
In a crowded, competitive market, this strategy to pursue further growth won’t be without its challenges. As Sophie Lord at brand consultancy Dave points out, it’s a hugely different market from the one that Agent Provocateur started. M&S, La Senza, La Perla, Elle Macpherson, and Mylo all do sexy lingerie well. There’s no question of the brand resting on its laurels, says Lord. “It has fashion and cultural credentials and when it came it challenged everything out there. It was the first to create sexy, high-end lingerie for women. But because it did it so well, it’s seen great imitators.”
The expansion will rest on how Winser can improve its proposition and persuade customers to part with money for its products, continues Neil Saunders, an analyst at Datamonitor. The lingerie market has seen only reasonable levels of growth compared to five or 10 years ago and consumer confidence is low.
“There are lots of potential markets and the nice thing about Agent Provocateur is that it has scope to grow, whether that’s internationally or doing things more effectively in the UK,” observes Saunders. “I think Winser will bring a lot of understanding in terms of how to move it out to the market, which will be very useful and help in driving the business forward. It isn’t slap bang in that crowded market so it can differentiate itself. But it’s not the easiest of places in which to operate and she’s taken the role in a much more challenging period of time than she might have liked.”
Not that Winser is a stranger to challenging environments. When she was brought in as chief executive of Pringle in 2000 and Aquascutum in 2006, she says both were “severe loss-making businesses”.
She’s credited with boosting the public image of those brands, yet neither made it back into the black (although when she left Aquascutum, she says, it was on course to break even). Does she think investment in building brand equity came at the expense of profit? Were her reinvention plans too ambitious? Winser thinks not. The intricacies of running a heritage business are complex, she explains. At Aquascutum, for example, she inherited a business that had built up inappropriate licence contracts and distribution agreements. Even the logo had been “sold off or compromised”.
In order for the business to expand, all of those things had to be bought back in what she describes as a “hard-and-fast two-year blitz”. She says: “We always said we’d break even in three to four years and we were on [target] to achieve that.”
At Pringle, a family-owned business, the issues were different. Her mission was to attract attention as a fashion brand, which she achieved—models and movie stars are fans. But the owners, Hong Kong’s Fang family, also had another aim, which Winser says was to move more luxury goods through their factory in the Far East. The 10-year turnaround plan wasn’t just about “spending a bit of marketing money”, she explains. “These heritage businesses, and there are loads in the UK, families own them, sell them, sell shares in them. You end up with an assortment of issues. It’s not as straightforward as a PE deal, where you buy a business, gut the back end, close down this and that and losses disappear in three years.”
It’s complicated when you’re protecting a heritage brand and working with what has happened over possibly 100 years or more, says Winser. So when her management buy-out of Aquascutum went awry—”I wanted the business globally but the Japanese could make more money by selling it in three parts—Japan, China and Europe”—Winser decided to reassess her career. She took the job at Agent Provocateur in March.
Lord at consultancy Dave regards the Aquascutum story as an opportunity missed. She reckons there was a huge chance for the company to do a Burberry and become the next iconic British brand, yet it didn’t seize it. Having said that, she adds: “From our point of view it takes a good three years to turn a brand around and I think Winser was there for three years. It will be interesting to see how it pans out, even after she’s left, whether she’s sown the seed.”
Aquascutum’s heritage wasn’t dissimilar to that of Burberry, agrees Winser. What was different, she claims, was that under the leadership of Rose Marie Bravo, Burberry had a 10-year lead on a turnaround. She adds: “Burberry was part of a very rich group that were willing to invest in Rose Marie’s vision. I have huge respect for what she did, and it doesn’t make it any easier, but it does help if you’ve got a back pocket of cash.”
When 3i acquired Agent Provocateur in 2007, partner Jennifer Dunstan signalled its commitment to growth. “The company has a fantastic reputation and is already well established throughout Europe. We believe there is enormous potential for the business to continue to grow and look forward to using both our retail experience and our global network to help Agent Provocateur achieve this ambition,” she said. The firm opens the doors to something more serious than a founder could have hoped to achieve, says Winser.
But work is not all about pure numbers. As a member of the Good Work Commission, an investigation into the challenges faced by UK workforces, Winser says some issues she has always felt strongly about have been confirmed. A balance between commercial goals and values is crucial, she says, to get the best performance out of a team. “I think that if an employee feels they’re contributing to a business, they end up feeling much more worthy, and if you feel worthy, you’ll work harder for that business,” she says.
She also thinks it’s about time that more British companies embraced the international market—her favourite theme—because globalisation has changed the way we do business forever. “Many British businesses, their competitors were down the road,” she says. “You would get to know and understand your competitor; knew what they could and couldn’t do. Now your competitor could be thousands of miles away in New York or Hong Kong. It’s someone you don’t know or understand. A lot of people find that a little bit scary and back off when they shouldn’t. Instead they should increase their knowledge and get to know why their competitor is so good.”
As far as Agent Provocateur is concerned, Winser is unfazed. She says it’s not one of those brands in danger of forgetting who it is, and it’s already “nicely balanced as a global business”. Its marketing and creative output still has the capacity to “surprise”.
Winser’s a very good marketer, and Agent Provocateur is very good at marketing, comments Jessica Brown, editor of fashion industry magazine and website Drapers. Having another woman on the board to carry the baton from Serena Rees, she adds, “is possibly a good thing in terms of product”. It keeps the underwear on the wearable side of sexy. She also feels that Winser’s arrival on the lingerie scene is well timed. “It’s come through as a massive clothing trend-wearing underwear as outerwear. Dior and Gaultier showed it on the catwalk earlier this year and it’s a big fashion story, which should help sales of fashion lingerie,” she says.
But while Brown agrees with Datamonitor’s Saunders that this is a role Winser will enjoy, she voices one concern. “She’s said interesting things in terms of what she might do with Agent Provocateur, which I’m not sure is the right way to take it. She talks about going into bigger cup sizes, but this is a brand that is quite young and exclusive. It’s not going to be worn by older women with big busts, because the brand doesn’t play into that. It will lose its appeal if they take it too much the other way, into the mainstream.”
There’s a brand challenge as well as a commercial one, agrees Lord. But as far as Winser’s concerned, Agent Provocateur will continue to excite and inspire on a global scale. “It’s about stepping stones—which one are you going to take and do a thorough job of. The next few years will be pretty exciting.”