Fashion industry luminary Kim Winser on going it alone in business

Kim Winser portrait

Kim Winser, the fashion industry luminary, was Marks & Spencer’s first female board director and revived Pringle of Scotland, Aquascutum and Agent Provocateur before launching Winser London in 2013. She discusses gut instinct, remote working and going it alone…

My parents brought me up with a very good work ethic. My father was in the navy and my mum was bright, worked until she had us and then she worked very hard with four children.

Bill Gates was one of my first inspirations. My favourite subjects at school were maths, economics and physics. I remember reading about this chap who got a maximum score in his SATs and then developed Microsoft straight out of Harvard.

Being head girl taught me a lot. I learnt about the DNA of the school [Purbrook Grammar School, Hampshire], about organisation and how to help all pupils achieve their best. Tragically Brad, the head boy, was killed a couple of months after we were elected – that made me grow up very quickly.

I admire creativity coupled with knowing how to run a business. I remember being inspired by [Sir] Richard Branson when I was at school as he was setting up what would become Virgin Group.

I had to make a tough call. I got my offer to join the M&S management training scheme the same week as I received a letter offering me tennis coaching in America. I loved tennis but I wanted a good career. I knew I’d be crazy not to take the M&S place as it was the gold-topped scheme.

I learnt my earliest business lesson at 21, when I was training at M&S. In my appraisal I was told I was ‘a bit black and white’ and that sometimes ‘grey is worth investigating’. It was a good conversation. When you start out, you think you have to be black or white but experience teaches you that sometimes it is all about the refinement of grey.

It really pays to watch and listen because quieter people at the table can have a very good idea or good point. A good chairman ensures that everybody can make a contribution.

Not being able to do the MBO of Aquascutum was the lowest point in my career. The owners went for the largest offer, which I understand, but I think what we would have done with the company would have been amazing as it is a fabulous business with a terrific heritage.

I dealt with the disappointment by going on holiday! I’m a single mother and it was coming up to half term so I booked onto the next flight to Barbados with my son. That weekend the [MBO] story made the Sunday Times front page. Natalie Massenet called that day asking me to join her at Net-a-Porter and then 3i asked me to chair Agent Provocateur. Working with Natalie was helpful for Winser London, a digitally based business. Sometimes these things are meant to be.

My passion is my customer. She drives my creativity. I’m always thinking how can we do a better job for the customer, what can we do for her in a year’s time that she doesn’t even know she wants yet?

Personalisation is an area of growth for the luxury sector. Attention to detail is key. I stayed at the Peninsula in Tokyo [Winser is on the Peninsula board]. The phone next to my bed showed not only the local time but also the time in Britain, my home. A small detail that makes a big difference.

Gut instinct can be a very good business tool. In Blink Malcolm Gladwell talks about how not to ignore gut feel. Combine ongoing insight and your experience with gut instinct and you will probably make some very good decisions.

When we set up Winser London I asked 10 people to join me part time. My choice was to either have them part time or have an enormous cost base, which I wasn’t willing to do. The 10 were all people I knew or I had met and admired, and they covered every aspect from design to logistics to finance. I then asked each of them to recruit somebody new from college or university. They are all experts in their field and the young people challenge them and keep them fresh – it’s been very successful.

Create the business model around your people, not the other way round. A lot of my people work remotely. Of course we have meetings where we all get together but we Skype regularly and communicate well. If you have got good people then you will have a good business; the best thing you can have is a motivated team.

The key to managing through the tough times is to think imaginatively. There is always a solution. If you can be imaginative, determined and talented all at the same time then you’ve cracked it.

Kim Winser CV

Born Helensburgh, Scotland

1977 Kim Winser joins the Marks & Spencer management trainee scheme

1995 Kim Winser is appointed director of womenswear and first female board director at Marks & Spencer

2000 Kim Winser becomes CEO at Pringle of Scotland

2002 Kim Winser warded honorary doctorate by Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

2006 Kim Winser named president and CEO of Aquascutum.Honoured with OBE for services to the fashion industry

2009 Attempted management buyout of Aquascutum

2009 Kim Winser appointed chair of Agent Provocateur and adviser to Net-a-Porter

2013 Launched own label Winser London

Kim Winser will be speaking at the IoD’s Women as Leaders Conference 2016 on 17 June. For more information and tickets click here

About author

Lysanne Currie

Lysanne Currie

Lysanne Currie is an editor, writer and digital content creator. Her first job was at Melody Maker and she then spent over 10 years in teenage magazines working from sub editor on 19 Magazine to editorial director of Hachette’s Teen Group. Her previous roles include group editor and head of content publishing for Director Publications and editorial director at BSkyB overseeing Sky’s entertainment, sports and digital magazines. Lysanne lives in London with her music promoter partner and a four year old Jack Russell.

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