5 minutes with... Doug Ker, boss of handbag maker Meli Melo

British label Meli Melo counts the Duchess of Cambridge and Sienna Miller among its fans.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 31 Jan 2018

Why handbags?

My wife, Melissa Del Bono, started the business in 2005. At the time, she worked in PR and was sketching handbags in her spare time.  She’d never had any design training but she decided to go to Florence and have one made. That’s where it all started.

Was that first bag a hit?

It was picked up by Vogue! The magazine said it was ‘the bag to watch’, which led to listings in Harrods and Net-A-Porter. This was before the internet, and Melissa was working on her own, yet word spread fast.

How did you fund the start-up?

Melissa was planning to travel around South America and had a one-way ticket to Argentina. She managed to sell it for £2,500 and that was her start-up capital for the business. Then in 2013, we raised £150,000 from Venrex, which specialises in backing high-growth start-ups. It was the first investment they’d ever made off the back of a cold call.  An early investor in Anya Hindmarch [the ‘Queen of handbags’] also invested.

How big is the brand now?

We’re now turning over £5.5m, and our last fundraising valued as at £8.5m. We’ve seen almost 100% compound annual growth over the last five years.

Where do you come in?

I met Melissa 12 years ago, and she was always very cagey about talking about the business. When we got married, she opened up the bonnet and we talked seriously about whether she should try and turn – what was a hobby – into a serious brand. My background is in the City, so I took over the finance side of the business, joining full-time three years ago.

What changes have you brought to the business?

Meli Melo’s margins were 38% when I arrived, which is crazy for this industry, so I encouraged Melissa to design a new bag, with a higher price point and a much better margin. She is creative and amazing at PR, getting her bags on all the right people. Meghan Markle and many of the Royals wear them now. I understand the dynamics of what it takes to scale the business, so I’m the finance brain.

What’s it like working with your wife?

People said we were crazy but in the early days we were based in two separate offices doing very different things so there was not much overlap. But two years ago, we moved into the same building and it’s actually been a blessing. We have an amazing amount of respect for each other’s strengths – I can’t do what she does and vice versa.

What challenges does the business face?

Working capital is always an issue. We’ve had a few sleepless nights about how we’ll fund the next order. The banks are not keen to lend but we’ve used £0.5m equity from our home as collateral against a revolving debt facility. We’ve risked it all but we had no other option. You have to show the banks you’re willing to risk as much as them – more, even. Staff is another challenge. People hide in big businesses like Burberry, get the brand on their CV, then flounder when they come to us and there’s nowhere to hide.  

What does the future hold?

We export 80% of our bags, and Asia is becoming a massive market for us, so I think China is an important territory for Meli Melo going forward. We’re now looking to raise £5m to invest in marketing, so we can start shouting about the brand for the first time. We want to create the next Kate Spade or Tory Burch and build a lifestyle brand with shops in London, New York, and Hong Kong.

Why is it called Meli Melo?

It means mishmash in Italian. Melissa, whose nickname is also Meli, was born in Sicily and raised for 18 years on a volcanic island before spending 18 years in London, so Meli Melo is a mishmash of Italian craftsmanship and British design.

Tags:

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime