Tailor remade: a recession survival tale

Entrepreneur Austen Pickles nearly lost everything in the recession. Now he's bouncing back.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Keep your eyes on the horizon, and you won't get sea-sick. That's sage advice for anyone who has tried to run a company over the past 18 months. Ever since Lehman Brothers sank in September 2008, most bosses have found trading rough. But for some it has been like trying to surf a big wave on an ironing board.

Take Austen Pickles, the 40-year-old Yorkshire tailor and co-founder of Buxton Pickles, a 30-strong firm that turns over £6m a year supplying suits to the likes of Next and Austin Reed. Enthusiastic, down-to-earth and with a no-nonsense approach that's rare to find in business, Pickles' optimistic manner puts a glint in his eye, even though he has been through the mill.

Having founded the business in 2001, he enjoyed some success, right up to the crisis at Lehmans. Although 2008 had brought difficulties when production was moved from the Czech Republic to Macedonia, and then to Bulgaria, Pickles was confident enough by September to expand his portfolio by picking up Norton & Townsend, a visiting tailor's business that had failed. He bought it from its administrators and got it running again, for £45,000. He was convinced he could turn it around. Then the storm hit, and he took a mighty battering.

As the masters of the universe on Canary Wharf packed their boxes, things began to fall apart at the seams for Pickles. Sales at his visiting-tailor venture collapsed, and another brand, Charcoal & Chalk, offering ultra-detailed tailoring with luxury British fabrics, went into administration. It cost him £250k of his own money. Then, as the recession battered sales at the parent company too, he went through an acrimonious divorce - which cost him another £360k and the house. They'd been together for 25years. Sitting alone in a rented flat over the festive period and having lost every penny he'd earned, Pickles could have been forgiven if he'd packed it all in and clocked on at a regular day job. But he still had his own company, even if it was storm-ravaged. 'I bloody love my business,' he says. So he got back on the ironing board and paddled out.

Pickles had wanted his own business since he was 15. He'd even taken a year off after school to start a venture selling wooden toys. It was only when he realised he'd never make any money that way that he went to university, studying economics and management at Newcastle. After working his way around the rag trade, from the fabric business to making and selling suits, he achieved his dream in 2001, aged 30 - starting Buxton Pickles in his attic. Three years on, he moved it to an elegant Victorian mill in Saltaire. Here, he launched a made-to-measure brand, Salts.

In 2007, he co-founded Charcoal & Chalk, aiming to cut out the intermediaries and sell limited-edition suits direct from the workroom, via a chain of shops in York, Saltaire and Covent Garden, London. With private equity and venture capital circling throughout 2008, looking to roll Charcoal & Chalk out across the UK, Pickles was on the cusp of something special. 'We thought that was it - and it should have been. In June 2008, the business was pulling in £50k a month.' But by November it was losing £3k a week, a victim of the market meltdown.

In December, Pickles' sleeping partner in Charcoal & Chalk decided to pull the plug, and the debt-ridden company went into receivership. This would be a painful blow for any entrepreneur, but it was especially hard for a self-proclaimed crowd-pleaser like Pickles.

'When you want do things right, it feels horrible to let people down,' he says. 'The worst day was the board meeting, when we decided to close. I'm a fighter and don't like to give in, but up against this recession I couldn't be King Canute. It was the right decision, but it was sickening. We ended up owing some big money. Plus it cost me my pension pot. And it was all so close to coming off, which was especially painful.'

Pickles had to watch his other ventures take a beating too. Salts had been struggling to recruit, so he'd taken what seemed a golden opportunity - to buy tailor Norton & Townsend from the receivers that September in order to merge the two. This created the country's largest visiting tailor, and Pickles was anticipating healthy profits. But sales immediately fell 40%.

'Recessions wouldn't normally hit our clients so hard,' he says. 'If a guy who was getting a £1m bonus suddenly gets only £600k, he'll still buy a suit. But we saw Lehmans disappear overnight with about 50 of our clients in there - and they weren't coming back.'

The Buxton Pickles parent was suffering, despite its established links to big retailers. Indeed, that was the problem. In its office, two large whiteboards monitor projects in pre-production; both are usually full. Come Christmas 2008, they displayed just three jobs.

Fear gripped the high street. Rumours circulated that two in 10 retail names would go under. With their confidence shot, retailers stopped placing orders. 'We were in the mire,' says Pickles. 'If we'd stopped swimming, we'd have drowned. It was that serious.'

Cashflow problems led Pickles to the Government's Enterprise Fund Guarantee, a bank loan guaranteed half by the Government, but this strained relations with his bank. Pickles says RBS delivered only when it was almost too late, and its approach was unnecessarily heavy-handed. 'We thought we were having a catch-up meeting, but they brought in a guy whose job it is to step in when things have gone very wrong,' he says. 'It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Here he was, asking these unpleasant and unnecessary questions of a business that was fundamentally sound.'

With a faltering business, £600k out of pocket and the bank on his back, he must have been tempted to close it down. Add to that the pain of living alone and not getting to see the kids wake up on Christmas morning ...

Yet Pickles maintains a philosophical outlook. 'The day I walked out of home, I wondered how I'd survive. But I wasn't going to say 'I've had enough' and run around crying. I went to work and got on with it. When you love your business, why wouldn't you fight?

'My kids are nine and six now. What matters isn't those few lost hours on 25 December - no matter how painful they are - but my relationship with them in the long run. It's the same with business: you have to look beyond the little bumps and see what really counts.'

Pickles pinpoints January 2009 as the month when those 'little bumps' loomed largest. With the retail environment dried up, his company Range Rover went, as did a third of the firm's 3,000 sq ft of rented office space. Eventually, pay had to be cut. The team agreed to sacrifice a little each - four switched from five-day weeks to three days and the rest took a 10% pay cut.

'People were in tears,' recalls Pickles. 'They took it as a demotion, like they'd failed. And I felt like I'd let them down. But a lot of clothing companies had disappeared or made redundancies, and we got through it without any. And the team's approval showed they trusted me to get it right.'

Prices had to come down too. 'We realised we were not going to sell £750 suits in this environment, so we worked hard and found a way to knock them down to £495 - and we do it without screwing the suppliers.'

Getting it right meant introducing fresh thinking to deal with the new reality. Pickles treated the business as an entirely new one, built for the wholly unsympathetic climate. A nostalgia for the old days had to give way to an acceptance of new norms, such as how to deal with spare capacity. But for Pickles, there was one constant - a sense of perspective on his own unenviable predicament. 'If I do feel a bit down in the dumps, I'm reminded of a friend of mine, a designer with cancer,' he says. 'Whenever she's not too sick she's as bright as a button. She's positive, driven, enthusiastic and excited about the products she's working with. I've got it easy.'

Pickles reasons that his troubles have been about suits, not his life. But it now seems both aspects are looking up. Buxton Pickles ended 2009 'pretty much level', despite the difficult start. As the high street gets slowly back on its feet, the business is now supplying womenswear to the likes of Next, Ted Baker, House of Fraser and Austin Reed, as well as Jaeger and East.

Meanwhile, in addition to his Bulgarian production base and sample workshop in the Czech Republic, he has added a factory in Bangalore that provides the same high-quality garments at a lower price. This move offers a way into the high-street menswear market. The aim is to add 'a couple of million quid' to the business.

At Norton & Townsend, enquiries at the start of this year were 300% up on last year, helped largely by an astute marketing drive. The bank loan has been paid off, and in January, Pickles was able to restore his team's pay and working hours to previous levels. 'What it does show you,' he says, 'is how, even in a recession, you can get stuck in, and, with the support and focus of a great team, that miracles can happen.'

Pickles can once again enjoy traversing more enchanting seas. And he's buoyed up by the prospect. 'I'm excited about going out and selling,' he says. 'It's not going to be as profitable as it was three or four years ago, but I've no desire for a Bentley or a castle on a hill. It's all about creating something of lasting value - a sound, reliable and respected business. We'll look back in a couple of years, saying: "Shit, that was hard", but we'll still be standing.'

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