Matthew Lynn on the multi-millionaire who knows "nothing about management".
1962 Born Pakistan
1963 Brought to Manchester
Education: Manchester - "I can't remember which school"
1977 Set up a fashion wholesaling business in Manchester. Perhaps
unaware of the proverb "Pennywise, pound foolish," called it
1986 Set up The Legendary Joe Bloggs Incorporated Company
1991 August: Bought a company, Used Coll, for "a six-figure sum".
Whoosh! Tuesday morning, and Shami Ahmed is decked out in yellow pants, white T-shirt, green jacket, black loafers, and accessorised by a pair of Gaultier shades and a black Versace briefcase.
He is swaggering his way through central London, on his way to the head offices of The Burton Group, ducking and weaving his way through the traffic. Pausing outside the doors of the beleaguered store chain, he gazes heavenwards for a second and exclaims: "I know nothing about management." He snorts and laughs. "All I have is instinct." And, without waiting for a response from his entourage, he swings his way through the doors.
Instinct is about right. Except he could have added that, in his case, instinct comes coated with platinum, silvery and showy, and is a very bankable commodity. Shami Ahmed, known to everyone simply as Shami, is 28 years old and has an estimated fortune of £25 million. And most of that has been accumulated through his sparky clothing company, The Legendary Joe Bloggs.
Surveying the gloomy interior of the Burton building, a place in stark contrast with the glitzy veneer of its shops, Shami collects his designer, Dawn (beige dress, new haircut), and his London agent, Barry (Joe Bloggs jeans and T-shirt, pony tail), and heads off to meet the buyer for the Top Man chain, Mark (baggy green suit, black polo sweater).
"We're scoring fives on this stuff," says Mark, glancing down at the computer print-out on his desk with unconcealed admiration. Fives are good. On a scale measuring how quickly different lines of clothes shift out of the shops, this is top marks. Everyone round the table smiles.
There is a brief discussion about a discount shop in Oxford Street which is selling Joe Bloggs shirts for less than they retail in the Top Man stores. The Burton men are unhappy about that; it is bad, they figure, for business. Shami nods. He is aware of the situation, and legal proceedings against the shop have already begun. That pleases the buyer. "I know this game," says Shami. "I've played all the tricks in the business myself, haven't I? So I know what he is doing."
The real business of the morning's meeting, however, is a proposal by Top Man to produce a range of Joe Bloggs gear specifically for the Top Man stores. Shami flashes a wide smile. He likes that idea. "Just tell us what you want," he says. "Tell us what you want and we can make it."
Mark hums and hahs for a moment, before saying that he wants a range of about 15 tops, each designed by the company, in a range of colours selected by the store. "Numbers?" says Shami. "Well," says Mark, "we could want up to 2,500 of each style, each colour." Shami shakes his head. "Let's start with 500 or so of each and see how it goes."
"What about the designs, then?" says Mark. Barry, the agent, spills on to the desk a whole pile of new Bloggs T-shirts, a set of gaudy designs and flashy logos. "Look at this," says Shami, picking up a shirt with a cartoon of a grinning oaf splattered across it. "This is Blogz's (sic) Mate. We're just starting to promote this character. It's going to be a real killer."
Mark is not convinced. "Let's stick to the main Joe Bloggs stuff," he says. Through a whirl of brightly changing colours - greens, reds, oranges, purples - Barry lines up a parade of shirts. He holds one in front of Mark for approval. A look of weariness wanders across the buyer's face. "It's horrible," he says. "But it will sell."
"You've offended him now," says Barry, looking down at Shami. And, in truth, the man does look a little low. His eyes are cast down and the grin disappears. But then, the microprocessors in his mind running full cock, he realises that several hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of business has just been agreed, and the smile returns, as wide and as bright as before. Who cares if it is horrible so long as it sells?
It is a good point and one that runs straight to the heart of Shami's rapid escalation of the fashion business. There is an element of cynicism woven through any enterprise that makes its living by selling stuff to teenagers; whether it is T-shirts or records or magazines or whatever, those companies are usually run by intelligent grown-ups who, in their hearts, think that they are selling rubbish to doltheads. It is a situation which makes for a lot of good, world-weary jokes. But it also betrays an essential lack of belief in the business; and that lack of belief is a weakness. Shami's edge is that he really likes the stuff; he has an enthusiasm for the product which is shared only by the customer. It has endured a hard apprenticeship.
He arrived in Britain as a babe in arms from Pakistan in 1963. The family settled in Manchester. In the evenings after school, Shami would spend one and a half hours travelling just to help his father out with his business for an hour. In 1977, aged 15, he went into business, setting up a clothes wholesaling operation called Pennywise. That occupied him up until 1986. By then he had decided that rather than just trading in clothes, he might as well move into the business himself.
"I had been selling their stuff so I knew what they did and I had seen their weaknesses," he recalls. "I could see what they were doing wrong and I thought that I could do it better myself."
His family is still involved, however. His father, Nizam, is the chairman of the company, and his three younger sisters work alongside Shami. He also has high hopes of his brother, Kahif, who, though still just 17, is starting out with the company. "Give him three years and he will be ready to do something important," says Shami. "He is a real killer."
Tight family control of the company is important to Shami. "I learned everything from my family," he says. "Without them I wouldn't be where I am today." That is one reason why he does not want to float the business. "I get approached all the time by people wanting to arrange a stock market listing but why would I want to do that? If I was just working for the short term I might be interested. But I am not. I am planning for the long term." (A few weeks later he bought Used Coll for "a six-figure sum".)
With that precious arrogance that is the preserve of the very young, Shami believed that he had identified the flaws in the fashion business and set out to remedy them. Flaw number one was the length of time that it took most clothes companies to get anything done; collections for winter, spring and summer and so on were all planned up to a year in advance, and stuck to rigidly. Shami would hijack that process, promising to push his clothes through design and production in no more than a couple of months (the shirts for Top Man, for example, were finally agreed for delivery in November, after being first discussed in late August). That would make the lines far more responsive to the endless transformation of trends. "Fast fashion" is how he likes to describe it.
Flaw number two was the reluctance of most clothes companies to promote themselves. "Usually they just give the stuff to the retailer and say, here, you sell it, that's your problem," Shami comments. He would be different. The one clothes company that he really admires is Levi, the American jeans giant, peddler of 501s to the world, whose long series of image-moulding advertisements made its jeans pre-eminent in the market, and its brand name one of the best known in the world, crushing the opposition along the way.
And so, with these two lines of thought interconnecting, The Legendary Joe Bloggs was born. The name was chosen to reflect an upfront sense of Britishness which Shami felt was an important part of the company; he talks of creating a brand name as synonymous with Britain as Armani or Gucci is with Italy, or Chanel with France, or indeed Levi's with America. "Everyone laughed when we chose the name," he recollects. "They thought we were joking. But we weren't."
Indeed not. The brand hitched itself to the boom in mid-'80s Manchester - "Madchester" - music fashion, associating itself with the '60s revivalism of bands such as the Stone Roses and The Farm. It made a killing in wide, bell-bottom flares, which were suddenly hip again (priding itself, and picking up a lot of publicity, for its 30-inch flares). But, although the company is best known for its Manchester connections, its founder is disparaging of the fad. "We aren't anything to do with that," he says, dismissively. "It's just something that happened to be going on so we picked up on it." He laughs. "We'd have picked up on whatever was going on. Why not?"
More precisely, Joe Bloggs has positioned itself to capture the working-class teenagers in the big cities - the Saturday afternoon terraces crowd. The business established itself by tying itself into football, with hoardings up on the touchlines at the major grounds, and by stunts, such as lining itself up as the official casualwear supplier to both Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest for the FA Cup Final earlier this year. It has also involved itself in sports such as boxing (the fighter Michael Watson is regularly featured in the sports pages wearing a Joe Bloggs logo).
It is a strategy aimed squarely at establishing itself with a working-class male audience. And it is a strategy that works. Shami is coy about numbers, keeping the figures behind the closely wrapped family-owned company. Even so, he claims a turnover of £25 million, with a net margin of about 10%, implying profits of about £2.5 million a year. It is not a vast amount, but enough to make a fairly hefty mark on the rag trade.
A recent profile in the trade magazine Menswear commented: "When people see Shami Ahmed they either bow or run." The man himself enjoys pointing to the profile, making a few disparaging remarks, but with a face that lights up with unconcealed glee at the comment. He has left Burton now, and is running around Oxford Street, at a slight loose end, hoping to tie up a few deals. He drops by on the chief buyer for the Etam chain, gossiping and keeping in touch, without discussing any particular sales.
He breaks for lunch in the Ramada Inn carvery, woolfing down a bowl of soup and a large plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in about 15 minutes flat. And then back on the road. He stops off at the offices of Jeans West, a London chain of jeans shops, for a long chat about the state of the jeans market. "It is important to talk to people who know what is happening at the grassroots of the business," he says.
That done, he weaves his way through nearby Carnaby Street, dodging in and out of the shops that line the narrow alleyways leading off it. "Hah, Joe Bloggs," he says, holding up T-shirts, sweat tops and jeans. Back at Bloggs's London base, a luxurious top-floor apartment in a Park Lane block, a BBC film crew is setting up its cameras. By the time that Shami arrives at around 3.00 pm, the lights and cameras are primed. They are there to film Shami cutting a deal with a new dance singer called Grizelda.
The singer and her entourage finally turn up about an half hour late. Grizelda is wearing Joe Bloggs jeans, lace top and a black leather jacket; she is accompanied by Little Jimmy, choreographer to Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and so on; plus a record company executive. An American guy who manages a rap singer called Merlin has also wandered by - nobody quite knows why.
The record company people are proposing a voucher in Grizelda's upcoming single giving a discount on a Joe Bloggs T-shirt. Shami pauses for a moment before waving a dismissive hand. "Discounts are boring," he says. "Everyone gives discounts. If we are going to do something we should do something original."
The record company people look happy enough with this thought, though an observer might suspect that Shami simply is not pleased with the idea of taking money off the product. "Why don't we do a limited edition T-shirt for the record, and insert a voucher saying you can only buy the shirt if you buy the record?" says Shami. The record company people are happy enough with this too; and Grizelda giggles appreciatively.
The matter settled, the place starts turning into a circus; a couple of girls representing Michael Watson drop by to discuss the shorts that he will wear for his upcoming fight; former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash calls to choose some Joe Bloggs shirts for a tournament; a photographer shows up looking for Shami; some Bloggs PR people fill out the scene.
Meanwhile, Shami has slipped away to do some haggling over the phone. "I said we wanted a 6 per cent margin on that," he is saying, his voice rising a decibel or two. He turns to look at the crowd milling round his apartment. "I can take or leave all this," he says. And he taps the phone. "But this is business."