Meet the founder of Oliver Bonas, the hip London brand with the big retail success story

Entrepreneur Oliver Tress on how retail has transformed and why university can be a waste of time

With 43 branches, Oliver Bonas is a popular London-wide name. The brand’s small boutique-like shops filled with quirky clothing, homeware and eye-catching gifts are a welcome feature on many London high streets.

The company, which has 450 staff and predicted turnover of £38m for 2015, is becoming a successful design house too, and expanding outside London to open a store in Oxford. We chatted to founder and CEO, Oliver Tress, about Oliver Bonas’ extraordinary growth and what it takes to be a good entrepreneur.

How did the first Oliver Bonas shop come about?

At the very beginning I was at university, my parents were living in Hong Kong and I was bringing back presents for my friends. It just gave me the idea that I could maybe turn it into a business to earn a bit of money.

And then after I left university I didn’t go the normal route my peers were doing, which was getting proper jobs and going for job interviews, it might have been a subconscious decision to force myself into going down the entrepreneurial route. All I had was this little trading business bringing things back from the Far East. And that eventually led me to, after a couple a years, opening the first shop in Fulham, in Parsons Green.

Did it not appeal to you to work for somebody else?

I think I felt the freedom to do your own thing and the freedom to not be limited by a job was just appealing. I had a very instinctive and deep-rooted feeling that that wouldn’t work for me and that I had more exciting options out there.

Where do you stand on university?

I’m a bit cynical about university. I don’t think it’s vital at all. I might have been better not going to university for example, so I’ve got no hangups about it one way or another. I think the key thing when we’re recruiting – university hardly goes through my mind – is attitude and do they get it? Do they understand the broad picture of what things matter to a business and what they can do about it?

How did you finance your first shop?

It was just from saving up money really. But it was very inexpensive in relative terms. It was an old clothing shop and I got my housemates to help me paint it. It had been a lime-green, which was fashionable at the time and we painted it white and put some shelves in, but we were only talking a few hundred pounds. I spent £60 on a second-hand till. I had the stock and, as were coming out of a really bad recession [the year was 1993] so there were a lot of empty shops, the whole year’s rent was £9,000 and I didn’t have to pay deposits or anything. I think I had to pay a month’s rent in advance, so the investment was very low basically. It was a low-start-up cost.

Oliver Bonas

What finance have you had since to open the subsequent 42 stores?

We’ve had a bit of finance over the years but not a lot. We’ve got a bit of bank debt. We used probably as much as anything lease financing, where they lend against shop fittings or computers, for example. In the past, where we found the banks were very slow and very hard work, we tended to go down that route. We have bank debt now and our bank has been great – but historically we found it difficult and we found them slow. In the past two to three years though, we’ve found the banks quite helpful.

When did you feel like the business was really taking off?

There were different stages for that. The first stage was my first Saturday working in the shop, which was my third day of trading or something. People had come in and bought loads of stuff and I was pretty euphoric. That first year or two was brilliant, but the opening of the second shop was a bit of a wakeup call. I found running two shops much, much harder. I was fairly inexperienced and naive and pretty bad at managing and didn’t have many of the skills you need to run a business. If you’re running a small business, all those areas are on your plate and you have to do everything. I had a concept that worked, but my execution skills were very poor and it just meant it was very stressful and I should think the business grew much less efficiently than it could have done.

What’s changed in your area of retail from when you started the business to now?

I think you have to be better at what you do now. You have to be more distinctive, have a stronger tone, because I think broadly the bottom of the market has moved up in terms of quality and design. And pricing is getting more competitive so I think to hold your own you have to have very strong products. I think it has to be presented very well and has to be a credible brand, and the product has to be credible and you have to offer good service. In a sense that’s nothing new, but it’s become more and more accentuated to the point where people have gone but where before they might have muddling along. And now they don’t, they become irrelevant or are overtaken. So you can see brands that are trying to really reinvent themselves or prove they’ve got something that we really want and they might be spending a lot of money on it. But it’s proving very hard for them. Fashion is pretty ruthless now and you’ve got to make sure you’ve got something exciting and relevant that’s well-delivered.

What’s your ambition for the future?

We want to be more national, where at the moment we’re more London-based. Our big emphasis now is on design so most product is designed in house. I want people to think of us as a design house. We’re increasingly putting our stamp on products and I want people to think “that looks like an Oliver Bonas product” – but not in the way you’d say about Cath Kidston where it’s fairly obvious, and there’s a distinct handwriting. Ours is more subtle and less obvious, but nonetheless strong. We’d also like to look at some point overseas, so that would be in our ambitions.

How have you’ve changed as a businessperson?

I’ve still got the same basic characteristics, that I’m more of a product person, rather than a great manager or operational person. I’m still more interested in design, aesthetics and brand. But I’ve got a better understanding of how things work and I think I’m a bit easier to work with now – though the people I work with now would probably be surprised to hear that! I just had no idea how to manage people, get the best out of others or express my desires or have a way to get them executed. I’d get frustrated as I didn’t know how to manage people. But now a lot of that has been taken off me so although I’m still bad at it, I don’t have to do as much of that type of management. Where I do have to manage people I try to be more sympathetic or understanding, although I fail at that a lot of the time!

What does it take to be a good entrepreneur?

The first thing is, it’s a defining characteristic of mine where I didn’t go out for job interviews like my contemporaries, so there must be an element of knowing you can do it and believing you can do it. That gives you a certain level of tenacity, because frankly I don’t think my options were that great if I hadn’t have found a way of making it work, so it was a very strong feeling that I could do that. When the going gets tough you’re incredibly tenacious because you don’t have any other options.

Being single-minded and tenacious are the base-level qualities, but then turning that into success – I think you’ve got to be able to work out how to achieve what you want to achieve and work out what your skills are and if you haven’t got the skills you need to find out how to get them. You need to have some instinct for what is going to appeal to people in whatever business you’re in. And having done that, you’ve then got to be flexible and adapt, according to how close your vision is to what other people will buy into. Because it’s unlikely that it’s going to go perfectly from day one – I don’t know many businesses that have done that and I think most businesses have to evolve and adapt.

Thanks for your time, Oliver.

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