High50 Entrepreneur Johnnie Boden: I dismissed online shopping. Now my turnover is £300 million

Boden’s clothes are worn by Samantha Cameron and Michelle Obama, and it’s one of Mumsnet users’ favourite brands. Johnnie Boden reveals how he built a multimillion pound global business

The Boden catalogue has been coming through my door since Johnnie Boden started the company in 1991. From 1996, when Mini Boden launched, I bought T-shirts, sweatshirts and swimming trunks for my three children.

Hearing the thump of the catalogue on the mat is constant and comforting, and although my children are now in their twenties and only wear tracksuits, I like looking through the pictures of neat smiley faces on the beach and wish for that time again.

The company has changed and grown over the past 20-odd years but Johnnie, its founder, aged 53, has remained as charming, colourful and neurotic as he was when I first met him as a teenager.

His headquarters, a concrete block in Acton, west London, do not reflect the vibrant prints of the clothes that are designed within in it.

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It was on a trip to the States, while working “unsuccessfully” as a stockbroker, that Johnnie noticed Americans were buying mail order clothes from catalogues. He took the view that as he hated shopping and couldn’t find anything he wanted to buy, he would start his own mail order clothing business.

He was lucky to have been left some money by an uncle and he started with eight menswear products, moving swiftly on to womenswear and childrenswear.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Boden now employs 1,200 people, with sales of £300 million and a pre-tax profit in 2013 of £24.4m. Half its sales are overseas and it is the second-largest UK clothing brand in the USA, with sales of $150 million, Burberry being the biggest.

Johnnie never doubted that Boden would work and, early on, put his house on the line to fund it. But it hasn’t been easy. After various mistakes and a robbery he had to sell 50 per cent of the company to investors.

He has now clawed that back and owns 63 per cent of the company, with the rest owned by staff and friends.

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Boden’s biggest mistake

Johnnie admits that online shopping caught him off guard. He famously said to his team of directors: “I don’t think middle-class women will ever get into this internet thing.”

Now, more than 90 per cent of all orders are placed online. Although Boden was in a good position for the transition to ecommerce, with warehouses and call centres to deal with direct orders, having these is no longer a USP.

Despite the majority of sales being online, customers still love browsing the print catalogue. If an item is removed from it, sales for that product fall by 60 per cent.

His next plan is to open shops in the US. “With a market that is five times or possibly ten times the size of UK, it has huge potential.

“The Americans dress differently from the English, though. Their casual wear is smarter as they go to country clubs.”

‘Brits are so repressed about failure’

Like many entrepreneurs, he is keen to embrace failure, something that our American cousins are good at. “British people are so repressed about failure and think it’s a terrible reflection of their character that they give up. In America, they have a much healthier attitude; they just kick on.”

Although he’s had offers for the company, he has no plans to sell it. “I often think about the next step, whether I would I sell it or hand it over to my children, but the most attractive option for me is to carry on.

“As long as I enjoy what I do, am adding value and can devote enough time to my family I will carry on. The moment I start to get complacent though is the moment to go.”

Johnnie Boden’s tips for starting a business over 50

1. You have to work really, really hard.

2. Find two good partners: one supportive at home and one complementary at work.

3. Know what you can’t do. Recognise what you are NOT good at and find people that are better than you (not ones who just do as they are told).

4. Accept change. One thing older people struggle with is change. In the past ten years the inspiration for fashion is readily available to everybody.

5. There is no longer such a difference in fashion between New York, Paris, Milan and London. When everything is going well it is more difficult to accept change, but you always need to change and employ people that are receptive to change.

Johnnie Boden’s three questions to ask if you’re starting a business

Are you a good manager?

  • Johnnie says: “Entrepreneurs are fundamentally bad managers: they want to destroy the natural order of things and by definition a good manager needs to be stable, measured and balanced.”

He admits that he is a bad manager but says his skills – impatience, high standards and never ignoring things that annoy him – work.

Are you arrogant?

  • Johnnie says: “The forces that drive entrepreneurs are ones that make them a bit arrogant. But you need a mixture of arrogance and humility. You can’t ignore it if customers don’t like your product.”

Are you dedicated to growing your company?

  • “If your company doesn’t grow it will die. You have to grow. Customers can smell tiredness and it becomes hard to hire good staff unless you are offering a good growth format.”