Guy Hudson is owner of Lynx Womenswear and Menswear in Harrogate, two shops that sit almost side by side on West Park, one of the more stately streets in this stateliest of towns. Given that his womenswear shop is celebrating its 25th birthday this year (menswear came along eight years ago), you would really get the feeling that this is someone who has arrived, who is settled, and who is calm.
But it wasn’t always like that. In his early days – he is 53 now – Hudson had a career which involved all manner of fly-by-night jobs both in retail and wholesale. He had a background in retail, as his father owned a delicatessen in Boston Spa.
“It was a pretty disappointing day for him when I said I just wasn’t interested in fruit and vegetables,” says Hudson. “The name over the door was Hudson & Sons, and I was the only son. But they frightened me to death; they were going to send me to Jacksons of Piccadilly to train and I was a pretty sheltered 16-year-old.” Although his very first jobs were in retail, including a stint at Austin Reed, he also had a go at wholesaling when more than one of those retailing jobs fell through, often because one of his business partners had been too hazy about his financial situation. And he says he found the thrill of wholesaling phenomenal.
“One of the first people I was working for was a very aggressive Jewish hosiery manufacturer in Leeds,” he says. “He had given me a budget for four weeks, and a van every fourth Sunday. I went around stock houses, living hand to mouth on a four-week basis. I was young, full of adrenaline, and really confident in what I was buying. Later in my career I found it very difficult to shake off that excitement of the four-week turnaround, screaming up and down the M1. At one stage in the business we bought a brand new XR2, which was great. But doing the motorway every four weeks on closed-season cash and carry did take on the feeling of being a trapped wasp. We turned stock eight times a season. We’d be lucky if we can do it twice now.” He concedes he had a very strong work ethic, which often led to him moonlighting in other jobs just to get the money in.
“When I was 17, I went to Cornwall on holiday and came back skint, so the very same day I went to a restaurant called the Damn Yankee. They said, ‘Can you start tonight?’ and I did. I always moonlighted in Damn Yankee restaurants. I worked whatever it took.” Even more recently when he has been much more established in Lynx he has done things that more conservative business minds might find crazy. A few years ago, for example, he decided his mailing list database was rubbish, so he threw it out. Just threw it out.
“I just realised the housekeeping wasn’t as effective as it could be,” he says. “Now we have a 7,000-strong mailing list which is live and active.” But these hectic up and downs disguise a fashion business brain that must be remarkably shrewd. After all, 25 years is a long time in fashion.
Hudson came to set up Lynx with his then business partner Paul Lown after two years spent outside the world of fashion working for his brother-in-law’s restaurant in Bradford.
“I explained at the time that I didn’t cook,” he says. “I was supposed to be front of house, but when you have a problem with the chef you still have to go into the kitchen.
I had to make pizzas for one whole evening, and we didn’t charge anything because the pizzas came out star shaped. But our takings had been £300 a week, and I got it up to £3,000 a week. I gave them a year’s notice, because we were starting Lynx.”
Lown had already been running a menswear shop called Leopard, and the first five years the two of them had been selling womenswear as Lynx Hudson admits it was an “unnaturally long relationship” for him.
But he still thinks the turning point in his career came when he bought Lown out in 1990. “I finally had the business solely,” he says. “That’s great because it means the financial implications are your own, not joint. It’s not calm, because it’s never calm when you are running a business. You always have sleepless nights of stock control, worrying about cashflow and staffing. But 1990 was the turning point. I relished the opportunity.” He thinks part of his success has been down to concentrating on what he is trying to do.
“In any successful business there has to be a heartbeat, a focus and enthusiasm,” he says. But building a really strong team – and paying them over the odds to stay with him – is also important.
“We have fabulous loyal staff, and minimal staff turnover. One girl has been with me since day one. My buyer and merchandiser has been with me for 14 years, and we have people who have been here over ten years. We pay way above the odds to get staff and keep them loyal.” It’s also really important, he says, to invest in “new blood” – something he thinks shops like his that have fallen by the wayside failed to do.
“We have a new guy coming into menswear, in his early 20s, who looks great,” he says. “He represents how we would like someone to represent us.” But he insists he does not choose his staff from among the beautiful people – customer service skills are much more important. “I have tried very hard to have a representation of size, age and look,” he says. “A very tall person would find it awkward to be served by someone who was short. A very large person would find it awkward to beserved by an anorexic size zero.
We do cover from the age of 24 to one girl who is nearly 60, and all in between – tall, short, medium, and not so slim.” He admits he has a fairly loyal customer following as well, although this really only came into its own when the shop moved after 11 years on Station Parade to its current location on West Park.
“We closed Station Parade on the Saturday evening,” he says, “and put the same volume on the new shelves over the weekend, and on the Monday morning business increased by 50% because it was more luxurious surroundings.
“The biggest frustration was so many Harrogate people saying, ‘We’ve been waiting for a shop like this for years.’ We would point out that we had been up and running for 11 years, but they would say: ‘We don’t do that circuit down there. We just do this parade, turn around and go back to Leeds.’” He also has a keen eye to keeping just one rung ahead of the competition – or aside of it.
“When Harvey Nichols opened in Leeds, we looked at our business very critically,” he says. “We were profitable and successful with labels we were working with, but we realised we were overlapping with them. So we started going to the European fairs, spending a lot more time there, at shows in Berlin, Florence and Milan. Generally in the past few years we have focused on pure Italian manufacturers. We realise we are getting far more competition from our Harrogate neighbours. I am looking over my shoulder at exhibitions too much now.” Recent discoveries as far as menswear goes include Italian shirting brand Aglini.
“We are currently the only stockist in the UK,” he says. “We had to buy direct from Milan last year because they had finished relations with their UK agent. The shirts retail at between £150 to £175 and we are now in our fourth season and have not yet had a sell-through percentage of less than 90%. They are a bit of a nightmare because we are presented with samples where you can change every feature – the button shape, the collar, the thread that goes into it, the shape of shirt, and the fabrics.
But the fabrics are more superior than anything else. People come and buy two or three the next season.” Womenswear in contrast, unlike menswear, has been fairly flat in terms of trade this season. Hudson says he has not been too affected by the recession, but this year he has for the first time taken the unusual step of opening up a concession within his womenswear store. Pennyblack is an offshoot of the mighty Max Mara empire, and once again the shop in Harrogate is the first in the UK. “It’s one of the more commercial labels Max Mara does,” he says. “The market is becoming far more price-sensitive. I didn’t want to move the business downmarket. I wanted to hold onto our pricing and image, but I felt there was room for a monobrand store.
They are delighted to be in Harrogate. The contract is set to last for five years; they provide the shop fitting, with a rebate every six months, and contributions to marketing.” The Pennyblack store might finally tempt him to do something he has not been terribly enthusiastic about doing before – go online. He has seen too many people get caught out by the web in years gone by, he says.
“They naively thought they could sell size 30 and 38 waists online because they don’t sell them very much through the shop,” he says. “But you have to reinvest in software, and reinvest again. Sensible people have said, ‘This is my retail business and that is my etail business’ – two businesses each needing its own finance and its own enthusiasm.” Nor is he tempted to try to attract some private equity, as many others boutique shops like him have tried in the past.
“I almost had that kind of thing with Pennyblack,” he says. “A marketing company approached me and told me they were interested in going into business with me. The guy’s background was McDonald’s, and he was now working with airport spaces – in other words big, busy footfall destinations with captive audiences. I asked what both parties were bringing to the table. He said, ‘We are bringing expertise.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ It turned out most of the cash was to come from me as well. He had told me about this great location he had found and the next time I was in London I passed this site and it was just farcical. It was a new development opposite Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge. The only other units in it were Mclaren and Rolex. You just would not cover the overheads, as our average sale in Pennyblack is £78.” But in fact even with his strong track record behind him, Hudson is not really interested in building an empire. He tried it before by opening a shop in Ripon.
“It was a disaster,” he says. “I didn’t do the research on the town. And the shop took up too much of my time. Even 12 miles away is half a day when you include travelling.” The only space he would be interested in would be if any more units became available on West Park.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, running two great units in a very tight, controlled way,” he says. At the moment, two former colleagues from Hudson’s long career are back working with him. One is Ian Murray, the man who first employed him at Austin Reed. Now semiretired, he works part time as a consultant. The other is Paul Lown, his original partner in Lynx. He is now head of menswear – reporting to Hudson, rather than working with him.
“There’s a sweet irony in this business,” says Hudson, “but we get on famously well.”
Just one more thing Guy...jacket on, jacket off?
It’s an ongoing question – whether the trend for businesses to dress down has led to the demise of the traditional suit.
But Guy Hudson of Lynx Menswear is in no doubt on the matter. Getting rid of suits, he says, did wonders for him.
“We don’t sell any suits now other than Paul Smith,” he says. “I cut down my stock by 10 per cent when we lost suiting, but increased our sales by 20 per cent.
“When a guy walks in through the door of Lynx Menswear and asks for a suit the stock answer might be: ‘Are you in court?’ Before we would sell 10 casual jackets a week and one suit every three weeks.
“We put the budgets we released into casual jackets, shirting, and great jeans. The suits we used to sell ranged between £399 and £599. A guy will happily spend £399 on a jacket, £150 on a shirt, and £200 on a pair of jeans without thinking. But a suit it is a considered purchase, and they always think; ‘Will I get the wear from this item?’”