James Kearns, MD of T.M Lewin discusses leading the iconic British brand to renewed success to LondonLovesBusiness.
Tell us a bit about your background and career in retail to date
I read history at the University of London as an undergraduate more for the love of the discipline as opposed to a career path in mind. After some well-trodden backpacking paths, I returned to London & “fell into retail” with my first role as an allocator at Marks & Spencer.
Many years later, I continue to love working in retail especially because it comprises so many industries into one such as technology and marketing. My background is predominantly in merchandising and trading, and I have held digital roles in Tesco and Boden. When the pandemic hit, I decided to return to the world of academia, and I studied a master’s in data science full-time.
What inspired you to move to TM Lewin?
The opportunity to lead such an iconic British brand, established over 120 years ago, could not be ignored. To this day, I love meeting new people who tell me their T.M. Lewin story; “my wardrobe is full of your shirts” is a common occurrence! There aren’t many brands that hold such customer affinity, and it makes me proud to lead the brand into its next phase of growth.
How is the brand progressing following its online relaunch in May 2022?
We are very encouraged in our trading performance since returning to the market in May 2022. We have tweaked our shirt promotion proposition and take-up has been remarkably strong, accounting for ~50% of overall sales.
The formalwear performance more broadly indicates that there is demand for customers wishing to “dress smart” and return to the office. We have also run tactical promotions across tailoring categories which have proved very popular, demonstrating a pent-up demand for Occasionwear. Behind the scenes, our talented team are working incredibly hard on future projects to help grow the brand, such as improving our returns proposition.
The latest news announcement mentions that TM Lewin will re-open stores in key locations across the UK. What is your timeframe for this and how do you think in-store sales will perform Vs eCommerce?
We recognise the importance of physical formats, especially in formalwear where customers like to “touch and feel” the fabrics and ensure that the product fits. To this end, it is our intention to relaunch stores in selected locations when the time is right. We passionately want to innovate when it comes to physical retail; it would be brand dilutive to open a store that customers might have shopped in pre-pandemic.
Instead, we want “concept stores of the future”, both experiential and seamlessly omni-channel. Therefore, we are working hard today to ensure the right technological foundations are in-place for tomorrow, and dialogue with landlords in sought-after locations have commenced. We hope to share more on launch timeframes shortly.
How do you think the high street will be impacted by the current cost of living crisis and forecast recession?
Pressures on the cost of living are very real and we need to recognise the challenges consumers face in their lives. At T.M. Lewin we are passionate about developing product that is built to last; we source the finest fabrics across the globe and work with only the best manufacturers to ensure they’re cut with precision.
In times of economic uncertainty, we believe that helping our customers to “buy once, and buy well” makes financial sense, and we’ll continue to work hard to deliver exceptional value for money too.
What do you think retailers need to do to overcome and survive this?
Retailers that truly offer their customers exceptional service are best placed to survive and thrive. Innovation and diversification – across product ranges and channels / platforms – will be key to success; and brands that have a purpose and values that resonate with their consumer will prove to be the most resilient. Finally, strategic partnerships and leveraging economies of scale, can be both customer accretive and fiscally beneficial.
What are your long-term plans for the TM Lewin brand? And what challenges and opportunities do you foresee in the next 5 years or so?
We intend to leverage our unique British heritage and proud tailoring craftmanship in driving growth across the globe. We will enter new markets and platforms in a commercially sensible way – experimenting with different operating models such as marketplaces and wholesale before more significant financial investments through DTC and physical formats are launched. From a brand perspective, we want to develop a global community of brand ambassadors.
To do this, we will be crystal clear on what the brand stands for, what are values are, and how we can add value in consumer lives through styling and fit advice. It is incredibly important that we strike the right balance between “content and commerce” and build out a value-exchange for consumers that sees them come back again and again. The future for T.M. Lewin is bright and exciting.
What advice would you give to aspiring business leaders?
Adopt a positive, proactive approach to “always-on” learning. Whatever career stage you are at, irrespective of seniority, nobody knows everything. Staying curious and continuing to learn will make you a more empathetic, better-rounded leader. Invest in people, sincerely taking the time to understand their motivations and concerns. Business is all about relationships and that will never change, irrespective of technological advances.
Be yourself at work, your authenticity will shine through. Have a mentor and a mentee; you will learn equally on both sides! And finally, smile and enjoy the journey – Rome was not built in a day, nor are careers! Good humour is often an underrated virtue, careers are full of ups and downs, and sometimes humour is the best quality of all!