Steering a steady course
Menswear retailer Working Style is celebrating 35 years in business with the opening of a new store in Takapuna. Founder Chris Dobbs shares his lessons across the years.
Menswear retailer Working Style is celebrating 35 years in business with the opening of a new store in Takapuna. NZBusiness editor Glenn Baker caught up with founder Chris Dobbs to learn how his business has managed to stand the test of some very difficult times.
NZB: We assume that the past two years have delivered the toughest trading conditions of your 35 years in business. What are some of the business lessons you’ve learnt from the whole Pandemic experience?
Chris: Wow, Gee Whiz! What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger I suppose. It’s certainly been an awful thing to have to navigate and I feel for everyone who has had their livelihood affected.
The resilience of people and small business is the indelible mark that has been left on me. Small guys scraping away, desperately trying to get through, trying different approaches, pushing the boundaries and just clinging to their livelihoods.
The wonderful resilience of self-employed people and how they have hung tough and defied their critics and detractors by their sheer grit and determination.
In a time of uncertainty people revert to brands they trust, and Working Style has experienced a post-covid rush that has helped make up ground while closed. Over the closures, and in general, Working Style has amplified its branding and digital messaging. We could see from our analytics that people were bored and seeking relief from the lockdowns, and we made a point of keeping on communicating with them even though the physical stores were closed.
Our web traffic doubled over this period. Our client contact work, reaching out to our customers also doubled and all our retail teams were charged with the job of making sure their clients were safe and OK – genuine care and empathy at a crappy time.
It’s often a reaction to cut back spending in crisis but we actually held our nerve and held the agreed course.
NZB: Looking back over the business history, what have been the stand-out decisions that contributed the most to the success of the Working Style brand?
Chris: At Working Style we have always backed our key people and the management team that run the business. An executive share scheme was developed relatively early, in our first chapter, and this has stood us in good stead in the way it has retained and developed the roles of our key people.
Retention, retention, retention is the mantra we use to summarise how we view the importance of holding onto our staff and our customers.
NZB: With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently in your business planning? Any mistakes that you regret now?
Chris: In the hurly burly of dealing with the pandemic response we really did not realise how little forward planning we were not doing. Everything was in the moment, reacting to the day to day.
It was with genuine surprise when in May we started pulling out the annual plans and the strategic plan and started thinking and looking forward for the first time in two years.
Confidence was returning and for the first time we were able to see a way forward, a light at the end of what had been a very uncertain future.
To answer your question, not really. We certainly got many things wrong – under-stocked, over-stocked, deliveries late! The world’s going to end – well, actually there might be a boom!
What we did get right was the pastoral care of our people, holding our course while retaining them and being careful about everything along the way.
NZB: What the best piece of business advise you ever received and acted on?
Chris: Sales for vanity, profit for sanity and cash for reality!
NZB: How do you think Covid had impacted on the menswear market in terms of mens’ attitudes to what they wear? And what are your predictions for the industry for the next 12-24 months?
Chris: Casualisation remains the dominant theme in life and, of course, what we want to wear. This has meant that when you dress up, you embrace it all the more – weddings, events, this trend will continue.
Busy lives require flexibility in what we eat, do and wear and one’s wardrobe has to deliver the goods to keep relevant and comfortable.
Looking forward – there will be a continual rebuild across all affected industries, including bricks and mortar retail, and the digital explosion including online will continue to dominate our lives.
NZB: What excites you about the future of Working Style? What further ambitions do you have for growth?
Chris: The core group of people that I lead. Harnessing their ultimate potential and ability is my leverage to an exciting future.
And new stores, in new territories of New Zealand and Australia, with the existing management group extending into the ownership of the company in the immediate future.
Pictured below: the new store in Barry’s Point Road, Takapuna