Cut from the family cloth

Henry Bucks' strategy has always been to get customers young and keep them for life. And its family owners are comfortable in their fifth generation while other retailers drop like flies.

Retail sales continue to slide. While the worst of the financial crisis induced retail recession is over, the retail environment in Australia remains fragile and challenging.  Tim Cecil, the fifth generation head of Henry Bucks, says the menswear retailer is part of Melbourne’s history as the clothier to the establishment – clients have included Sir Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser, Paul Keating bought his Zegna suits there and Kevin Rudd his ties. But the last of the world’s great menswear stores to remain in family hands is not impervious to the forces that have destroyed retailers over the last four years.

Tim says the family business is better placed than most. Given the retail environment, it’s not producing spectacular results but they’re steady and solid. No retailer could ask for more.

“Retail is very tough at the moment,’’ Cecil says. “We are very consistent, we’re very solid. We’re not seeing a lot of growth at the moment but the takings are consistent. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, there was a real levelling off of retail and we went from a real high point to much more of a consistent level.

“But being a family owned, and family funded business, we act in a very conservative manner. It’s probably helped us stay in business for this long.

“We take a longer-term view, we don’t take a lot of risk, we don’t borrow a lot of money because we know it has to come back from somewhere and being funded by family members – it’s their asset.”

Henry Bucks was set up by Cecil’s great-great-grandfather in 1890 on the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets, where the Westin Hotel sits now. Henry Buck, who was born in London in 1860 and who eventually moved to Yorkshire where he learnt the soft goods trade at the age of 13, suffered from tuberculosis. So he migrated to New South Wales in 1887 where the weather was better. Arriving here and knowing nobody, he somehow managed get work with a sheep farmer. But when his fiancée, Laura Jane Rose came out from Yorkshire to join him, she hated life on the sheep station and persuaded him to come to Melbourne, then booming with the Gold Rush. Buck got a job working for a bookbinder but was sacked when he asked for a pay rise. He was probably earning something like a shilling a week.

So he went into business with someone he thought was a friend who ripped him off. Rather than going to court, he took over the business and started producing made-to-order shirts. It was a good business in a time when there was no such thing as ready-made shirts. Now, Henry couldn’t sew and he knew nothing about textiles. But he discovered he was a sharp businessman and with Laura and two machinists assisting, the business grew. King George V appointed Henry Buck an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1920 for services to the community and business. In 1930s and 1940s, the business changed its focus to keep up with the times and became a men’s haberdashery, establishing itself as the clothier to the city’s most powerful and influential figures.

There are now three stores in Melbourne, two in Sydney and one in Adelaide.

Cecil, now 36, was working in the store at the age of 12. He worked in the despatch area, taking deliveries, wrapping and delivering parcels, and putting new stuff on the floor. “That was pocket money and getting a feel for the family business,” he says. In his 20s, he was working for other retailers, mainly in action sportswear but came back to the fold when he was 25. He became merchandise director and also worked in the marketing team. When his uncle, Tim, retired as managing director after 40 years at the helm last September, his nephew took over. To avoid confusion with his uncle, he has Tim J Cecil on his business card.

He says being a family business creates closer connections with customers and suppliers. Cecil knows his customers.

“We are very different from any other retail business. We’re very much old school merchants. If you employ a buyer from David Jones, they’re used to working with two planners and an allocator. We are far more touch and feel, more the old style merchant,’’ he says. “Our sort of business is very much based on supplier relationships and customer relationships. It’s based on product and quality and numbers. 

“Historically with our customers, their father would have brought them in when they were 16 or 17, and they would start shopping with us and continue until they retired.

“I know the customers, we all work in sales and we get on the floor as often as we can. Our customers are our lifeblood, particularly a business like ours. We do events in the store. When anything is happening in the store, we try and have family members involved.

“Melbourne moves in certain circles. My uncle is a member of the Melbourne Club, my cousin is a member of the Savage Club. Melbourne is a very intertwined place and the family connection is meaningful for our customers. It’s very important to them that it continue through generations. They tell you if they know the family, they will always mention that in store which is lovely.

“We talk about it being a family business. We don’t want to do overdo it and be self-indulgent but it’s an important thing. Working with suppliers, there is a certain nurturing and care taken, and value structure in a family business that doesn’t come from listed companies.”

“Our primary concern is the customer whereas when you talk to the bigger retailers, their primary concern is the shareholder. It’s always important to us that when we make a decision, it’s about how it affects the customer because they’re the ones paying all our wages. The philosophy of customer service and long term customer relationships is how we do business.”

Henry Bucks keeps in touch with the 70,000 customers on its data base through email, inviting them to regular store events. Cecil says there are solid online sales for its Christmas Catalogue business which has been running for 80 years. “Translating that online was fairly easy. It’s not that hard and the adoption rate even with more elderly customers is fairly high. I don’t think there are many people who don’t have the internet.”

There is a heavy focus on customer service with staff going through product knowledge sessions every fortnight. He says they are all specialists. “We have higher service levels on the floor. We are probably over staffed,’’ he says. “The expectation of the customer is that they get a high level of service and our expectation of ourselves is that we offer that service. We talk about it a lot.”

The five member board is all family that includes three shareholders – his father, uncle and grandmother. Votes are never taken, they work through issues. “Once you go to a vote, then it can create more issues down the track, particularly when it’s a board of shareholders,’’ he says.

He says the board is looking at setting up a panel of external advisors. And again, the family connection will be important. “The business has a lot of friends who work with the business or who are suppliers. And Melbourne is quite a small city when it comes to menswear and retail. Everybody knows each other and particularly my parents’ generation where men’s fashion was coming into itself, so we have a great network of people who we know would be potential advisors to the company with a retail background and business background.”

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