27/08/10

By Modwenna Rees-Mogg, founder and CEO of AngelNews

It all started with Sergeant Pepper...

In today’s society, you would be hardpushed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of the Mulberry fashion house. With its leading and luxurious leather designs, the Mulberry brand has become a worldwide phenomenon. But did you know that it all started back in the 70’s with a young man selling military style clothing on a tiny corner stall in Portobello market?

It is fair to say that Roger Saul was born an entrepreneur. His love for 70’s ‘Sergeant Pepper’ fashion drew him to London where he completely fell for the boutique and fashion design scene. Following a £500 loan from his parents, Roger bought some leather and tools, and set his creative mind to work. Soon he was making unique leather belts from his parents’ garage in Somerset, and selling his designs to all the high-end boutiques across London.

Before long, Roger expanded his focus to other accessories and in 1975 he made his first bag. The Mulberry brand was born.

The customer is King

As well as its groundbreaking and soughtafter designs, the success of Mulberry can also be attributed to the understanding that Roger had for his customers’ needs and desires. By anticipating not only what his customer would need in the present Features day, Roger was a forward thinker. Despite having best-selling products in his range,
Roger was keen to keep the Mulberry brand moving, and would plan new designs and product lines up to 12 months before he took them to market. In 1980 Roger opened his first shop in the fashion capital of the world, Paris, soon after followed his first Ready to Wear collection. In 1991, Mulberry released its ‘At home’ range, which allowed customers to take the theatrical and elegant Mulberry brand into their homes as a part of their lifestyle. Mulberry became not just a fashion label, but a personal lifestyle experience.

From fashion to food

Extending a luxury accessories brand into one encompassing the gamut of fashion and lifestyle, even extending into a hotel, Charlton House in Somerset, to showcase everything, might appear to have exhausted Roger’s entrepreneurial creativity. But as all serial entrepreneurs know, getting to this stage just opens up the desire to start a brand new challenge. The same was true for Roger who then turned his passion and skills to a new area, food, and a new [philosophical] concept — sustainability, but retained the highest quality attitudes proven by Mulberry.

What caused Roger to take this leap at the moment he did? As so often happens, it was due to fortuitous circumstance. The 300 acre farm next to his house came up for sale for the first time in a century. It was a purchase he had to make, as it would put back together the house with its original parkland. So Roger was now inadvertently a landowner/farmer and had to do something about it. As a child he had loved playing on his grandmother’s farm, but never dreamed that he would find himself a farmer. He enlisted the advice of many friends who were local farmers. The result? Roger’s dream was and still is to create a profitable business, putting the land to crops and livestock in a sustainable and organic way from just 300 acres of land. Uncovering the forgotten super-food, spelt, an ancient cousin of wheat with many health benefits, was the final piece of the jigsaw in the new business plan. Better than wheat in many ways, better for the land in the way it is produced and a product that hardly anyone else was producing or selling on a commercial scale, here was the USP of the business. Roger set about using his skills from his Mulberry days to start building a major luxury organic goods brand.

De-risking the unquantifiable

Whether a market will really adopt a new product is the risk that investors say is the one most difficult to quantify. Roger solved this challenge in two ways. One by going to the people who could help him get it right from day one — namely Waitrose. Secondly and rather neatly he engaged his local community — restoring buildings and creating a farm shop and restaurant at the famous Kilver Court Gardens in Somerset (the original home of iconic drink
Babycham). So his market testing can be local, cash generative, improving to the local economy and a bit of “Bond Street in Shepton Mallet” in one go! Pretty neat when you come to think about it.

It’s the little things that make the difference

Roger believes that his journey to founding his fifth (Mulberry, Home collection, Hotel and restaurant, Montys Spa and products, farm and food) major venture is further evidence of how entrepreneurship works best when you understand and respond to the changing needs of your customers. So much intangible value can be created at no cost, such as using the history and ambience of Sharpham Park as the foundation for the brand. And serial entrepreneurs do have a key advantage over their virgin counterparts. The first time around Roger had to cold call, bang on doors and act as suitcase sample salesman to get going. Second time around the leading figures in UK retail and luxury branding respected and admired him and wanted to answer his calls. This directly means a short cut in the time and routes to market. But Roger will never just be a businessman or even just a successful entrepreneur. He is a visionary. How many entrepreneurs are as passionate about enabling local children to grow vegetables which can be sold in Roger’s local farm shop, alongside the Sharpham products, as they are about product quality which meant, for example, that the new Sharpham spelt shortbread biscuits are a result of trialling 20 different recipes before the final one was agreed? Money cannot buy this holistic approach and without this sort of approach you don’t get to build a great brand and business once, let alone several times.

Read AngelNews’ digital magazine: Making Life Richer www.makinglifericher.co.uk


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