Tailoring a business to suit the present – and be fit for the future

Greenwoods chief operating officer Neil Roberts, centre

Greenwoods chief operating officer Neil Roberts, centre

First published in Features Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Photograph of the Author by , Business Reporter

Historic Bradford-based clothing retailer Greenwoods Menswear might be celebrating its 150th anniversary – but its sights are set firmly on the future.

In March, the company brought its base back to its city centre ‘home’ into offices at the Bradford Business Park on Canal Road. From here, it administers a chain of 80 shops, mainly in the North, Midlands and East Anglia.

It plans to use what chief operating officer Neil Roberts says is significant financial support from its Chinese owner Pacific Trend Investment, which took over the business in 2009, to expand the chain in the South of England.

Part of the focus will be to develop its successful 1860-branded wedding and formal wear hire operation. Commemorating the year the first Greenwoods shop opened in Westgate, Bradford, 1860 recently became the UK’s second-largest provider, hiring out more than 100,000 outfits a year, and contributes around 20 per cent of the firm’s £26m annual turnover.

Greenwoods is also looking to expand its niche Mansize brand to meet growing demand for larger-sized clothing.

The firm has also moved into online selling with a new website which went live this autumn. This will tap into the growing shift to online shopping and make its products accessible to potential customers in areas where it has no branches.

Another key strategy of the firm, which has traditionally catered for men aged 40 and above, is to attract younger customers through widening its product range, including slim-fit suits which it says are selling well.

Having concession outlets in its stores, such as Regatta outdoor wear, is another string to its bow as Greenwoods looks for ways to build trade.

It is also planning to develop a range of clothing targeted at businessmen and office workers, partly through promotions to staff at targeted companies.

Although Greenwoods has new ideas on how it will move forward, Neil said it still prided itself on its commitment to personal service and was one of the few menswear chains to still take such an approach.

Neil is part of a new top management team at Greenwoods put in place by Pacific Trend Investment.

He has spent his career in wool textile production, including senior management roles with the former Parkland and Drummond groups in Bradford and Holdsworths in Halifax.

He took over day-to-day management of Greenwoods in November last year.

Chief executive Wayne Zhu relocated from New York to Bradford to join the Greenwoods board, and provides the link with its Chinese owners, making regular visits there.

Newly-appointed retail and business development director Jason Denmark, who spent 15 years working for Bhs owner Sir Philip Green, was attracted to join Greenwoods because of its vision and plans for strong growth and expansion.

Neil said: “Greenwoods may be celebrating 150 years in business, but we are also looking forward to the next 150 years and are planning some exciting initiatives to expand our company.

“Rather than sitting tight in the tough economic conditions, we believe that we should take steps to exploit the opportunities that present themselves and make plans to grow the business significantly over the next three years.”

The company currently has 36 staff at its Canal Road head office, 18 warehouse staff at Albion Mills, Greengates, and 450 shop staff.

There are plans to take over an extra floor at its Kingsgate base in readiness for planned expansion of the business.

A crucial part of its plans is investment in IT and a new stock control system.

Neil said: “It’s absolutely vital that we have the right stock in the right place at the right time.

“Our current system is more than 20 years old and outdated. We are investing around £300,000 in replacing it. It will ensure we can manage our stock control effectively by meeting the needs of different branches to help boost sales, and will help us keep costs under control.

“Investment in new IT will enable us to have real-time data on every one of our stores as we need it and to take decisions accordingly. Each high street is different and we need to be quick and adaptable to meet the needs of different areas.”

The new system is due to be fully-operational by next March.

Neil is buoyed up about the future plans for Greenwoods but is under no illusion that the firm is toiling in a difficult and cut-throat market environment.

He said the present owners have the resources to back its ambitions with investment, including refurbishing existing stores and opening new ones.

Strengthening Greenwoods’ operations depends on attracting a wider range of customers. Central to this is a modern look and layout for its stores, although branches such as the one in Westgate, Bradford, will continue as clearance outlets.

The Blackpool branch was one of the first to have a makeover, resulting in an 18 per cent growth in sales in the first two months since modernisation.

About £50,000 a store is to be spent on changing the look and feel of key branches. Improvements include new external fascias, less-cluttered window displays and a substantially different store layout.

It’s a marked change from the chequered history of this venerable organisation in recent years.

In October 2008, China’s largest clothing manufacturer and retailer spent £50m buying a 50 per cent stake in Greenwoods from then-owner Hanson Partners Ltd in what was believed to be one of the biggest Chinese inward investment projects in the UK to date.

This followed a joint venture with Greengates-based Hanson to expand Greenwoods across Europe.

In January last year, Greenwoods was rescued and around 500 jobs saved, including 100 in Bradford and West Yorkshire, when the business was bought from administrators KPMG by Bosideng subsidiary Harvest Fancy Hong Kong Ltd.

Ownership has since been transferred to Pacific Trend Investment, which Mr Roberts said was committed to investing in its future.

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