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A Life Less Ordinary – Kim Winser

Kim Winser has been working in fashion for more than 40 years, serving as Marks & Spencer’s first female board director before moving on to a distinguished retail career at Pringle of Scotland, Aquascutum, Net-a-Porter and Agent Provocateur. Having gone from the top of the corporate ladder to creating Winser London, her own start-up, she’s well placed to reflect on the changes the fashion retail industry has gone through and what the lessons are for the future.

THE STAND: Kim, can you remember how you first got interested in business?
My mother was very hard-working and taught me to always be myself. She and my father, who was in the navy, raised us all with a very good work ethic. But I also had an interest in business. When I was 16, I remember asking the manager of our local cinema if they had any deals going, as I had 20 friends who wanted to go.

Who were your business role models?
Bill Gates was one of my first inspirations. I remember reading about this chap who got a maximum score in his SATs and then developed Microsoft straight out of Harvard. Also Richard Branson when he was setting up what would become Virgin Group. I’ve always admired creativity coupled with business acumen.

You were a promising tennis player when you were young. Was it difficult to choose business over a life on the tennis circuit?
I got an offer to join the M&S management training scheme the same week I received a letter offering me tennis coaching in America. I loved tennis, but I knew I’d be crazy not to take the M&S placement.

What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
I was told in one appraisal that I was “a bit black and white” and that sometimes “grey is worth investigating”. It was a good conversation to have early in my career and a great lesson. Later, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking encouraged me to trust in instinct. Combine ongoing insight with experience and gut instinct and you’ll probably make some very good decisions.

“Leaders have to respond to a strategy which could be faster or slower than planned while still keeping a very clear vision of what they want the business to do.”

What’s been the biggest disappointment of your career?
The failed management buyout of Aquascutum in 2009 was my lowest point. The owners went for the largest offer, which I understand, but we could have done amazing things with the company. I got the news and immediately booked onto the next flight to Barbados with my son. I was on a beach when Natalie Massenet rang asking me to join her at Net-a-Porter.

The experience of working in a digitally led retail business was so helpful for what was to be my next chapter, founding Winser London in 2013. Sometimes these things are meant to be.

My career path has been the reverse of the norm: a big corporate career from a young age, which I loved, then later launching a start-up, which has been so exciting.

Winser launched with an innovative structure, initially employing 10 very experienced people on a part-time basis. Why did you go this route?
The alternative was having an enormous cost base, which I wasn’t willing to do. The 10 were all people I knew, and they covered every aspect from design to logistics to finance. I then asked each of them to recruit somebody straight out of college or university.

What have been the advantages of this set-up?
Mixing experienced talent with young individuals has kept us very much on our toes – we can react both to younger people, who are definitely buying from social media, as well as traditional broadsheet customers who respond to reading about the quality of our products. Also, because we are very comfortable with people from all over the UK working remotely, we are used to being agile and responsive. It’s a very modern business model. We’re built to react to the consumer – to listen, learn and respond to her. And that forces the whole structure of the company to be nimble and reactive.

What has surprised you most since creating Winser London?
We now have a lot of product going into the US, and the next biggest market is Australia, which was really surprising. I haven’t needed to change my strategy as a result of this, though – we were always building Winser London as a good export business, as I believe the gap in womenswear that exists in the UK is also a gap in many other countries. Recently, the fluctuating currency, together with the growing importance of social media in the retail business, means the Winser word has spread quicker than we predicted.

Social media aside, what’s the biggest difference between today’s customers and when you started out?
Today’s generation have information at their fingertips and can make decisions quickly. Business models have to reflect that. For example, a customer may see Holly Willoughby wearing Winser London one morning and want to wear it that weekend – I have to think how I respond to that. Leaders have to respond to a strategy which could be faster or slower than planned while still keeping a very clear vision of what they want the business to do.

What are the key lessons you’d pass on to a fellow business owner?
We live in a volatile world, and there is danger at both ends – for big corporates who are slow to respond because there are so many layers in every decision, and danger for the inexperienced entrepreneur who can misread the need to develop strategies and instead change the vision altogether. Both types need to be constantly driven by the customer group. I’m lucky; I thrive on creativity and newness. The more I learn, the more I enjoy. If there is a problem, I always try to innovate our way to a solution. There’s a lot of positivity running through the blood – and that’s essential for great leadership.

Lysanne Currie writes about business, travel and luxury for a variety of magazines, including Tempus, Victor, Robb Report UK, The Ethicalist and Meet The Leader.