School uniforms may seem like an unlikely niche in which to build a dynamic business. However, Bernard Bunting, Chief Executive of Perry Uniform and a delegate at the recent Breakthrough Masterclass at LOVEFiLM and BaxterStorey, is transforming the sector through clever use of the internet, which gives him national reach and international potential.
“School uniform is something of an old-fashioned business in the tradition of Grace Brothers, based on local independent retailers that have failed to move with the times,” says Bernard. “Consequently, mainstream retailers pay it little attention. Yet many senior and influential educators champion the use of school uniform as a means of creating community, identity and equality, and even reducing bullying.”
Moving with the times
Perry Uniform supplies independent fee-paying schools (accounting for 9% of 5 to 16-year-olds) with clothing that is designed and manufactured in Leeds. The company’s ‘made in England’ credentials and upper class, prep-school customers sound like the epitome of tradition. But that hasn’t held it back from making use of smart internet technology to expand its customer-base far beyond its roots in West London.
“Everyone told me I couldn’t sell school uniforms over the internet,” says Bernard. “But the internet gives us national reach. We supply schools in London, Hull, Cheltenham and the Pennines district.” It also gives Perry Uniform access to an increasingly wealthy and mobile global elite who, if they relocate to London, look to place their children in one of the country’s fee-paying schools.
The Perry Uniform website is equipped with Intelligent Sizing technology, which enables an order for a bespoke uniform to be made online and delivered in a few days, “ready for little Johnny to start at Knightsbridge Prep fully equipped on Monday morning,” explains Bernard.
Getting the business off the ground
Perry Uniform grew out of selling children’s clothes online, a previous venture that Bernard set up with his wife Caroline. As a customer list of around 100,000 matured the company needed to reach new customers, and supplying uniform seemed like a cost-effective way of doing so. While Bernard was occupied elsewhere, setting up an e-commerce site for famous Regent Street toy store Hamleys, Caroline persevered with the uniform business. By the time Hamleys was sold, Caroline was processing a steady stream of orders.
“Each year the sales volume was similar, which was based on the intake of pupils, so it was obvious that to grow the business we had to recruit more schools,” Bernard says. They did, but the problem of seasonality grew commensurately: 75% of the firm’s business is conducted in the three months from July to September. However, Bernard is not one to give up in the face of odds that would terrify others. “I’m pretty determined,” he says.
In the 1970s, Bernard graduated from Sandhurst and served with the Green Howards Yorkshire infantry regiment, including a four-year tour of duty of Northern Ireland in special forces. This experience has equipped him handsomely for life as a business owner, he says. “Being a small enterprise is akin to urban warfare. It’s a street-fighting mentality, gritty and hard. You have to have your wits about you, and you need stamina to succeed.”
Stamina is something of which Bernard certainly has no shortage. It has taken him through a failed first business, in which he lost all his savings, and the sale of a second successful business, which gave him his seed capital for what is now Perry Uniform.
Many business leaders can identify a point of inflexion in their career, when a single decision or event propelled them forward. For Bernard, this occurred when he received a random phone call that led to him to buy – sight unseen – the manufacturing base of Perry Clothing. It was based “in a clapped-out mission hall in Leeds. It was like the knicker factory in Coronation Street,” says Bernard.
Bernard says he never had a grand vision for his business “beyond a desire to run my own show”. But with the acquisition of Perry Clothing and its staff, Bernard’s vision has now taken shape.
Onwards and upwards
The company has recently completed its seventh relocation in three years and it now occupies a building with a footprint of 20,000 square feet, in which Bernard intends to build two mezzanine floors that will more than double its capacity.
He would like to balance the seasonality of Perry Uniform over the next three to five years from one stream of business to three. First, he is looking at leveraging the company’s space, head count, and IT infrastructure. The business can then provide fulfilment for other retailers with a highly seasonal business, where the majority of sales are crowded into an 8 to 12-week period, such as October to December. “If we can find an appropriate retail partner, I reckon we can self-fund a doubling of the school uniform business,” he explains.
While Perry Uniform continues to supply fee-paying schools, the third stream of business Bernard is looking to develop is high-value, low-volume clothing products, such as personalised blazers for professionals. These would be ‘made in England’ quality garments, woven from cloth made in Leeds, and featuring a uniquely designed stripe. This would tap into a growing trend for tweeds, brogues and ‘country’ attire, currently selling like hotcakes in retailers such as Jack Wills. “My intention is to take the brand to cult status,” Bernard says. He proudly wears a distinctive striped blazer of his own design that proves that he might just do it.