Episode 266: Mastering the Retail Business with James Kearns

James Kearns is an optimistic leader with a passion for people, entrepreneurism, and technology. He has 15 years of experience gained across major brands such as Marks and Spencer, Tesco, and Boden. James is currently working for a Private Equity House, developing the business services and technology designed to scale start-up brands. The portfolio includes TM Lewin, a renowned Menswear apparel brand as its flagship, where James is the Managing Director.

In this episode, James Kearns talks with Adam Stott about his journey from working for Marks and Spencer to becoming a Managing Director for T.M. Lewin. James also shares his data-driven approach to business as well as the importance of authenticity for a leader.

Show Highlights:

  • James Kearns’ journey into becoming T.M. Lewin’s Managing Director
  • Lessons James Kearns’ learned about retail business in his long tenure at Marks and Spencer
  • How Data Science education affected his approach to business
  • Developing leadership through learning by doing
  • How it’s like to take over a company during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Shop at T.M. Lewin at tmlewin.co.uk

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Please note this is a verbatim transcription from the original audio and therefore may include some minor grammatical errors.

Adam Stott:

Hello, everybody, and welcome to this very special episode of Business Growth Secrets. I’ve got a wonderful guest today. I’m really really really looking forward to talking to James Kearns, the CEO of the major retailer, T.M. Lewin, massive experience in the past and really is a modern retailer. 

He’s somebody that believes in leadership values, technology, and really bringing, you know, modern retailing to the forefront. And I’m really, really excited because we’ve had a good chat before. And I want to try and understand James’s philosophy, as well as his background, you know, how he found himself in this position. 

I know that he’s done some great work for other major brands such as Marks and Spencers and moden. So really, really excited to talk about this with you. So welcome James, you how you are doing things well.

James Kearns:

Yeah. Great. Thank you, Adam. Yeah, really well. Just taking the business strategy this morning, actually. So hopefully good timing for the podcast. And yeah, excited to be here and lovely to meet you.

Adam Stott:

Brilliant. You too. And I read that you’re a big listener of podcasts. Right? I read that she’s somewhere that you you like listening to him and you enjoy listening,

James Kearns:

I’d say yeah, like many in London it is perfect. My 45 minute commute in the morning. So yeah, I get pretty quiet here.

Adam Stott:

Perfect. Okay, so welcome to Business Grow Secrets. I’ve been a big fan of the brand that you lead right now, as I mentioned to you prior for a long, long, long time. I’ve been buying T.M. Lewin shirts since my first days. I first and I remember one of my friends, Brad, very early days, took me into T.M. Lewins. 

And said, Adam, we need to sharpen you up, we need to get you some nice shirts, so big fans of the brand. And that was back when I was 19. So I’ve been buying the products for a long, long time. And frequent there. 

So I’m really interested to hear about your take on the business. I know that the business has gone online a lot, which would be really, really interesting. But I know you’ve got other plans as well. First and foremost, James, how have you ended up helping these fantastic brands? You know, what, what’s your but tell us a bit about your background? Where did your journey start off for you? And how have you found yourself at this position?

James Kearns:

Yeah, sure. So I’ve worked in retail exclusively my whole life. And I’ve never really been honest, I from the beginning, never really was clear as to which way I wanted to go with my career, I had incredibly supportive parents.

Much of what’s good to me comes from them. But you know, they came from quite a different background up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was the first in my family to go to university with their support, but not particularly precisely coach so as to where that will take me. 

So I studied history in the University of London, which I loved and still love to this day. And then like many of us are traveling the world and kind of came back from there and basically fell into retail. So you know, bank account was very much on the roads, and a tent position and Marks and Spencer, that tent became perm within six, six weeks, and ended up staying at Mark Switzer for the best part of decades.

So just just over nine years. And you know, frankly, the store was British retail and a fantastic place for me really to earn my stripes and retail. And I’m just built from there really. So I’ve since moved to Tesco where I was there for about three, three and a half years, and then a year at Bowdoin paused for a year in my career. 

A little bit like everyone started pandemic, or ask a few questions personally and professionally where I was decided to actually go back to university to do a master’s in data science, which was a great kind of experience very challenging, but little like climbing a mountain get to the top and you remember the good parts. 

And then I was kind of I was offered the role was up to lead in, you know, the growth brand that is Team living and last June now, so I was studying kind of concurrently finishing with my mom Susan took on that role last June and frankly was too good opportunity to, to not take up. And yet it’s been keeping busy ever since. So that’s the story in a nutshell already.

Adam Stott:

Perfect, fantastic career really to move up to, you know, CEO level and running the business, I think it’s really interesting, actually went back and studied data science, because data in business is obviously essential, isn’t it, but a lot of people don’t pay as much attention often as they should to that right. 

And but we’ll get to a bit maybe a bit later on, I think we’ll want to say is what some of the things that you learn from Marks and Spencers early in terms of retailing and looking after clients, but there’s some good lessons in that nine year period, you said that that gave you a good grounding?

James Kearns:

Yeah, for sure. And so I was, you know, really lucky, frankly, I was almost exclusively in women’s wear, and some of the best, you know, the biggest business unit, and some of the best people were in that area. So it’s always really lucky to have great line managers. I always think, you know, just be a sponge, stay curious, ask lots of questions and absorb as much as you can from the people around you. 

It’s a good organization, not without his challenges, especially in that time period, but, you know, frankly, much of what he was doing was right. For an aspiring white person in their career, I was really able to try to lift the bullet in every process from a buying and merchandising perspective with weight, which is where I spent much of my time. 

Was kind of exposed, frankly, to all areas of budget control, understanding how to run call programs, working with suppliers, understanding how to present and trade the range, you know, when you’re at a large retailer like that your opportunity, frankly, is endless to learn. And so yeah, that’s, that’s really kind of how I spent my time. 

And it’s quite funny. Actually, I still tell the team today, you know, I was m&s Certainly back then very much had an early Monday morning trade setup. So I tried to start at 8am. I’ve been, you know, half, six cutter labels. That was the story for many years. And that really is where I guess I can earn my stripes. And I really kind of learn business inside out bottom up.

Adam Stott:

Absolutely. And did you move up positions in that business? Where did you end up across the nine years?

James Kearns:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So I’ve started up as an advocate on this kind of permanent role, and then hopped into merchandising, there’s many that work my way through like the assistant merchandising pay group, and into merchandiser. And then as .com started to take off, I piloted the first online Trade Manager role. And that role was then cascaded out. So yeah, my final position was as an online training manager. And actually, just prior to that, I did a date at the martial arts and role as well. So it was quite beautiful.

Adam Stott:

Awesome. And what made you interested in the technology side, the online side, being that you’ve been in the business, you’ve been looking at the merchandise, what attracted you to that?

James Kearns:

Yeah, you know, I’ve always loved technology, even if it’s computer games from a young age, but I understand how PCs were a game. And I’ve always just been quite interested in gadgets and technology. But I think from a career perspective, I appreciate the importance of data and removing subjectivity from decision making. And it’s not to say that, you know, subjectivity, and empirical expertise doesn’t have its place because it does the world today. Now, a big believer in our needs and science, that where you can leverage in science and data is incredibly important. And yeah, I’ve always just been a very curious person. 

So if I’m really honest, I kind of got to a point where I was probably a little bit fed up or walking into supply meetings, and people threw around jargon and buzzwords like AI and machine learning, we’ve probably no one in the room really understanding them. So I think that curiosity kind of led me to want to kind of better understand those methods.

Adam Stott:

And when you came to me, and actually, I’ve had a couple of people on the podcast before, actually, funnily enough, I’m just trying to think of the exact names of people that actually came through Marks and Spencers career and ended up in similar positions, actually CEO, so there must be a lot to learn in that business. 

So there must be quite an open sharing mentality, right? You know, because I think I’ve had a few people that have said to me that they had that career, and I’ve gone on to be really, really successful, and leading other businesses, which is called sort of leading or starting businesses. Now we’ve moved on and you’ve left eventually to go there. How did you do? How did you get to the point where you built these leadership skills and what is some of your philosophy around leadership? 

So when we think about small business owners, one of the things for small business owners, medium business owners, that leadership side is something that they’ve never sometimes had. So when they start building teams, you know, do you remember your first foray into leadership and what was that like and what were you like and How did you learn?

James Kearns:

Yeah, for sure. And so that I think, like I very much learned, especially from a leadership spective, you learn through doing. You know, you can’t just read a leadership book and take the fear and become a great leader, I think, you know, you have to, you know, you have to experience it. And you know, you’ll have good and bad days. But that’s all part of the learning experience. 

So you know, and this is why organizations like M&S, and Tesco are great, because you typically get your first line management experience with quite a small team, or you might decide to mentor or coach someone in advance of having that line management responsibility. And, you know, I remember I used to run the assistant merge pay group, which kind of, you know, stuff, and you know, it’s a big business. 

So there’s 20 to 30 people in that peer group, where effectively you’re leading, without being, you know, formally designated as the leader, which I think is always a good approach. So, see, I think, you know, throwing yourself into it. I think it’s cheesy. But authenticity is really important. It’s easy to say, not easy to do, I think bringing yourself to work is probably, you know, something that I bought better over the years. 

I think, you know, retail is about people ultimately. And you know, it’s not buying stocks and shares. So you know, staying authentic and looking after your people, wherever you’re wherever your line managing one, or you’re leaving the business has always been part of my values. And I think if you do those things you won’t go too far.

Adam Stott:

So when we say authenticity, and being authentic, how do people show up and give that? What would you say? What are the kinds of aspects of that? How do you interpret it? Would you say? Because it’s because people could interpret it in different ways. But would you give some examples? Do you think how somebody can be more authentic and bring more of themselves that helps people?

James Kearns:

Yeah, sure. I think so. I think almost, in some ways, the best way to answer is to say what it’s not, and what it’s not. Yeah, you know, what it’s not is living a completely different type of right life. And so, you know, on a Saturday night, versus who you might be a Monday morning, you know, sometimes the small things that are big things, right, and, you know, we all have those moments on the one on the left on the way up to the business, or, you know, you have your small talk, or you kind of you know, you get into the day job. 

And I actually think sometimes those conversations are quite good indications as to authenticity in sales. Do you actually know what it is you share with your team around what you got on the weekends, or how you spent your evening last night? You know, it doesn’t have to be what might be seen as the police textbook answer. It’s perfectly acceptable to go home on Monday night and be quite boring. And that’s okay if that’s what you did, you can share that with your team. 

For me, it’s always just being quite true to yourself. And, you know, even if you think you’ve got your own quirks, that’s okay. Actually, people tend to quite like that about you. So, yeah, I think becoming comfortable in yourself is actually a really important part of being a leader. I also say, as well, don’t underestimate the importance of humor in the workplace. And, you know, if done well, it can actually be a really important, you know, quality, frankly, to defuse sometimes names or conflict and to bring people with you. And so yeah, there’s hopefully some of those values to convey.

Adam Stott:

Yeah, absolutely, I think he is certainly not being someone trying to be someone you’re not and actually being who you are. And showing up that way actually makes it a lot easier for just generally, you know, I kind of think that’s how I try to be is like, whoever I am on stage, whoever I am on a podcast wherever, same person, I’m in the street, because it’s just easier than that. It’s just easier to be that way.

James Kearns:

Because, like, there’s so many people, we’ve got, you know, fears around presenting and public speaking and which, you know, is not uncommon, and I get it, right. It’s, it’s, you know, it can be a challenge. I think when you get to that point in your career, where you are yourself, those moments become a heck of a lot easier. 

Because you know, you’re not trying to read a, you know, a script or a cue card for a few sentences, and you can just be natural. And it’s not to say that those moments can’t still be challenging because they are by their nature, I think the more you can, you know, become comfortable with being yourself, the better leader you become.

Adam Stott:

Absolutely, absolutely. So we took on after working through these other roles that you had, you’ve come to get the CEO position at T.M. Lewin and, obviously, T.M. Lewin had some challenges as a business so of course during the pandemic and things like that, and oh, actually, I can honestly say I was gutted when I saw the team loon store shutting. I am a genuinely, genuinely really big fan of the shirt business. 

I love the fact you go in and you can actually get a shirt that fits properly. Right? And now is a PART part of the value. And I was one of the biggest shoppers this way going. I’m not what you know, it’s really really found it quite the For call, so took over. And I know that T.M. Lewin and went down a slightly different road didn’t they try to expand slightly differently. 

And you mentioned about being really focused on the customer, who, and not just the customer, the client that you’re going to serve? I think that was something that I read online that was really important for you, when you took this role on? How did you see it? How did you see it as it was? And how did you see it as you wanted it to be? And how’s that going? Big question.

James Kearns:

I tried to break it down. So that very honestly, when I took the role last year, I knew it would be tough, and it was bloody tough. But the opportunity to run a failing business is eye opening. And like every day is kind of exponential, exponential learning in terms of, you know, frankly, knowing what not to do is just the truth. And it’s really kind of amazed me, you know, really appreciate what’s important to, you know, to move out of that position. 

So, strategy and culture, I always say the two most important things in business, and, you know, culture is always on. But frankly, strategy is key. And if you set the game up, well, you’ve got a good chance of winning, and that is, you know, allied with clearly some of the macro challenges that have taken place in the world recently. These are some of the reasons why, you know, the business, frankly, wasn’t where it needed to be. 

But, you know, the good news is that we’re rebuilding in a really meaningful way. Having lived that experience, I’m quite, you know, laser targeted in terms of those areas. And we, you know, we’re very clear, frankly, on where we want to go. And so, you know, we are planning to go back into retail next year, which will be really exciting for the brands and hype if you Adam would get shot not too far from where you are. 

You know, it’s you know, we sell shirts and suits, primarily to guys who are notoriously on gray shopping online, they know their size, fit and lever until the last minute. So you know, it’s really important that we have an experiential physical touch point that is often Chima. So I want to do that in quite an important and disruptive way. And that is the intention. And certainly from you know, it will continue to be a direct to consumer first play. 

So we want the best digital experience with all the right physical and digital service and propositions to that end. So really living from a should have a D to C global reach with the, you know, the best, frankly, website or mentor web in the marketplace. And that’s where we want to go.

Adam Stott:

Nice. So that was for you to get clear. So how did you do it? What were you when you started to look at restructuring? And you started to look at some of the things in the business? How did you get clear on the vision? Because you’ve got to get everybody else to have a vision, it sounds like you’re very clear about what you want to do. What was your kind of thought process? How did you look at it for a digital cut? Who is the customer? Was that the first thing you looked at?

James Kearns:

Yeah, like a customer underpins everything we do. Right? So actually, we’ve moved the head office recently, I got the you know, the head of our customer services to cut a ribbon in the new office sounds like a small point. But to the point about small points being big points. The statement was that the customer is going to be at the heart of the next incarnation. We will reference those points in the rebuild journey. I guess your question is like vision, I think it’s kind of multifaceted, right? 

I think you always have to assess the market and competition, what’s working, what’s not working. And so that was part of it. You know, we look at our customer and our brains, you know, our brand is our differentiator. So it has been around since 1898. You know, Louis himself was a pioneer and an innovator. 

And, you know, you compare us to me, [00:18:55-00:18:58] competitors who were born in the 70s, and 80s. You know, we’ve got this amazing story and rich content with leverage. You know, he was the pioneer of the Baton Rouge shirts, we’ve sold over 70 million shirts. It’s a great story to be told in terms of leveraging that market with brands with our customer. And then, you know, we take a view on what the ROI operating models are in terms of channels and territories for that journey. And kind of work that out while that process goes through.

Adam Stott:

Awesome. So really only looking at the client, looking at the brand, looking at leverage the brand, and obviously getting really strategic, you know, which is really, really important as well. And then like you said, the operating model, so the business strategy, and also probably your sales channels, right? Looking at what’s going to be. That’s really good. Because whether a business is large or a business is sold, essentially, that’s the way you do business, isn’t it? Right?

You got to go and you’ve got to look at the marketplace. And you have to find a need in the marketplace. You have to find why you can serve that need of a new right in the right way. And then you’ve got to look at how you can get an operating model that makes a business profitable and makes clients happy, right. So there’s a lot of people who are really overcomplicated, but it actually is obligatory.

James Kearns:

Exactly that and going through that strategic process and documenting it, I always talk about strategy on the page. You know, for me, you should be able to tell your mates down the pub quite quickly, you know, what your strategy is, you know, Why do we exist? Why is it important? How do you cut through the competitive noise, and it needs to stand for more than just transactions. 

And for 100, the brand has been too cold or too long, and the joy from that emotional connection and how we cut through and resonate a lot and really important. And you know, for a lot of things from an operating model perspective, half the value is not saying we’re operating models we’re not going to do because so often things become too complex. 

So our sound, we’re not going to do marketplaces, we’re not going to do dropship, we’re not going to do wholesale, we’re going to concentrate on the best DTC experience, and do retail and on the present experiential way. That is where we want to be so being laser targeted with that position is really important.

Adam Stott:

Yeah. And you know, it was reading obviously, it’s not for you to comment on the history. But I was reading that, when I actually read and I was reading about a little obviously, in preparation of us talking today, James has written about some of the history of it. I was reading about some of the things that I was doing as a brand. 

It was like, well, we’re going into all these other lines, and we’re going into all this other different where, and I was just like, you know, surely that’s not the way because I am the Customer, I’m the dream client, I’m the guy that will go in and buy 10/12 shirts, right? And I would err specifically for that thing, right? That’s about to pass. 

And why do I go there rather than somewhere else, because of the experience, which is the measurements and making sure. So things about being in tune with who your client is, and you start introducing something that’s completely away from that. And he’s going to isolate your dream client from you, which is going to make it really difficult. 

So I thought it was a bit strange. So I think it’s interesting to hear, you know, where you want to take it and how you want to take it in a different direction. At this point, which is, you know, an amazing story, an amazing journey, and no doubt it’s going to be very exciting. When are the new stores and things looking into launch? When do you feel that you’ll be? You’ll be out in the marketplace? Obviously, we were trading online right now. So people are going to buy their shirts online, but when do you think we’re going to get some physical stores back?

James Kearns:

So I think stores will probably be towards the back end of H2 next year for sure. So hopefully Q3, certainly Q4. And in terms of, you know, stores that we looked at, with no, before we put capex and we look to experiment as much as we can, so physical touch points and pop ups will be in advance. Because I mean, it’d be really important to learn vehicles for us that kind of, you know, the new look, concept stalls, sort of walk towards the back end next year.

Adam Stott:

Perfect. Perfect. So these days, James likes to ask you just a few good, like a few of the questions if that’s okay, for you just, yeah, you’re happy with that? Good. So first of all, are you a big fan of books? And if you are, are there any books, business or non business related that helps you on your journey in terms of becoming the leader, this leader? Is there any, any book?

James Kearns:

Yeah, yeah, I am. Like I love reading I should probably make more time to do it than I do. But I am a bit of a suck up some of those self help motivational books, and cheesy, you know, Simon Sinek started Why is always a favorite. 

When it makes the boat go faster, it is a good one around, you know, small, you know, small winches. And, you know, I’m still a bit of a history buff. So I still read a good bit of history, which is

Adam Stott:

Yeah, I was, I was interested in that. So is there any, any historic people that particularly inspire you or any leaders that have inspired you from history that you would mention,

James Kearns:

John, my favorite historian, is called A.J.P Taylor. So he wrote an amazing book called The Origins of The Second World War . It was quite a controversial revisionist piece at the time, that he was just an excellent writer. So like, no, he did not. I’m a big believer in keeping things simple, personally and professionally. 

And he takes you know, sometimes being simple and concise is harder than not, and he takes complex issues, writes with incredible flow and say, and you know, really kind of thinks outside the box. So like he was an all in I always really enjoyed it, so if you haven’t read that one, I highly recommend it.

Adam Stott:

That’s a good one, right? Good stuff. Okay. Let’s go first for a couple more three tips that you give somebody starting out their career, or starting their business three just sort of bits. What would your three biggest tips be for? For somebody said near the beginning?

James Kearns:

Yeah. So Be a sponge, ask questions, and be curious. And I actually remember the bond system as you are probably asked too many questions on this, you’ve got rather quite annoyed, but I’m okay with that. And so, you know, ask lots of questions just absorb from your surroundings. I do sometimes, where I am concerned about, you know, the New World and working from home in entirety where, you know, frankly, new colleagues don’t have the opportunity to learn from colleagues with more experience. 

So I think being a sponge and being really curious is bloody important. And will be point one, I think point two is, and this kind of, always led by his mentor, in and out work, no Hard work beats talent every time. So just work hard. And you know, academically, I was always okay, it was never the best of the class, but I always worked harder than most. 

So you know, your hard work will serve you well with time. And, and then I think point for is just don’t, don’t be too harsh on yourself, and you know, enjoy the journey, and really kind of get on to the pain of what’s important to you, I think so it’s so easy, especially in your early years in your career, to be so led by the destination and a job title or salary. I think all of that will come, you know, again, it’s so obviously principles around the why. But so often, if you’re led by those things, you’re disappointed when you get there. And so being really clear on you know why you do what you do. 

And you know, whenever I have personal development conversations with my team, I really try to break it down in terms of, you know, what you’re good at, what you enjoy, what you’re not good at? What do you not enjoy, and and work that 45 degree line through and try to follow that line in your career as much as you possibly can. And so yeah, not being too strict on yourself as part of processes, I think quite important.

Adam Stott:

Brilliant stuff, some brilliant answers there. You know, it’s been fantastic James having you on some great value there for people to certainly learn from go and check out T.M. Lewin. Go and get off some shirts come my personal recommendation. And we’ll all look forward to getting back to the stores very soon. It’s great to hear the journey you’re taking the business on, you know, thanks for coming on. James has been amazing.

James Kearns:

Thank you, Adam. Lovely to meet you. Much appreciated.

Adam Stott:

Pleasure, pleasure. Pleasure. So if you’ve been listening to this episode, you love this episode with James, please give us some feedback. Tell us some of the things that have really influenced us that have helped you be really good, you can hit me up on Instagram at Adams stock coach, alternatively put some comments on iTunes or go and leave us a review as well. A five star review because we want to get more people listening to the business grossing podcast so they can learn and grow. So I will see you in the next episode. Thank you very much.

Everybody, Adam here, and I hope you love today’s episode. Hope you thought it was fabulous. And if you did, I’d like to ask you a small favor. Could you jump over and go and give the podcast a review. Of course, I’ll be super grateful if that is a five star review with putting our all into this podcast for you, delivering you the content, giving you the secrets.

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