23rd Mar 2012
Ben Shellie, CEO of Chase ITS, reviews the second episode of Channel 4's Mary's Bottom Line starring retail guru Mary Portas.
By the end of last week, Mary seemed to have single-handedly rescued the British clothing manufacturing industry, armed only with some strong hair dye and a TV camera.
You almost felt that Episode 2 might gloss over the messy business of getting her knicker brand to market while she instead went to Yorkshire to track down Arthur Scargill, dress him in a Damien Hirst inspired spotty hard hat, and rebuild the coal industry.
But of course, you could see the trouble brewing in the first episode: Mary overrode her trusted advisors by recruiting an obvious wrong ‘un, who of course had to be sacked half-way through last night. She made the classic mistake of opening a factory and recruiting a load of staff, without, it seemed, any credible business plan in place. Episode 2 sees the corporate suit telling her that her ten quid price point can’t be reached because it’s expensive making clothes in the UK. Doh! Isn’t that the point Mary is trying very hard to disprove?
And finally, she has put her faith in the last manufacturer of stretch lace in the UK to deliver impossible amounts of high-quality lace British lace in an impossible time-frame, and guess what? None of it can be used because it’s not stretchy enough, and nothing like the sample. All that is left if for Red Robbo to march in, camera left, and take the comrades out on strike.
Now, I’m not spoiling anything by saying that at the end of sixty minutes everyone is high-fives and smiles again, and that knicker production is in full flow (3 down, 14,997 to go), because this is TV, and Mary has to come out on top. But it does show some very interesting tensions that exist in almost every business.
Mary is classic entrepreneur. She is starting with a big idea, and through sheer force of will and personality, she will bend the world to see her view, even it is completely heretical. The fact that she has no apparent knowledge of the area she has chosen (apart from the fact that one assumes she owns a number of pairs of pants) is no obstacle. It is her vision to restart clothing manufacture in the UK, and she is bloody well going to do it.
This is how a lot of businesses start, seemingly almost by accident. There are no spreadsheets, no cashflow forecasts, usually no money, but a lot of inspiration and sweat. You can see why banks have such a hard time lending in these circumstances: The entrepreneur can’t see why the banker doesn’t “get” it – the banker is looking for some helpful doctors to come cart the mad person out of their office.
Of course, there is a price to be paid for this approach. If you don’t plan properly, all sorts of things start to go wrong. Good entrepreneurs are often good salespeople. They have to be, because they are convinced that they are right, and that any obstacle can be overcome. And so we see with Mary, as she glides effortless around Britain’s top retailers, collecting tens of thousands of pre-orders. It probably helps that the CEO of any retailer who had been seen last night on prime time TV snubbing Mary’s British knickers would probably spend this morning having to switch off the phone, and going for a quiet sob in the corner, P45 in hand. But that is not the point. She has genuinely built a business through sheer chutzpah.
Back at the factory, however, they have no lace, no lace trimmings, no gusset strips, no packaging and no labels. But they do have thread, so that is a start. Why the problems? Because Mary has been too busy selling, and not dealing with the mundane day-to-day detail required to actually deliver on the promises she has made (which include launching a completely new brand at Liberty in London in three weeks). She has rather assumed that the people she has left in the factory will take care of all of this, and sadly, they are sitting there waiting for her to make decisions she doesn’t realise she has to make. Poor communication and poor planning are in serious danger of undermining everything Mary has put in place.
She needs a good wing person, and maybe it’s the way the programme has been edited, but so far we have seen little of that (although in real life, we strongly suspect Peter Cross her business partner does all of that for Mary, which is why her agency Yellowdoor is so successful – He’s the suit every good entrepreneur needs).
Fortunately, it all looks like it’s going to turn out alright (although it will be disappointing as a viewer if Mary is not seen running down Regent Street with a shopping cart full of knickers to be delivered to Liberty five minutes before the launch). Maybe she will have time to have a crack at British Coal after all?