Having his entire stock impounded by customs was hardly the start young entrepreneur Mike Dobell was looking for as he launched his new business selling formal wear to students.
The additional headache of a £100 a day charge while the Vietnam-sourced tuxedos sat in storage at Felixstowe Docks didn’t help either, but it did at least highlight the need to research some of the more technical issues around running a business.
However difficult the lessons may have been in the early days, Mike clearly learned them quickly. Just ten years later he is at the helm of a company with an impressive multi million pound turnover, employs 45 staff and, with his business partner Tim Grimaldi, is about to expand his clothing empire to a twelfth country.
“It was a bit of a wake up call to find out about export licences and bills of lading once the shipment had already arrived, but it was all part of the learning curve,” said Mike, whose recently rebranded company is now called simply Dobell.
While the customs glitch helped focus his mind on technical issues, it was moving his business online that turned a simple idea into a major success story.
Once he had managed to persuade HM Customs to release the Vietnamese shipment, Mike began selling the suits by visiting university campuses and taking a stall at suitable events.
It was slow going – until he embraced the then-comparatively new idea of ecommerce, set up on online store and watched his business take off. “Within days I was making four times as many sales at five per cent of the cost,” he recalled. “I took £14,000 on line in two months.”
It was an impressive start for someone who had dropped out of his business studies course at university and based his fledgling clothing empire in a basement room in his father Ken’s Eastbourne hotel.
A decade on, Dobell sells tuxedos, formal wear, shoes and suits across the world, with dedicated websites targeting Germany, France, Australia, the US, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland, as well as the UK. A twelfth will launch shortly in Poland.
A slick logistics operation means next day delivery is an option for most customers, wherever they are in the world, while the multi-lingual operations team answer calls in the appropriate language. “We aim to look local, wherever we are in the world,” explained Tim, a long-time friend of Mike who originally came on board as the face of the company.
After helping sell the clothes by wearing them in photographs, Tim joined the company formally in 2009, lending his support in the critical areas of design, marketing and branding and now as a director.
“I was running my own marketing consultancy and putting all my effort into developing sales for other people,” he recalled. “I realised that what I really wanted was to use my skills to build my own company rather than advising other people on theirs, and that’s when the idea of joining Dobell came up. It was a great opportunity and a turning point for me.”
Expansion has been so rapid that the business – originally called Student Tailor before being rebranded as My Tuxedo and then Dobell – has moved several times, although it has managed to stay on the same business park in Eastbourne. In its most recent move it took on a 30,000 sq. ft warehouse, turning to Barclays for funding support when its own bank’s response was lukewarm at best.
Mike’s approach to banking was appropriately unconventional. “I simply Googled ‘businesses with a £10 to £25m turnover’, because that’s where we want to be – and Barclays’ name came up,” Mike explained.
“I rang the chap listed and he put me in touch with one of his relationship directors, Kevin Rose. Kevin and his team were responsive, helpful and seemed to understand our business and where it’s headed, and we are delighted with the support they have given us since.”
Although Dobell sells formal wear of the kind normally seen at Royal Ascot or at stylish weddings, it keeps prices low and remains the go-to site for students wanting to look good at the end-of-year ball without blowing an entire term’s student loan. Will Milam is the company’s product and buying manager and invests huge amounts of time in finding the right fabrics and the best manufacturers to make sure that the clothing looks great, is the right quality and arrives on time.
“Sure, we have to worry about price, but that is far less important than building up a relationship based on trust,” said Mike. “The business is founded on a network of reliable suppliers and Will works hard to develop those links.”
About 80% of the Dobell range – as worn by the likes of Ant and Dec, the TV Dragons, James Bond and stars from Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing – is designed in house by Grant Durrell.
“My goal in the early days was to offer the same value as the best-known High Street formal wear seller but make it 20% cheaper,” said Mike. “I believe we now stock a wider range of clothing than that retailer – and the leading online review site rates us ‘excellent’ on the back of 13,000 reviews.
“We have come a long way since Felixstowe.”
Pictured: Mike Dobell (left) and Tim Grimaldi
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