We talked to Susanne Malim, founder and MD of JSD, to find out how she became a successful entrepreneur in corporate wear and how the uniform supplier industry has changed since she set up JSD nearly 35 years ago.
You started out as a fashion model. Before you were scouted, what had you wanted to do as a career?
I was so young, I hadn’t really thought about it. I was 16. I was visiting a cousin in Mallorca. Someone took a photo and it appeared in the Daily Express with a story about my notorious aunt. Terrence Donovan saw it, called the Express and asked to cast me as a gypsy in a Silvikrin shampoo ad and that was the start.
What skills did you learn as a fashion model that helped you with running a business?
Styling and dressing. I did a lot of shows so I learnt what worked and what didn’t. You wear a lot of different clothes and learn how to put them together in a classic or an unusual way. Really through that, I became passionate about clothes, fashion and styling, just the overall image. And, of course, working with people. I worked in showrooms with Italian and French fashion houses helping to sell their collections and dealing with buyers, learning from them and finding out what worked.
What made you decide to start your own company?
I was 28 and coming towards the end of my modeling career. It wasn’t really a very conscious decision. I knew I wanted to be my own boss and one day, I met a man at a dinner party whose sales director (Tanya Sarne, founder of Ghost) had just left him. He needed someone who spoke French – which I do – to go to Paris and choose collections. I said, “Yes that’s me!” I started working as an agent for them while I was still modeling and that’s how I built up and I discovered that I could sell and that I loved selling clothes! Pretty soon, I’d sold double what they’d ever sold before. I just loved it!
Why corporate uniforms?
During my stint as a fashion agent, a friend introduced me to the marketing director of Cutty Sark whisky, who needed some help to get promotional clothing to sell at quayside. So I bought and branded a collection of sports clothing and outdoor wear for them to sell. And then they asked me to dress the young people who went on the Cutty Sark Tall ships. And it started from there.
What were your goals when you first set up JSD?
I think when I first set up JSD, like most people, I had never considered corporate wear as being anything other than uniforms for schools, police and so on. But having been asked to do the Cutty Sark job and then dress the staff at Trident casinos – again through a friend – suddenly you start looking at what people wear to work and it was ghastly. Most uniforms could stand up on their own; horrible nylon suiting, no style at all, and it just occurred to me that there was a huge possibility for change.
And how is it today?
There’s been a massive change. The fabrics we’re able to use today are incomparable. They perform and last; they’re comfortable; they drape and stretch and when I started, they had none of those things. People expect far more. You can’t tell people what to wear. If they’re not comfortable or don’t feel good in it, they’ll either go to another company or complain like hell – and so they should – whereas when I first started, they didn’t. They were told what to wear and they wore it. So you’ve got to try harder now and rightly so. That’s what I still love about this business – seeing the smiles on the faces of the staff that you’ve just dressed because they’re comfortable and feel good. Much more exciting than fashion for that reason, I believe.
Are you more designer, manager or salesperson?
That’s a really good question and quite hard to answer. Probably all three. I’m not a detailed person in terms of paperwork so my expert team takes care of the day-to-day administration. What I love is working with people, whether it’s my team or clients – absolutely love it – getting the best out of my team and building the trust of my clients. I care very deeply about getting it right; I care deeply about our reputation; there is no compromise there at all! That is unusual in this business. I’m probably one of the few people left who still own their business so in that sense, clients do genuinely get superb service, because I’m not gone tomorrow, I’m here. This is what I do.
JSD’s turnover has increased by 22% year-on-year in the past four years. What have you done in the last 4 years that’s made the difference?
It’s been a phenomenally good four years. I was just gradually increasing the turnover and making a nice profit, and then Ann Dowdeswell joined as sales director. We hit it off immediately and she said to me, “Come on, let’s not sit back. You’ve got a tremendous business. Let’s show them what we can do!” – and we have.
We’ve won more business and won more significant business. We won the Eurostar contract – not just London but also Brussels and Paris. I was absolutely passionate about that because I knew we could do the best job for them. Winning that was like winning the jewel in the crown of the train companies and then we won Virgin and Chiltern. And we won Gucci Beauty worldwide, and made their first ever uniform. We’re starting to look at and be considered for global contracts. We’ve successfully retained IHG Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn for the past 7 years – and recently won a third brand Holiday Inn Express, which is in 17 countries. Big volumes, well-known names and that gives us the opportunity to pitch for bigger and bigger business.
And why are they choosing you?
Because of our experience, our passion and our credentials. And they don’t just take our word for it, they speak to our clients.
JSD has been operating for nearly 35 years. During that time, what would you say have been the most significant decisions you have taken for the growth of the business?
Moving offices to a larger one, which at the time I felt was far too big for our needs but I decided to do it anyway. And we just grew to fill up the space. Taking on Ann; she and I are very aligned in our thinking and she’s just perfect for the business.
Also our partnership with Sri Lanka, which we set up soon after the tsunami. It’s not a formal partnership; it’s been more like a marriage. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful relationship. They’ve delivered a service and a flexibility of service that you need in this industry, but is very hard to find unless you have a special relationship. Because manufacturing is typically quite rigid in this business because they need the numbers, they need the minimums, they need the lead times but corporate wear isn’t like that. You have to be more flexible if you want to provide the service.
Do you think luck has played a part in your success or has it been more about having a good network?
Yes, you need luck but you also need perseverance, self-belief – and some good contacts. And sometimes you have to dig really deep not to let setbacks take you down. But luck doesn’t need to be seen as a negative; we all know we need it sometimes. We make our own luck – you just have to get in the way of it.
Dress codes have become much more laissez-faire, also within the service and hospitality industries. What trends are you seeing?
This happens periodically. There is a move towards a more relaxed individuality within uniforms. It sounds like a contradiction but it needn’t be. The problem with a more relaxed dress down approach is that the wearers themselves don’t always feel comfortable. It’s not actually that many people who can successfully wear dress down clothing because it makes them feel less than professional. So every time a company says, “Let’s make our staff look more approachable” – and I’ve been here before so often – I tell them, “We’ll try but I must warn you that you’ll probably find a lot of resistance. Within that, we’ll have to be very clever about making the shapes and the cut to work in a structured way even though you want a slightly unstructured look.”
And finally, do you have a work uniform?
Yes, I think I do. Funnily enough, having worked in fashion for so long I’ve become less interested in what I wear. I wear trousers all the time. I have some great jackets and some wonderful blouses, and I nearly always wear flat shoes. That’s how I feel most comfortable.
Don’t miss the next in our series of interviews with Susanne, when we will be asking her thoughts on the wardrobe and style for modern business leaders.