How Joe Browns became one of Leeds’ most remarkable businesses

Make a few quid and have some fun. As a business plan it must be one of the simplest there’s ever been, and yet it has launched a clothing company that has reported growth in almost all its 23 years in business and is now targeting £100m in sales by 2026.

Saturday, 13th November 2021, 11:45 am
Simon Brown, founder and CEO of Leeds-based fashion retailer Joe Browns. PHOTO: Joe Browns.

“It was so simple,” says Simon Brown, founder and CEO of Leeds-based Joe Browns, “and it still burns a hole in my heart, because that’s exactly what it’s all about for us here.”

In truth, if it were that easy to set up a highly successful business, we’d all be doing it, but Brown did have something of a head-start in the rag trade. After a wild 18 months of working his way around the world after leaving school, he came back to his hometown of Leeds and started work at his father’s clothing firm, HE & FJ Brown, as a company rep, selling to the likes of C&A, Next, Debenhams, BHS, Top Man, River Island and Burton Group.

He stuck it out for 17 years before something gave, and it was a trip to North Wales that gave him his inspiration.

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“There was this group of 20-somethings there, and they had salty hair, bangles, golf shorts: boys and girls just having such a great time,” Brown told The Yorkshire Post.

“And I thought, ‘If I could bottle up what they’re exuding – that carefree, happy spirit – I think that’d be the formula for a business. I’ll just sell happiness’. So that’s what I did: I set up a mail order business.”

It wasn’t all smooth running. Joe Browns (so named because Brown doesn’t like his own first name) started out selling experiences for adrenalin junkies – bungee-jumping and parachuting – along with the outdoorsy menswear to help customers look the part.

“But after two years, I found out that what gives me joy and happiness didn’t give the majority of the population joy and happiness, so we had to have a bit of a rethink,” says Brown.

The business was losing money, so he had to scout around for some investment.

“I had to kiss a lot of frogs, but I eventually found a lovely guy in Manchester who put £100,000 into the business for 12.5 per cent, and that was it. We started making money and it just grew from there.”

The firm dropped the experiences, launched a womenswear range, and saw an immediate uplift in revenues. It was a vindication of sorts for Brown, who had assured his wife when he quit his job that “This is definitely going to work out”.

Now, that same sense of self-belief is driving expansion at the company, with a view to hitting the £100m target. The Holbeck-based company added homeware and a loungewear ranges in 2020, and has developed three distinct looks for its womenswear: boho, vintage and kitsch.

Although most of its sales are online, it also has physical stores in York and Sheffield, and has successful partnerships with La Redoute in France and Otto Versand in Germany.

It has just built a £1.5m warehouse extension with a mezzanine floor, creating 40 new jobs. A sustainability review is underway and Brown is looking for more third-party retailers both home and overseas.

He’s also brought in Jane Reik, formerly of N Brown Group, as his new buying director, who, he says, “is amplifying what we do”.

“Our business is going well,” says Brown. “This season, which is only nine weeks old, we’re 68 per cent up on last year – and last year was a good year.

“We have about 170 people here. I say ‘about 170’ because it’s increasing so quickly. Our direct business is the biggest part of the business, and we’re better at it now – we’re doing different videos, appealing to a different market, and we’re getting quite well known online. I love these people, these social influencers – they’re such a bubbly lot.”

There are still challenges, of course, such as Covid and Brexit, which he describes a “bloody nuisance”. But again, his belief appears unshakeable.

“Adapting to situations has never been more critical than at the moment. We’ve had a few dips along the way with recessions, but although we’re a large-ish business, we’re nimble.

“We have no debt in the business, so we have nobody to answer to. We don’t have any trouble from shareholders, so we sit around the table, we have a discussion, we decide what we think is right, and we go off and do it. Sometimes we get it wrong, and hopefully most of the time we get it right.”

In an effort to keep those wrong turns to a minimum, Brown has put his own spin on that perennial corporate aim: excellence. That’s not the word he uses; instead all the company’s functions must be “remarkable”.

“My wife had been in the supermarket and had people remark on her dress, which was obviously a Joe Brown’s dress,” he says. “At the next day’s board meeting, it turned out that two of our directors had had the same thing happen.

“I thought there was something in this, so we decided that everything we wanted to do had to be – not wanted to, but had to be – remarkable.”

“So ‘remarkable’ sits at the top of everything and as long as we keep producing remarkable garments, with remarkable service, and have remarkable people here, then that £100m isn’t too far off.”

So he’s made a few quid and he’s had some fun – but has Simon Brown got where he wanted to go when he saw that salty-haired crew in Wales all those years ago?

“I could never imagine it being like this,” he says. “Some pictures from a modelling shoot landed on my desk the other day, and I just looked at them and thought, ‘How did we ever end up here?’.”

CV: Simon Brown

Simon Brown was born in Leeds and attended Sedbergh School in Cumbria.

After leaving school he saved £800 and aged 19 bought a one-way ticket to New York.

He spent 18 months doing a wide variety of jobs, including building railways in Winnipeg, plastering houses in Vancouver, working on boats in Hawaii, painting slum houses and working on aircraft carriers in San Diego, and working in a wool store and a fibreglass moulding company in New Zealand.

Then, aged 21, he returned home and started work at his father’s business, clothing manufacturer HE & FJ Brown, where he worked for 17 years.

He started Joe Browns in 1998, selling menswear, and introduced womenswear in 2002 and homeware in 2019.