A Touch of Class

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-By John Boley

Nothing wrong with a little tradition, a bit of background, a hint of heritage. So it is at Henry Bucks, the classic men’s specialist multi-brand retailer, which has been in business for 121 years. “If I have heard people saying ‘your customers are dying out’ once in the 45 years I have been here with the business, I must have heard it about 10,000 times,” says Managing Director Tim Cecil with some feeling as he points out that “in spite of the fact that our customers are supposed to be dying, they are not! There is always another generation that comes along and we are very sensitive to the new generation and their demands.”

Tim is the great-grandson of the eponymous founder, who was born in 1860 in Clerkenwell, London. Henry moved to Yorkshire and was brought up in Danby. He learnt the soft goods trade at the age of 13 and suffering from tuberculosis, migrated to New South Wales in 1887 and worked at Manfred, a sheep raising property near Euston. His fiancée Laura Jane Rose joined him but was repelled by life on a sheep station, and being a strong Yorkshire personality, persuaded Henry to move to Melbourne. On June 25 1887 at Armadale the couple married.

After a number of adventures, Henry learned the trade of shirt cutting and opened a shop in 1890 in the fashionable Queen’s Walk off Swanston Street. By the turn of the century he had built a big factory on the outskirts of Melbourne to manufacture shirts, pyjamas and ties, and had leased a warehouse in the city: Wallace, Buck and Goodes. King George V awarded him an OBE in 1920 for service to the community and business. As well as managing a business involved in retail, manufacturing and wholesaling, Henry had become famous for administering to thousands of returned troops, ferrying them around and providing food and shelter throughout the 1914-1918 war.

Since then, Henry Bucks has expanded with three stores in Melbourne, two in Sydney and another in Adelaide as well as a thriving online and catalogue business. Henry Bucks is not about here-today catwalk fashion. “We are not trying to be a fashion house but a company that people feel good about and proud of and like shopping in,” says Tim. Our future is secured by the fact that we have a family succession in place with my nephew Tim; he is now doing all of the buying which was my job in the past.”

“We don’t buy what I would term ‘transient fashion’, but what I consider to be more enduring and lasting in men’s clothing. Fashion is such a vague word these days – it can be applied to fashions that can be in for about three hours or it can be something from a major company which evolves and becomes permanent. I suppose we are more mainstream than ‘here today, gone tomorrow’.” The company has tried out a number of popular brands but found they are not a good fit, so to speak. They don’t sit well with Henry Bucks’ customers and at the same time “we don’t have the people who really talk and live fashion.”

The company has branched out well beyond Henry’s original shirts but still offers quality ranges, although no more manufacturing is done in Australia apart from the bespoke shirt-making service. “In the end the cost and competition forced us to sell the factories, which I believe was a sensible thing to do, and invest all the money back into retail.” But the tradition for quality, once established, was there to be upheld. “We continue to try and make shirts to the expectations of the customer: to the standard that a Henry Bucks shirt should be. We also buy branded shirts from England, Italy and Germany to supplement our shirt trade which continues to be important for us but it is not what it used to be when we made them all down in the factory and bought all our own fabrics.”

The company developed private label sourcing, again mostly from Italy, England and Germany. “Most of the knitwear is made in Italy under our brand. We do find that we can buy because of the reasonable orders that we can give the Italian manufacturers and in return get a good product at a good price. We find we obtain better quality than buying in the east and also it means we can place smaller orders and be more specialised by working directly with a reasonably large manufacturer in Italy or England than with a factory in China.” That chimes with the research. “Our customers expect our private label to be of good quality, medium to higher price, and made in Europe or Australia.”

Not high fashion, then, but the ‘look’ of Henry Bucks products does not stand still. “We are British originally and so we tend to buy more into a London or New York kind of look as opposed to a Milan, Paris look. But in saying that, these markets have also evolved into a more European look.” British tailoring is not exactly as it was 30 years ago, anyway, except in quality. “It is quite a contemporary look that is coming out of these countries and going onto our shelves and racks. We find that some of the ‘old’ brands like Barbour and Burberry have become very much brands of today rather than of yesterday. A few have failed and disappeared but some of the ones in good hands have prospered and we work with them.” It is a fairly sure bet that the likes of Barbour, Daks (making its return to Henry Bucks this year) or Turnbull & Asser have also, down the long arches of the years, heard the accusation that their own customers are ‘dying out’, but have reinvented (perhaps more accurately ‘reinvigorated’) themselves to prosper in the 21st century.

Henry Bucks is 100 per cent owned by the family, one of the last wholly owned and managed household names in Australia. “I think the knowledge that it is a family owned business is very important to a lot of our customers. I believe it appeals to them because it’s unusual and it gives them a good feeling,” says Tim. He acknowledges the danger of sitting still and the need to grow and plans in place project substantial growth through the next five years. “I would like to leave the business in a good position. We cannot compete in the global rush of retailing, but neither are we so small as to be just a little owner-driver.

“Young Tim is learning the business and he is certainly very conversant and capable on the buying side. On the management side we have a team of people who work with Tim. There is no guarantee that young Tim will be my successor, but he hopefully will be in the senior management team and hopefully will be my successor. I took over with very little experience and I had to learn on the job, but I think they were easier days. Today it’s harder and there is more competition.”

Online shopping is rapidly growing in popularity but that doesn’t worry Tim Cecil, who points out the firm has been using email for some time to contact a list of some 80,000 names throughout Australia. Tim says the company has proved reasonably resilient to the slings and arrows of high-street economic woes “because of our reputation and service and our great list of customers.” (The company has dressed all Australian prime ministers up to the current incumbent, who politely declined the offer.)

But it is not immune. “I think at the moment we are all finding it a bit tough, and we are all trying to find ways of trying to survive and get back to the great times. We have some great customers who continue to spend well with us but I think men who used to buy 2-3 suits a year are perhaps only buying one at the moment.” But Henry Bucks has kept its margins consistent, partly exploring new brands and working with a wider customer base as well as “improving our business to our existing top-end clientele.”

For the most discerning clients, there is The Yorkshire Room, a VIP retreat at Henry Buck’s flagship store at 320 Collins Street, Melbourne. This is like a private shopping room “and it is also where we do our bespoke business. We have all the master garments and all the fabrics in there and we have superb staff to look after those customers. It is a very nice environment, it can be behind closed doors in private and it is also used if one of our people has got a very good customer who wants to look at a whole lot of things and we will get them all together for them. It is really a personal service.” And after 120 years of continuing excellence, one would expect nothing less.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 9:22 AM AEDT