Suzy Bibko is Editor in Chief of Families in Business magazine.
The Douglas Miller brothers have embarked on an unprecedented expansion programme for their family's 165 year old store. Despite these changes one thing will remain the same – family succession
Jenners department store has been a fixture on Princes Street in Edinburgh, Scotland since 1838. Recently, however, it decided to makes some big changes. In the past five years Jenners has opened three new branches, two of which take it into new territory: the west coast of Scotland. Jenners has also implemented new internal structures, to keep things running smoothly. The company has also spent millions of pounds refurbishing its original Princes Street branch – not an easy task with 150 year old Victorian architecture to contend with. But fifth generation owners and brothers Andrew and Robbie Douglas Miller know one thing that won't change – its status as a family business. Which only proves, once again, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
An immediate success
Jenners, the oldest independent department store in the world, traces its roots back to 1838 and a day of playing 'hooky'. Two friends, Charles Jenner and Charles Kennington, decided to skip work one day without permission to attend the horse races – which resulted in their immediate sacking from their posts. Rather than remain unemployed, the two decide to set up their own drapery shop. 'Kennington & Jenner' opens its doors on Princes Street with the aim of providing the people of Edinburgh with the finest silks and linens – available only in London at that time.
Kennington & Jenner goes from strength to strength over the next 20 years, taking on a young apprentice named James Kennedy in 1857 and expanding the store. In 1861, Charles Kennington retires, leaving the booming business in Charles Jenner's hands. In 1873, James Kennedy, now 29 years old, is made a junior partner, and a year later the store is renamed 'Charles Jenner & Co', as Charles Jenner is now the only full partner in the business. However, in 1881, Charles Jenner decides to retire and is succeeded by James Kennedy, as Jenner has no surviving children. This proves to be an important move in Jenner's family history, for it is the Kennedy line that has kept the family business in the family.
By 1890, Charles Jenner & Co is the largest retail shop in Scotland. Unfortunately, the store is totally destroyed by a fire in 1892. But James Kennedy reacts quickly to the crisis, adapting the factory into a temporary store. Amazingly, within five weeks of the blaze the employees are all back at work. Work on a new store begins a year later and it opens ahead of schedule on 8 March 1895 – a modern marvel complete with lifts, electric lights and air conditioning.
By 1908, James Kennedy's sons, Alec and John, have taken over Jenners. The store eventually passes to Alec's son James in 1951, and then to Robert Douglas Miller, Alec's grandson, in 1965.
Princes Street princes
Today, Jenners is run by Robert Douglas Miller's two sons, Andrew and Robbie. Andrew (Deputy Chairman) joined Jenners in 1990, and Robbie (Managing Director) followed in 1991, having both completed training 'off site' (Andrew trained at Selfridges, Harrods, Macy's and Bullocks, while Robbie trained at Fenwick). Was it inevitable that they would both join the company? Perhaps. After all, their father worked there and it was part of their upbringing. "[To us], Jenners was a shop, with a big toy department, which is where children want to head," recalls Andrew. "In fact, there are still one or two members of staff who can recall us when we were "that high". However, at that stage, it was just an exciting place to visit. I think it probably dawned on both of us as we were finishing school that there was an opportunity to keep the family business going."
But their father was careful not to push too hard for the boys to join the company. "Obviously, my father was keen that some of us went into the family business and it would have been silly to just dismiss it out of hand and go on and do something else," continues Andrew. "So, I suppose I was sort of steered in the direction of this to get a taste of it to see if I liked it. And if I did, then you carry on. And that's basically what's happened."
The brothers have complementing interests, which works well for them. "We have quite different interests within the business," explains Robbie. "My interest has always been in the business side of it, how it functions, how it works, what makes it tick, what makes it grow, and what makes it shrink. And the people side of it – the right people in the right places doing the right things. So that's always been my interest, the sort of operational side of it."
And Andrew's interest? "More about the merchandise," says Andrew. "I was really more of a sales manager to start with. And then I moved into the buying side – buying merchandise in various departments."
Indeed, the brothers realise that their interests have been good for both them and the business. "If we both wanted to be on the buying side or both on the operational side, that would have been a real clash," says Robbie. "But I think because we're both interested in different aspects of the business, that really works very well. It's actually very comforting to work in a family business and have a little bit of support from the family because sometimes it can feel a bit like you're on a limb."
But the brothers are careful to point out that while they make many decisions together, there aren't the only ones involved. "We have a lot of people in senior management who have a very important role in the business," explains Andrew. "It's not just Robbie and me saying, 'Do this, do that'. I think probably 25 years ago more of that happened. My father called it a 'benign autocracy'. But that's the way many businesses were. Management techniques have been turned on their head [since then] completely. I don't suppose we're the first people to turn it on its head. Certainly, many decisions are taken without us being consulted on an everyday basis. We don't need to be. They're competent, professional managers."
Indeed, a new management style hasn't been the only change at Jenners since Andrew and Robbie took over. In the past few years, the store has started an expansion programme that has taken it from Edinburgh to the west coast of Scotland. Jenners now boasts small shops at Edinburgh and Glasgow airports, and a full-scale store on the edges of Loch Lomond.
What prompted the decision to expand beyond Princes Street? Broadly speaking, it was an opportunity for Jenners to develop its brand and image and see how that fit elsewhere. "We've been in Edinburgh for 165 years and nowhere else," explains Robbie. "Jenners is, I think, largely seen as an east coast store. However, it does have a following elsewhere. There are a lot of expats, a lot of Americans, a lot of people who have lived in Scotland or Edinburgh and have moved away. The airport stores are small shops, but nevertheless they're very good at promoting our brand and our image."
Andrew concurs. "The airport shops were really an opportunity to test the water and see whether the Jenners brand could stand on its own two feet off Princes Street. We actually did a test run at the Royal Yacht Britannia (just outside Edinburgh). That worked very well for us and gave us confidence so we said, 'Let's do it at Edinburgh airport'. When Loch Lomond came up, it was a bigger opportunity, but with the backdrop of Glasgow."
Loch Lomond is indeed a bigger enterprise all together – and a bit of a departure for Jenners, from both the leafy confines of Edinburgh and its Victorian architecture. The Loch Lomond store sits in 32,000 square feet of a new retail complex, which is a combination of traditional materials and modern design. For those familiar with the Princes Street branch, this new store may have them wondering if it is indeed the same Jenners. But the brothers are confident in this change. "The store sits in a stunning location," confirms Robbie. "You get a wonderful view of Loch Lomond, which is a very popular tourist destination. It has about 30 facilities there, including our Jenners store. So, we're pretty comfortable with the reasons why we went there and the development that we hope that site will take over the next 5–10 years. It's only been open 12 months – so the verdict's out. But we feel pretty confident with what we have."
But store expansion isn't the only change under foot. "We've made a lot of changes internally as well, to our structures and procedures," continues Robbie. "We've reorganised the way our buying and sales teams work. We're in the process of implementing a stock control system, and it's going to take us another year to get that finalised."
On top of that, there's a lot going on operationally with the new branches. "We need to go back, check and tweak to make sure we've got it right," says Robbie. "All the branches are a little bit different and have different markets. We need to maximise the space that we've got there. Quite a number of things are going to keep us occupied for the next year or two, like making sure we're making the best use of our systems and the investments we've made. And making sure we keep our eye very well focused on Princes Street because it's by far and away the largest of all the branches. And by definition the most profitable."
Keeping focused on Princes Street has meant keeping that store up to snuff physically. Old buildings need lots of care, especially one with such historical significance as Jenners. Over the past ten years, £18 million has been sunk into refurbishing the fabric of the building, both internally and externally. "We did a complete facelift on the outside in 1994-95," explains Robbie. "Things like making sure the roof doesn't leak. There's also been a big programme to keep the fine Victorian architecture in its prime condition, which is important for us because Jenners is more than just a shop, it's actually a tourist destination. We get a lot of people who just come in and stand in the Grand Hall and think, 'Wow, what an incredible place!' And it is an incredible place. Or they'll photograph the place from across the street and think it's an amazing building, which it is. So we put a lot of time and effort into keeping it looking like that. And improving circulation around the building. It's a very difficult building to get around. Signage is very difficult to manage well. And we have to keep the lifts and escalators running. It's a big exercise keeping that whole show on the road."
The company has also managed to change the perception of the store and to whom it caters. "We had a reputation, say 50 years ago, of catering to the 'carriage trade', which was the top end of society," explains Andrew. "We made a conscious decision to break away from that, break down that mould. It is important that, as a department store, you're catering to a fairly wide cross section of society – but to make sure that the quality that you have, whether it's a gift card or a piece of ribbon or an evening dress for £1000, still represents value for money. We have to make sure we're not just catering to certain sections of society. It's taken awhile to change that perception."
Never sitting still
Retail is a difficult business to be in, much less to do well at. "You can't sit still," says Robbie. "Sometimes you make judgment calls that don't work, other times you make judgment calls that are fantastic and you have no real idea which ones are going to go where until you actually review it in hindsight, which of course gives you 20/20 vision. There are always a lot of exciting projects on the go. And we try hard to maintain our market."
Andrew concurs. "What we have been doing and what we continue to do is to really consolidate on our strengths. If you talk about toys or china or skin care or fragance, there's really only one place to go to, and that's Jenners, because it's so strong and has such a good reputation in those areas."
But retail is a fast changing business – and one whose trends are difficult to predict. How do the brothers cope with such an unforgiving environment? "The ones that have the most change are the mens and womens fashions because there's always a rising star or a waning star," says Robbie. "We spend a lot of money keeping those areas looking fresh, looking up to date, trendy, sophisticated. Whatever is going on in the market, you've got to keep moving with it. And I think a lot of our staff wonder, 'Gosh, are we changing that again? We only just changed it two years ago'. But it's not one of those areas where we can say, 'Well, we've done it, we can leave it for 10 years'. We want to give a lot of the brands double the space or we don't want them at all or we want to get a new one in. So they're always changing. You can't sit still. We spend a lot of money each year refurbishing and upgrading departments. There's a lot of work that goes on every year to keep it looking modern, neat and tidy and to provide the right space for the right products so that we stay ahead of, or in tune with, the competition."
Indeed, competition has recently increased in the centre of Edinburgh. Headlines were made last year when retail stalwart of the young and trendy, Harvey Nichols, opened an Edinburgh branch. Were the brothers tempted to change tactics with competition literally around the corner? In a word, no. "We operate in a slightly different market than them," explains Robbie. "Harvey Nichols is a fashion store with a very nice restaurant on the top floor. It also aims its merchandise at a slightly different customer than us – mainly younger. But we have a broader appeal. We're not just after the 25–35 year olds who want the latest fashion. We hope that we have some appeal for that customer as well, but it isn't our only objective. And it will bring, I hope, more people to Edinburgh because they'll find Harvey Nichols to be another attraction. It will be a very good thing for Edinburgh and Jenners in the long-term."
Despite all these recent changes, this family business has a long-term outlook and sees one area where it doesn't intend to change. "Jenners has always been a family business from the day it started," says Robbie. "We don't see any reason to change that."