Melanie Stern is Section Editor of Families in Business magazine.
It's a tough job making underwear fit for a monarch, but Rigby and Peller are the experts
Jill and David Kenton, siblings and second generation of luxury corsetiers Rigby & Peller, are embracing a landmark crossroads in their business with infectious excitement and confidence. 2003 saw the pair open their third store, move into bigger offices on London's exclusive Conduit Street, and land a key promotional deal with the makers of a forthcoming Hollywood film; they are transforming from being a medium-sized to large enterprise.
Despite this, the two do not think they will need any help yet; they have run their UK£4 million business successfully from top to bottom together, without any middle management or additional directors, for the last five years.
And of course, the Kentons have since 1960 remained loyal servants of all Her Majesty the Queen's undergarment needs, with Jill and David's mum, June, still meeting and fitting her personally; they also make garments for the English National Opera – a true British institution. But Rigby & Peller do not just serve the upper tiers of British society; these corsets are a little bit of luxury for every fashion-concious, modern girl.
The Kentons bought Rigby & Peller in 1980 from the niece of one of the founders, Hungarian immigrants Mrs Rigby and Mrs Peller, who had retired but whose two sons had pursued other careers and did not want the business.
June and Harold started out in business together in 1962, selling denim, blouses, stockings and a corsetry sideline from stalls in London's Brixton and Croydon markets. A decade later they identified what they thought was a market for specialist corsetry, but decided that to exploit this, they needed to move upmarket. The Kentons bought a unit in Croydon's new Whitgift Centre – the first large undercover shopping mall in the UK – launching Contour, a corsetry, swimwear and nightwear shop. This flourished, and soon they were able to buy a failing store in Knightsbridge, The Corset Boutique, closing both their market stalls.
Meanwhile, working from a hidden three-floor workshop on London's South Molton Street, making just made-to-measure heavy corsetry, Rigby & Peller had built up an enviable clientele and brand. Its first Royal Warrant as corsetiers to the Queen had been secured decades before.
June and Harold had noted Rigby & Peller's profile and having themselves established a reputation in corsetry by then, they were interested to see the company up for sale. "My mother said, 'we must have it' and my dad said 'we can't afford it'" David recalls, "but the rest is history." After a short time as Rigby & Peller at Contour, the Kentons focused on the strength of their new brand and reverted to just Rigby & Peller.
Moving up a gear
June embarked on a tour de force of PR and brand awareness for the family's new high-end corsetry business, notably achieving the successorship of the businesses' royal warrant in 1980 (it was not an automatic transfer). June had to meet the Queen in person and effectively pass a skills test. Performing such an intimate job, the Queen was keen to see that she could form a comfortable repertoire with June. They secured the warrant for the Queen and, later in 1993, won the warrant for the late Queen Mother. In 1991 the business was the subject of a UK TV documentary, Giving the Empire A Lift, which propelled it to previously unseen heights. As Jill explains: "Before that show we would get excited about getting six customers in one day. After the show was aired, we had to employ a doorman, because we immediately started seeing two-hour queues to get into the shop. It turned an already successful business into a business that was really on the map."
Today the Knightsbridge and Conduit Street stores still employ doormen and continue to enjoy two-hour queues every weekend and Christmas.
The 1990s signalled a decade of turning points for Rigby & Peller. In 1992 the Kentons signed a licensing agreement with Eveden Ltd of Northamptonshire, to have their first ever ready-made collections manufactured and sold across the world, under the Rigby & Peller name. The brand became available worldwide, followed in 2000 by the decision to take their one-year old website e-commerce, selling a number of their brands online. This move to go global was cemented this April with the opening of Rigby & Peller's third store in Heathrow Airport's Terminal 3, which both Jill and David say was their biggest achievement and toughest challenge in their tenure to date. Already the store has repeat customers, and as the products stocked are more gift orientated they capitalise on the business flyer looking for a gift with little time to spare. Sales so far have been promising.
The handover from first to second generation went smoothly, with David and Jill enacting a range of changes to the company's brand image and infrastructure without objection from the seniors. To do this, the pair seemed to quite naturally take to their mum and dad's roles of PR guru and financial head, respectively.
Jill took to moving the profile of the company into the minds of younger people, taking advantage of the boom trend for underwear as a fashion statement or as luxury treats, and moulded everything from the collections to shop displays and press portrayal to capture that market – while not alienating traditional clientele. Jill has fully embraced the media and talks with a lot of passion about how much she enjoys regular television appearances as the 'bra expert', being quoted in the newspapers, seeing celebrities photographed wearing Rigby & Peller corsets, and organising high-profile events – one recent example being a fashion show in conjunction with London-based lingerie company MYLA at London's infamous Chinawhite nightclub.
Most notably, the company was approached by Twentieth Century Fox to cross-promote the DVD of the film Moulin Rouge with its corsets and, after a mention in the book Bridget Jones' Diary, Jill has worked with the producers of the sequel Bridget Jones movie, released in 2004, to have Rigby & Peller products alongside Renee Zellwegger's character. Readers should keep their eyes peeled for Jill's cameo part in the movie!
David, meanwhile, has revolutionised or in some cases initiated the company's basic processes, to professionalise a previously signature family business relaxedness. This included having contracts drawn up for all employees, setting up payment systems and pre-setting budgets. "For years, no one ever had a contract – it was as if the whole business was operating purely on trust," David notes of the previous set-up. "We're at the point where we're transgressing to a large business, so the management structure has to change with that, or it could slip into the cosy family business situation. You have to come out of the family business mindset and go into the purely business mindset."
Despite both being directors now, David and Jill's share ownership has not been increased. June and Harold hold the majority and this is mutually agreed between the four. June and Harold have minimal involvement in the business today except for some policy decisions.
"We never thought mum and dad would ever 'walk away' from the business in the way that they have and leave it up to David and I," Jill says, "but the fact that they did shows how completely comfortable they felt with us doing it. Still, when we took over it took us a good 18 months to stop calling them for advice," she concedes. June and Harold have, of course, years of experience and are always on hand when advice is needed.
The siblings recall only one hitch in the succession process. Shortly after their parents had retired, the staff kept asking them when Harold would next be coming into work. The pair were embarrassed to admit that they did not know – assuming that they would not be coming to work having retired – and after a few occasions when Harold turned up unexpectedly at the offices wanting to chat with his children, who were busy at work, matters came to a head. "Eventually I had to ask my parents to only come in at specified times; you can't be retired and semi-retired, there needs to be a choice! That caused a bit of contention for a while, though since then they've actually gone the other way and we're very proud that they don't feel the need to keep an eye on us all the time," David explains.
The Kenton's confidence in their children was strengthened by the way both Jill and David worked their way up through the business before becoming directors.
Jill worked in the Knightsbridge store on weekends and holidays while at school – though she admits "I absolutely hated it because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, and I knew that my parents worked very hard" – and then at 18, on the advice of her mother, moved alone to New York where she acted as Rigby & Peller's wholesale agent. This was supposed to be a year's sojourn, but she ended up staying eight years and developing the North American market, dealing to clients including Bloomingdales, Saks of Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel. On her return, Jill managed the Knightsbridge store for four years before becoming director.
David initially pursued his passion for cars, joining Volvo. Later he worked with a friend as a stockbroker in the Square Mile, which came to an untimely end as Black Monday wiped out the bull market of the 1980s. Turning to fond memories of helping his parents out in the store, he decided he would like to join the family business but was keen to gain credible experience in the field beforehand. Securing work with one of the company's suppliers as an assistant to the agent, he later became an agent himself while taking a part-time retail management course. Before "nearly giving up" when he became a father half way through, he joined the business starting with stocktaking and rising to Financial Director.
Passion, organisation, then world domination
The most important factor of the management, David and Jill agree, is the way their strengths and weaknesses combine to build a complementary force. This also makes for a simplified responsibility structure. David sums it up: "In my view, there is no such thing as a business model for the family business, because it is made up of the people within it. In a family business with more than one family member working within, you've got to know how to recognise each other's strengths and weaknesses: for instance, Jill likes the press side of the business so she deals with that. We don't really tread on one another's territory."
David and Jill are well prepared for a new era as a large family business – an empire perhaps – and their company is growing as the market for their unique products and image expands. It's obvious that they're up for the challenge and in it for the long haul. "The only downside of working with your family is that work as a subject always creeps into conversation when you're spending personal time with people," says David. "You can't just switch off; that's not helped by the fact that we really love what we do!"
The customers seem to as well. Rigby & Peller receives many letters of thanks and admiration for both their products and special customer service each week, ranging from 30-something Bridget Jones types to 60 year old grandmothers, and they take special pride in this recognition. The week before this interview for Families In Business, the pair were delighted – and somewhat bemused – to receive a handwritten sonnet of praise from a satisfied customer.
Jill concludes: "I'm so proud when people ask me what I do. The response is always something like, 'Wow!' I believe that in business, you have to have a total passion for what you do. We live and breathe our family business, although if you had told me it would turn out like this when I was 18, I wouldn't have had a clue what you were talking about. But I absolutely love it."