Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How We Made It: Jenny & Richard Parker of Country Attire

JENNY PARKER and her husband Richard met 20 years ago and have been business partners for almost half that time. “Living and working with each other comes quite naturally,” said Jenny, who met Richard at his 21st birthday party.

She started her first business in 2000, straight out of the University of Derby, where she studied product design, innovation and marketing. The company, Equine Innovations, developed horse-care products for clients such as the royal equestrian Zara Phillips and the police.

Jenny expanded the range to include Barbour clothing in 2003, and the partnership inspired her and Richard to start a new venture. “It was becoming easier to go to retailers than to design and manufacture products ourselves,” he said. “The factories couldn’t handle the hi-tech materials we were using.”

In 2006 the couple founded Country Attire, an online store for classic British brands such as Hunter and Belstaff, as well as Barbour. The company is based in Cheshire and has 31 staff. Sales were £6.9m in 2012 and £10m-plus is expected this year. Half its revenues are generated overseas.

Overseas brands with a similar design ethic have been added, including Canada Goose and Hugo Boss. “We can’t just go with British brands, we need synergy,” said Jenny, who is the marketing director. “Our name represents the best of British style worldwide.”

Country Attire introduced its own label last year, called CO/AT. “Our focus is to raise our profile as a brand, and make it personal,” said Richard, 41, the managing director.

The site’s popularity has earned Country Attire a place in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 league table of Britain’s fastest-growing private businesses. “We still approach things from a customer’s perspective, not a retailer’s,” said Jenny.

Jenny, 37, was born in Glossop, Derbyshire, and grew up in nearby Buxton where she attended St Thomas More Catholic School. Her father was a plastics manufacturer in Manchester and her mother a housewife. Her younger brother, Andrew Hargreaves, is the head of web development at Country Attire.

“I was always passionate about British manufacturing, it’s my heritage,” she said. “My mother’s family made hats in Stockport and my father’s family owned cotton mills in India.”

In 1995 Jenny enrolled on a one-year horse management course at Nottingham Trent University, looking after 50 horses a day. “It was amazing, but hard graft. It taught me a lot about self-reliance, and gave me the idea for Equine Innovations.”

She then studied at Derby University’s School of Engineering, where she wrote the business plan for Equine Innovations, and also gained a Chartered Institute of Marketing diploma. “I was encouraged by my tutors to take my horse rug design to market,” she said. “The project evolved over the years and eventually led to the founding of Country Attire.”

Richard spent most of his childhood in Sale, Greater Manchester. His parents left careers at BT to start a restaurant in Spain in 1984. He spent a year with them before returning home to attend Sale Grammar School.

“My parents didn’t start their own business till their 40s,” he said. “I was thinking like an entrepreneur from the age of 14.”

In 1992, Richard enrolled at the University of Manchester to study politics, but he dropped out after 12 months. “I found the academic life a bit too slow.”

His parents moved back to Manchester in 1990 to open a nursing home, and Richard became a managing partner there. The home was sold in 2004 for £1.1m. Until 2002 he also imported and sold sports cars.

The following year Richard co-founded Space IT Computer Recycling, but it was shut down in 2006. “It was moderately successful but I didn’t want to split my time with Country Attire,” he said.

The clothing retailer was started with one computer at the couple’s home in Sale. “Technology was catching up with ecommerce,” said Richard. “The speed of the internet made fulfilling online orders much more viable.”

They bought a house in the Peak District national park in 2007, a year after they married. Soon after, they moved the business to an industrial estate in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire. “We stupidly thought we could still operate from home.”

In 2012 they relocated to a 36,000 sq ft site in Bredbury, Stockport. “We have plenty of growing space so we’re hoping not to have to move for some time.” They also recruited two board members: Helen Blomeley, financial director, and James Pow, chairman. “We were stretched and there was only so far we could have taken the business,” said Jenny. “We needed their retail backgrounds and experience.”

The Parkers have two daughters, aged 10 and 6. Richard’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is: “Talk to people who’ve done it before and learn from other businesses in the sector.”

Jenny adds: “Dig deep. No one will ever hand it to you on a plate. You have to work the hours and there are a lot of sacrifices but in the long term everyone will gain.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Jenny and Richard Parker of Country Attire

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