A CEO who refuses to show his face in public may sound foolish in the age of Twitter and Instagram but then Ted Baker founder Ray Kelvin is not your average CEO.
Hugging means a lot to Kelvin and he has a rule that everyone at the brand’s head office must hug him before they talk. In fact, within seconds of our introduction, he embraces me with the sort of hug two reunited lovers might indulge in. It takes 73 seconds to end.
“Don’t report me for sexual harassment,” he jokes, in a deep North London accent. Tonight, Kelvin is on top form.
The Ted Baker founder is hosting a dinner to celebrate the launch of ‘Mission Impeccable’, a completely shoppable online film, which was produced by movie director Guy Ritchie. It playfully introduces fashion-led spies who work for TED, an MI5-like organisation.
It is something Kelvin insists will become a “game changer” for marketers. “You can watch the film and say that looks really cool or he looks great or she looks sexy, and then buy the clothes. It brings it to life,” he explains.
“I think this format is forever. I have wanted to do a shoppable film for the past 10 years, but it has just been about waiting for the technology to catch up. Now we have done it, watch all the rest of those fuckers run and copy.”
Kelvin has transformed Ted Baker from a shirt stall in Glasgow into a global business. In the six months to 13 August, sales climbed 14.4% to £259.5m, with profits up 20.5%. Online sales, meanwhile, rose 29.7%.
But despite the obvious importance of online to his business, Kelvin freely admits: “I personally wouldn’t buy clothes off ecommerce as it is static and I want to touch it, I want to feel it. But a shoppable film goes one step further. That’s the key”.
Despite being at the helm of a fashion brand that creates very modern clothing and apparel, Kelvin is obviously old school. He hates, for example, his head office team sending him emails.
“There are so many ways to communicate out there, yet people don’t communicate,” he says. “When do you use the phone? If I phone my kids, they never answer. I get a text 10 minutes later saying ‘what do you want dad?’”.
With stores in cities such as Beijing, Ottawa and Seattle, Kelvin says the secret to international expansion is a relatively simple one: originality.
He explains: “Do you want to know why Tesco failed in America? They were selling oranges, apples and pears. You can already buy those things anywhere. If you want to buy a Ted Baker, you have to buy it from Ted Baker – it’s about supply and demand. So long as we keep ourselves original, we will win”.
Avoiding the limelight
Although the back of his head appears briefly in the ‘Mission Impeccable’ film, Kelvin is not the type to be pictured with Kate Moss on his arm or with wads of £50 notes in his wallet. The public-facing, modern archetype of a CEO is something he actively avoids.
“First of all I am the founder and a designer. I happen to be a CEO as I can add up, as well as design. But let’s get it straight, this should be all about people in the team and the product,” he clarifies.
“The world has made too much out of business people becoming celebrities. This whole Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice thing, I don’t understand it.”
“Do you know why Tesco failed in America? They were selling oranges, apples and pears. You can already buy those things anywhere.”
Ray Kelvin, co-founder, Ted Baker
Kelvin adds: “I don’t like it when I see CEOs out there in the public eye. It smells of money. I don’t want to think about how much someone owns and how much they make – it is ugly and the public don’t like it.
“All these people – like the person you mentioned [Sir Philip Green] – all he wants to do is show off how much he’s got. That turns people off. I want to turn them on. People don’t like it. People don’t want to see people flaunting their wealth. I’ve never been that way, my kids would kill me. Yes, I am comfortable with my lot [in life] but that isn’t what this is all about.”
After a brief pause, he barks: “My kids inspire me, there’s nobody in business who does.”
At this point, Kelvin tells me to stand up and once again gives me a warm hug. “I like talking to you,” he says, before I manage to evade his clutches by purposefully asking a question on how big Ted Baker can become.
He sits back down and responds: “Dominant is an aggressive word but it is just about letting it grow naturally. I don’t have a preconception of ‘in five years we will be there’ and ‘in 10 years we will be at this level’ because if you push it too hard, then the customer realises it is a forced brand. You have to nurture it and feel for it. Taking care of our customers and getting repeat business is the only thing we aim for.”
As part of ‘Mission Impeccable’, Ted Baker partnered with Google’s voice search to bring a further interactive element to the retail experience. For example, if users ask the Google app one of the questions written on Ted Baker’s shop windows, they will be entered into a prize draw and can access extra information about the spy film’s characters.
A street retailer at heart, Kelvin says physical shops are the main thing that gets him out of bed in the morning. He explains: “I’ve always loved shops. My mother was born behind a till. For me, innovating around shops [with Google] is everything but perhaps that is just my generation. I guess the decline of the high street depends on how many shops you have got.
“We only have 20 standalone [stores] in the UK, not thousands. But it allows us to make those 20 truly great.”
Moving forward, he says the biggest challenge will be to avoid complacency. “We don’t want to be in an ivory tower, obnoxious or arrogant. The challenge for me is to keep our business small and personal, even if it grows into a monster.”
However, within seconds, Kelvin’s clarity of thought switches and his role as flamboyant host resurfaces. He puts his arm around me, looks around the room and concludes: “You have to touch everything [to be a good CEO]. I touch everything. I touch the garments, I touch all the cloths. This here is special.”