Where interesting people say interesting things. Today, it’s Neil Clifford, chief executive of London luxury brand Kurt Geiger
Profit with purpose is keeping us on the right track
I left school in 1983 with a single qualification to my name: an O-level in art.
I was dyslexic, but I didn’t find that out until years later when my son was tested for it. I was lucky enough to be a good talker, and I soon discovered you didn’t need qualifications to sell things. So I quickly moved into retail, getting a job at Debenhams.
Retail is the biggest private employer in the UK and there are hundreds of thousands of people out there like me. School isn’t for them for whatever reason, but they have energy, ambition and creativity.
The more we can harness that, the better. I have been at Kurt Geiger for almost 25 years, and the pandemic changed everything.
My niece is an A&E nurse, and she was on the front line dealing with people dying in front of her. I remember asking her on a family WhatsApp group whether there was anything we could do.
She said jokingly: ‘A free handbag would be nice’. I picked up a load of gift cards and drove them to the hospital. My niece told me I wouldn’t believe what that little bit of joy had meant to people working so hard. So I told the board I wanted to do this everywhere we had one of our 57 stores.
We ended up giving away over £1.5m worth of product to key workers. We topped up all of our staffs’ salaries over furlough so noone had reduced pay and the board gave up their salaries for the period.
From that point on, we decided that kindness should be something that was part of our DNA as a business.
We’ve made NHS discounts permanent, and we spent a year creating the Kurt Geiger Kindness Foundation. For each purchase of an eligible item, we donate £1, helping to raise £1m every year. The charity is dedicated to giving young people, no matter their background, the opportunities and support needed to enter the creative industry.
I still love the buzz of the growth and the success of the company, but this work has become equally important.
Why footwear is the perfect barometer
We spent the two years of the pandemic selling nothing but sneakers and slippers because everyone was at home. Then we saw a 12-month boom in sales of high heels as everyone enjoyed partying again after lockdown. Now. we’ve reverted pretty much to what we saw pre-Covid: a mixture of sneakers, loafers, sandals and heels that are getting noticeably lower. Footwear is a real barometer of how we are living our lives.
Curiosity is the greatest American asset
We are now in the lucky position where Kurt Geiger is as big in the US as it is in the UK, and that means I spend about a third of my time stateside. This week I am going to Dallas, where I have never been before. I love travel and I particularly love the US. Pretty much everyone there is an entrepreneur at heart and I love their energy, optimism and ambition. The doorman at the hotel or the guy at passport control is fascinated to hear that I’m a handbag salesman. Curiosity is a massively underrated asset and the Americans have it in droves.
Arnie’s still pumping up the crowds
I have become addicted to Arnold’s Pump Club, a daily podcast by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Podcasts are often too long, and you run out of time to listen to them on the dog walk or the commute.
This one lasts just five minutes and it’s all about health and positivity. Schwarzenegger shares three tips each morning on fitness, mental health, diet, sleep, avoiding anxiety and much more. I have learned a lot.
I’m sure that the government realises that scrapping tax-free shopping for tourists was a serious error. I’m one of 320 business leaders who has signed an open letter calling for a rethink, because the impact on hospitality, retail, travel and tourism is very clear.
It’s really unfortunate that after Brexit and the pandemic, we’ve managed to tie one hand behind our backs economically. We’ve made ourselves the most expensive place to shop in Europe. So a U-turn is inevitable; it’s just a matter of timing. I would urge the Chancellor to get on with it.