In a Smart and Entrepreneurial Fashion
From military beginnings to the challenging retail environment, Philip Turner chats about taking Smart Turnout to the next level
Article by Rupert Watkins
The path from the officer’s mess to luxury men’s style is not a particularly well-trodden one. For Philip Turner, the founder of Smart Turnout, whilst the origin of his business idea came from the regimental racing colours he had worn at Sandown as a subaltern, he had long harboured a desire to build, and run, his own brand. This was re-enforced in the period after he left the Scots Guards, “we frequently think we know what we ought to do and the key is to find out what you really want to do.” Given this writer’s own experiences of the somewhat corporate stovepipe ex-military are pushed (willingly?) down, it was also interesting to hear Philip’s comments. Out of his peer group from the Regiment, many set up their own businesses and looked at less worn paths, rather than followed the pinstriped line to the Square Mile.
There were certainly, and do remain, challenges. However, even in the very different retail and entrepreneurial environment, Philip points to the military’s “can do” approach as key to driving forward any business. “We are very good at finding a reason to get things done – for example you need to find a supplier, right, break it down, research the issue and come up with a simple plan – otherwise you cannot move forward” he remarks. That said, he praises the support he has had over the years from a number of discreet business mentors, “an ex-military person will invariably have a lack of financial experience and understanding of profit and loss cycles when they leave; whilst the basics of anything can be absorbed via a course, it was critical to have at times that extra layer of guidance.”
Over its life, Smart Turnout has continually evolved, both in terms of its retail laydown and a constant and scrupulous analysis by Philip on what his core product is. In recent years, the focus has been on watches and straps. This flows from Philip’s mind as one of the most pressing and constant challenges any small craft or luxury brand has, “you need capital to fund and develop your ideas. There can all too frequently be a temptation to spread yourself too thin – create too many products trying to appeal to too many differing people but ultimately selling to too few.” Smart Turnout has one flagship shop, marvellously sited on Piccadilly – his first shop was in the nearby Princes Arcade – and has done a number of pop-ups at venues as disparate as St Pancras and Covent Garden.
Philip bubbles over about his shop. Just down from Fortnum & Mason, and small enough to retain an intimate and quirky British air even on this most thronged of thoroughfares, 60 per cent of custom is walk-in tourist traffic. Indeed, just as Riddle walked into the shop to meet him, a Far Eastern tourist walked out with just over £500 worth of watch and straps. This snapshot also explains why Philip has refined and tightened the product ranges he stocks. He has stockists in the Far East and the US and Smart Turnout has very recently, as of July 2017, opened in Kuwait. With such a disparately sized customer base, he has found his focus on accessories to be paying dividends. “We still do that very English striped cricket jumper but there is the constant need to keep multiple sizes in stock which will always be logistically trickier as a smaller brand.”
Despite the recent glut of press on the rent and business rates pressure facing smaller non-conglomerate brands, Philip still believes the shop is a critical arm of any brand’s image, “it is so much more than just a straight retail tool. It is a focus point, a place where the customer can actually pick up and feel the product.” Like many other brands when you talk to them, there is that almost intangible sense of theatre behind a shop – the physical manifestation of a brand’s ethos and service. Certainly, despite the clear financial pressures, his location has born dividends. Over June, July and August of last year (2016), after the move out of Princes Arcade, Philip saw a 42 per cent jump in custom. “People still want to go out to shop and see what they want to buy” he stresses, pointing to the statistic that only 20 per cent of UK shopping is done online. Though high by global standards, as Philip suggests, it still shows an appetite for bricks and mortar which online only brands will never quite tap into – hence the popularity of pop ups.
As well as a tactile focal point, a shop in his eyes remains a “critical conduit” for further business. A visiting Kuwaiti customer in Piccadilly is now helping Philip handle Smart Turnout’s roll out in that country and other potential Middle Eastern opportunities are being considered. Though he has a firm base in the States, the sheer size of the country will always make it a daunting proposition for a small brand to properly cover. Especially if, unlike some brands this writer’s come across, they lack the personnel to constantly fly across the Atlantic to maintain and extend distribution networks.
As a brand that encapsulates the “made in Britain” vibe – complete with military twist – Philip has, from the beginning, been careful to ensure Smart Turnout remains authentic. The military feel continued with the first watch based on the officer’s watches of World War 1. “There is a huge desire for heritage brands” he comments, saying the brand distributes in Korea and Japan where the quirky watch straps have a loyal following. Part of this is interwoven with his desire for the manufacture to take place as much as possible in the UK – belts, watch straps and small leather goods are made in a number of workshops dotted about the country. His watches though are understandably – given there is no real British watch manufacturing – made abroad.
So what next for this dapper brand? There remain the ever constant pressures of cash flow and personnel but Philip continues looking to carefully extend his network whilst retaining the right personal relationships to drive Smart Turnout forward. In some ways, he sees the need for further precise consolidation, checking his logistical and marketing back end can grow in tandem with the opportunities being analysed. His watches offer a splash of colour and style. Dammit I’ll use the pun – you turn yourself out pretty damn smartly in Philip’s kit.
Enquiries: Smart Turnout, 169 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EH / 0207 4942120 / www.smartturnout.com/