From being handed the reins to a business turning over £700k in 1995 and growing it in 4 years to £2.5m turnover, SLG brands (as it’s now known) currently boasts a turnover of some £32m+ with over 120 staff and are currently undergoing rapid expansion into the US. ????????
Oliver sits down with Miles Dunkley owner of SLG and an entrepreneur investor himself to talk about how in 1995 he received a call from his Dad asking him to join the family firm, little did Miles know, he was being pitted against other job applicants for the position.
Miles joined the business and immediately put it all on the line financially (including his Dad’s house) to acquire a business which assisted with the growth and name change from Synlatex to SLG. Through the combination of the acquisition, product diversification and a focus on leading with design Miles and his team grew SLG to a turnover of £32m+.
From investing in his staff through one of the biggest open plan offices in the South West to investing in SLG Brands despite the pandemic, Miles leads by example.
SLG Brands is a creator, maker and distributor of some of the high street’s most fashionable beauty and male grooming brands.
A PinPoint Media podcast production.
Miles Dunkley: The most important thing to have in place is belief, but you need to couple that up with a determination as well. These challenges that we face as entrepreneurs and as business people, we have to rise to them. So I think that inner determination is as important as anything else.
Oliver Bruce: Hello and welcome to the new and improved Success is in the Mind with me, Oliver Bruce. A Pinpoint Media Production, this isn’t a podcast about the millions, the fast cars and the large houses associated with so many entrepreneurs. Instead, it’s about the barriers, the mistakes, the naivety and the drive. This is a reality check. What does it take to start a business, and how do you turn your idea into a success? Well, join me to find out from those that are doing just that.
Oliver Bruce: Before we get into the show, I just want to say a huge thank you to everybody who has been listening and following this podcast. We found out last week that we’ve been shortlisted for the Business Media Podcast of the Year as part of the Campaign Publishing Awards 2021, so thank you very much. Keep following, keep rating, keep subscribing. And now all we need to do is go out and win the thing.
Oliver Bruce: So, on today’s show, we found a creative director, brand innovator and investor, Miles Dunkley. Miles’s journey into the world of entrepreneurship started in 1995, but the business Miles took over before the turn of the century was founded by his parents, Graham and Roberta, in 1985. Synlatex, as it was formerly called, undertook an M&A, ultimately rebranding in 1999 to SLG Brands, as it’s known today. Currently with some 15 beauty and male grooming brands in its portfolio, Miles has scaled his parents’ lifestyle business into something really worth writing home about. Miles, you’re in the studio, you’re the first guest to join me. Welcome to the show.
Miles Dunkley: Well, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Oliver Bruce: It’s not a long walk down from your offices, but looking back at the business which you joined in the late nineties, your parents actually founded this business. Why did they themselves go into that world? And what did they do previously?
Miles Dunkley: Well, I think it was probably by accident, if I’m honest. My dad was a serial entrepreneur. I describe him as a global Del Boy in a way. He used to buy stuff for a pound and sell that for two pounds, and it didn’t really matter what it was. And we saw as children, myself and my sister, my father buying corned beef, selling tyres. We had heraldic art for sale. All these different things from the house. So he was just buying and selling things basically. And then eventually my mother discovered a makeup sponge product at the trade fair and said, “Listen, I think this is going to be a big thing,” and she was right. And my dad pursued that one, but rather than just transacting a single order, it became an ongoing business, and really that was the Genesis, the beginning of what became SLG.
Oliver Bruce: Do you think entrepreneurial-ism can be inherited then? Your dad was a serial entrepreneur. You’re now an entrepreneur. You started off working in London, right, before you joined the business. Why did you give up your career to join the business? And do you think that was simply because you wanted to become an entrepreneur?
Miles Dunkley: I always think that entrepreneurs are defined by people who start things, not carry things on. So I sometimes question whether I am an entrepreneur, because I didn’t start SLG. I joined the company Synlatex, as it was in that time. My father and my mother started the business. But I think it can be learned. It probably is passively something you are influenced by, and before I joined the family business in the nineties, I was modelling, in my mind, with a colleague from the design agency I was working at to form our own design agency. So I guess we were on the brink of doing something. I was on the brink of doing something myself. But actually then the phone rang, and it was my father inviting me to join the family business.
Oliver Bruce: And what was the reason that Dad called you up to say, “Right, Miles, can you come and join me?” Was it for help? Was it for reassurance? What was the reasoning behind that?
Miles Dunkley: I think it was a mixture of things. I think there was a feeling. He was, at that point, in his sixties. I think he was sort of eyeing up retirement. They’d had a bit of a good run with the business, but then they lost their biggest client customer, which was Body Shop, and they thought they’d lost it through lack of contact with the customer and a lack of resource. And I think that was the trigger point really for reaching out to me and saying, “Look, would you like to come in as a succession, really, in the business?”
Oliver Bruce: So you joined the business, and they were turning over circa £700,000. You grew it in four years to 150 staffing with £2.5 million turnover. What did you do differently to be able to get it to that point that your parents weren’t?
Miles Dunkley: I think there was a couple of things at play. There was, first of all, I came from a design industry background, so I understood about the power of design in business, I guess. And so I started to introduce design as a sort of agenda. In our case, at that point, it was the design of products rather than brands or anything like that. And that created the momentum straight off the bat. But also I was kind of ambitiously seeking growth in a way that perhaps a 30-year-old would but a 60-year-old wouldn’t in the form of my father. We launched a project to buy our main competitor, bigger competitor, and that was successful, and so that propelled the business forward after that acquisition.
Oliver Bruce: In 1999, you acquired Lambournes, your route to acquisition wasn’t really as easy as you might’ve thought. In fact, it was down to fate, wasn’t it, that you actually managed to acquire Lambournes?
Miles Dunkley: Well, it’s typical, isn’t it? You’re naïve. You don’t realize how difficult things are going to be, and that’s probably why you do them. If you knew how tough they would be, you possibly wouldn’t.
Oliver Bruce: Yes.
Miles Dunkley: I saw a competitor. I thought, well, let’s just buy them. We didn’t really have the financial resources to do that. We didn’t have the expertise, but we just had, I think, the belief that it might be the right thing to do. And initially the owner of the company, Kevin Lambourne, he wasn’t really interested at all, but then he suffered an illness actually within a year or so of us speaking initially, such that he was actually more interested to sell then. He was a similar age to my father. And that was really the door opening toward a discussion about acquiring the business, which we did. But it wasn’t easy. We were underfunded. They were bigger than us. They were culturally very different. And I didn’t realize all those things were important at the time.
Oliver Bruce: It was quite hand-to-mouth then when you bought them. How did you keep it going when you did that acquisition? If you didn’t have the finances, how did you raise the cash and muddle through?
Miles Dunkley: We had a bit of cash in the bank, but not enough. We did a number of things actually. We sold the combined debtors’ book, so factoring, and also we really stored the machinery that was in the business we were acquiring. We had nowhere else to go for money, but we scrambled it together. And then what we had as a company acquired was kind of sliding away a little bit. It was on the decline, and so we had to work very, very hard to sort of turn that around, and there was a year of extreme graft to do that.
Oliver Bruce: So you took Lambournes. You had Synlatex at the time. You merged the two to become SLG Brands. That was the birth of what it is today, right?
Miles Dunkley: Yes, that’s right. So the SLG stands for Synlatex Lambournes Group. So Synlatex acquired Lambournes, creating Synlatex Lambournes Group. And then the acronym is what we now use, SLG. Yeah. So we became a cosmetic applicator manufacturer. Probably at that point the biggest in Europe. There weren’t many of us doing what we did, but we were suddenly the biggest, and that gave us a broader-based footing on which to really begin to, I think, expand more generally. And so what I started to do was look further afield for products. Not just what we made, because we used to pretty much sell only what we made, and I started to look at international sourcing and supply particularly out of the Far East to widen our product range quite rapidly.
Oliver Bruce: In 2004, you were gallivanting around the world. You went to South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines. This was for a sourcing mission. How did you know who, and where to go and, frankly, what you were looking to source?
Miles Dunkley: Well, I think there was an awareness where some of these product areas that we wanted to move into, where their centre of manufacturing excellence would be. At the time, South Korea was where makeup brushes were made, the Philippines and Thailand where powder puffs were made, and out of Hong Kong, essentially China, but via Hong Kong, is where manicure implements were made. And this was the kind of accessory hardware that was a good bedfellow to the kind of products we were making. Good adjacencies. And so I was aware of that, and I just took off on a flight and traveled around that part of the world for a while, and found those factories and established sources of supply.
Oliver Bruce: What sort of issues did you come up against when trying to supply or even procure a product from the Philippines and South Korea, for instance?
Miles Dunkley: Well, when I think back now to what we did to what we now have to do in order to remain up to speed with regulatory control and quality control and good manufacturing practice, I shudder really because I did it all, because there was only myself, my father, my father’s business partner and the secretary. And so, again, it was a lot of naivety probably that just said “it’s a good looking factory, there’s an interesting product collection. Let’s bring that into the UK.” So it was actually more without proper controls than with controls that we sort of made those initial moves into broader product areas. Then over time, as our business grew, we realized, well, we need to put quality controls in place. We need to be much more considerate about what we do now. Now, we didn’t have any problems. We never had any issues with product recalls or anything like that. It was okay, but probably more luck than planning. And then eventually, and today, we have an office in China with about nine people in it that manage that for us out in the Far East.
Oliver Bruce: So just looking at, I suppose, the early stages of the business before we get into the bit where it really started to grow into what it is today, how did you and what was the structure like with your dad and your mom and the secretary? Was there pushback from certain people, or was it very much “Miles is here, Miles is going to do what he needs to do because I want to retire.” What was that thought process?
Miles Dunkley: Well, it was really a case of when I joined the company, my father said, “Okay, look. You crack on. I trust you. I’ll be on the golf course really.” By this point, my mother wasn’t in the company. It was a lady called Pat Topping who was the co-owner of the business really, and she was running the financial side of the business and the operational side. And they gave me a really free rein to express myself, and I think that was really helpful to allow new, fresh blood to come into an existing business and to begin to move into a new direction. And so it was very liberating actually.
Oliver Bruce: And I mean this with the greatest of respect, people will go “Miles has been handed a business here. Miles has made lots of money because of that,” right? And that isn’t the case because you’ve grown it to what it is today. Yes, you got given an opportunity, but you’ve grasped it with both hands, correct? What barriers in the early two, three, four years of your journey with Synlatex, at the time, did you come up against that you had to knock down?
Miles Dunkley: Well, the first thing to say is, you’re absolutely right, I was gifted a great opportunity by my parents, and I’m forever grateful for that. What then happened was I think I had something to prove to myself, and maybe that kind of mindset that you described there that people would say, “Well, you were given this. What are you going to do with it?” And I had a point to prove, and I worked extremely hard. I thought I worked hard prior to that in my design industry career, but it went to a whole different level. And I had an absolute determination to demonstrate that I was bringing something tangible to the party. But that then quickly became replaced with just a momentum and a vision to just do things better and bigger than we had done before. But I do remember that at the beginning, I had a point to prove.
Oliver Bruce: Things really started motoring for you around 2000. In fact, between 2000 and 2015, you were doubling in size every four years. You’d implemented a new plan: design-led strategy. Was this the tipping point, was this the main thing that actually allowed you to grow? Were there other factors as well?
Miles Dunkley: Well, the acquisition of Lambournes gave us a wider footing. I think that gave us a credibility foundation on which to work. The broadening of the product range that I described when I went to the Far East and really started to team up with lots of factories out there was another reason. And then the design thing and this sort of creative approach that I was really sort of pioneering, I suppose… Well, I say pioneering. It was all I knew, to be honest. And the more that we employed that strategy, the faster the growth came and the more profitable we became as well. So it became a very straightforward process after that. It then became a case of “how do we actually use that for the greater good?” and that’s been a continuing theme in the company, culminating really in what the business is today, which is a brand portfolio company.
Oliver Bruce: Exactly, and we’re sort of scooting ahead a little bit, but you’ve recently launched a couple of new brands during the pandemic actually. What was the process and thought behind that, bringing it all in-house and focusing on that, I suppose, IP aspect?
Miles Dunkley: Yeah. Well, we’d had a long run of doing private label collections for retailers like Debenhams, Next, where we were creating product ranges for somebody else. And I think I began to feel that really we were pretty good at that, and maybe it would be more valuable to the company if we did that for ourselves and we owned those brands and we owned the intellectual property in those brand assets. So we started a while back to move in that direction, and then we started to really amp that up when we sold our manufacturing business in 2018 to concentrate on that own brand portfolio acceleration, only to find ourselves in a pandemic at the crucial point in that development process. But we really didn’t allow the pandemic to slow up that process of brand launches, and so out of the pandemic, we launched three new brands, all thanks to an amazing team effort at SLG. Far from it being my accomplishment. It was the accomplishment of some extraordinary people at my company.
Oliver Bruce: But you, having weathered a storm in 2008 with the financial crisis, must have gone into the pandemic with a certain amount of knowledge in this instance, going, “Okay, so financial crisis wasn’t brilliant. Okay. The pandemic might stir up, frankly, another issue with recession, et cetera. We’re going to just crack on and we’re going to continue to invest in these products,” or did you actually start to draw things back and pull back a little bit on what you were envisioning on doing?
Miles Dunkley: I think you’re right. You learn from your prior experiences. 2007, 2008, the financial crisis was a very difficult time for the company. It put us into three years of flat-lining after stellar growth. And that to us felt like a fail at that point in time, but we found a way out of that. In fact, we amped up the value-add design approach that we were exploring at that point, and that really moved us forward once again. So going into the pandemic, terrifying as it was, there was always a belief that we would get through that, and probably in some way make that work to our advantage. Right at the point of the pandemic breaking, we were deeply involved in the development of three new brands, which could, and probably should, have ground to a halt or at least slowed up, but it didn’t. We accelerated them forward, and we launched all of them right on the timeline that we originally set out.
Oliver Bruce: Was that risky or was that simply because you had the cushion to be able to do such a thing? Because so many businesses will have gone and would have gone, “Actually, that’s not for me right now. We’re going to keep the cash, cash is king, and we’re going to weather the storm rather than continuing to invest.” Was it just simply because there was enough liquid there for you to take those punts?
Miles Dunkley: There was some liquidity there. We felt very much we should play the long game here and look at that period post-pandemic, whenever that was going to be. I remember I think we thought it was going to last three or six months, and none of us were aware that it would last the year or-
Oliver Bruce: Well, people still think it’s over. It’s still going on. We’re not back to normality yet.
Miles Dunkley: But if we hadn’t launched those brands, the selling to the UK and American trade was very, very successful. That has given us of the foundation to come out this pandemic really very, very strongly, which we now are. So it was absolutely the right decision. But I don’t think there was any choice for us. It was yes, 100% we’re going to do this.
Oliver Bruce: Yeah. Trading out of a recession is a sporty thing to do. We’ve similarly done the same thing where we cracked on, and I know a few people that have and others that haven’t, and it is interesting. But from an entrepreneurial point of view, starting a business in a pandemic or beforehand, what do you need to have in place to be able to weather a storm like that?
Miles Dunkley: Well, I think the most important thing to have in place is belief and the belief that you can get through whatever challenges are in front of you. But also, practically speaking, that’s why it’s really important, I think, always to have some kind of liquidity at hand, should you find yourself in a difficult position. We’ve always done that as a business, always had a degree of cushion as far as we could. I think the exception to that was probably when we made the acquisition.
Oliver Bruce: Yes.
Miles Dunkley: I think we learned from that too, so there has always been that cushion. That’s important. But you need to couple that up with a determination as well. These challenges that we face as entrepreneurs and as business people, we have to rise to them. We have to rise to challenges. We have to get through it. No one’s going to pull us through it. We have to get through it ourselves, don’t we? So I think that inner determination is as important as anything else.
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Oliver Bruce: Have you ever woken up in the morning, be it in the last couple of weeks or indeed years, and gone, “Actually, this is not going as well as I’d hoped,” and you’d had to pick yourself up and dust yourself down and crack on. And if you have, how did you do that?
Miles Dunkley: Yeah, that obviously happens. I can’t deny that that does happen. But I think it’s just a case of looking at the bigger picture. The moment that you’re in is always just a moment, and if you look further afield around that and put it into context, you can usually find the kind of positives that will get you up and out and moving forward again. And certainly as a leader of a company, it’s very important to demonstrate that sort of positivity to your team. I find that at my company at SLG, that there’s a lot of leaders in the company. A lot of people are doing that, and there’s a kind of an electricity amongst those that are leading that fuels everybody’s belief actually.
Oliver Bruce: And you’ve got joint MDs now in the business, so it’s not even as if you’re necessarily the front managing director, per se. What was the logic behind structuring it in that way and taking that step back?
Miles Dunkley: Well, it was a logical thing for me really, because I had a very, very strong senior management team. And in particular, Lucy Beresford and Richard Buckland, who are now joint MDs at the company, had been with me a very long time. Extremely talented. Younger than me, ready for the next stage in their career at a time when I guess, in my mid-fifties, I’m looking to broaden my horizons a little bit. SLG is by far my most important thing clearly, but I’ve got other interests as well. And it just kind of was a natural succession really. The right time for them, the right time for me, and the right time for the company, frankly.
Oliver Bruce: You undertook a cash-out in 2015, selling a stake of the business to BGF for £10 million. Three years later in 2018, you sold another minority stake again for £10 million to BGF. And what was the logic behind this? Why did you phase it in such a way?
Miles Dunkley: That was two-fold really. I think there was a degree of de-risk for myself or cashing in some of the gains that the company had made over a long period of time, remember, this is after 20 or so years of being in a company that I pretty much owned. But also to bring in, I think, a new force and firepower into the company in the form of BGF, which is the private equity firm that has come in, to own a minority shareholding in SLG. I should emphasize that it’s a minority shareholding. I still own the majority of the company, and have the controlling rights in the company, but they brought about a huge broadening of our network through their own. They’re invested in 300 companies. They’re a 2.5 billion pound fund, and with that comes tremendous access to professional talent. And that’s been really helpful as we continue to scale globally.
Oliver Bruce: And who contacted who? Did you contact BGF, or did they call you up and go, “Miles, I want to buy part of your business.” How did that process work?
Miles Dunkley: That that goes back to 2014 really, ’15, when SLG was approached by a big trade player, one of the biggest trading companies in the world actually based out in Hong Kong, who approached SLG to buy the company in its entirety.
Oliver Bruce: Oh, really?
Miles Dunkley: And they put a very attractive offer on the table for a full acquisition, but I didn’t want to sell the whole company at all. But it just got me thinking about what the value of the company was and whether now was the time to de-risk to a certain extent. My financial advisors, Hazlewoods, were working with me on this trade acquisition approach, and John Lucas at Hazelwoods, he suggested that “There’s this private equity entity called BGF. I think you should probably talk to them. You can sell a part of your company. You can still remain in control. And BGF’s mandate is really just minority ownership. No drag or tag rights to pull you into deals. They’re patient, long-term investors. Why don’t you talk to them?” And so really it was John Lucas that was the trigger for meeting with BGF. And I was semi-reluctant. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that. I wasn’t sure about private equity. But BGF were different, are different. I know that from experience now.
Oliver Bruce: You speak about the advisors. You’ve said to me that you’ve tried to have the best of the best to be able to advise you in the right way. That is so important, but in terms of at what point do you hire and take on the best of the best, and what’s that tipping point? Do you invest heavily in them before the business? Or how does that work from a thought process point of view? Because there’s an element of cash is king in the business. We don’t want to pay people externally just yet.
Miles Dunkley: Yeah. So I have a very, very clear ideology on this, which I shared with you before, which is that you should never nickel and dime on the key advice areas of finance and legal. These kinds of areas. So I’ve always done that. Right back when we bought the Lambournes company and I hired a legal firm and a lawyer who was probably maybe a sledgehammer to crack a nut in one sense. Richard Knight of Harrison Clark Rickerbys. He’s still my lawyer 20-odd years on. I wouldn’t work with anybody else. And he’d got us a great deal, and whatever we paid him at the time we’ve made back. It was a great investment. Same with the financial side of things. I think you have to look at the return on that investment really and say if you pay for great advice, it’s going to return. So I’d done that from a very early stage, and I would recommend anyone that’s at an early stage in their business should be doing the same thing.
Oliver Bruce: And you’re now looking at going down to four days a week in the business. So you’ve gone from five to four only recently. And you’ve taken, I suppose, some of that liquid cash from the cash-out and invested in local business. The Union Project. You’re advising them to a certain extent. Now, you’ve got so much knowledge now that you didn’t have then. What would you give to, I suppose, entrepreneurs listening to this, one piece of advice that they need to take when starting or running a business?
Miles Dunkley: I think I would talk about seeking high quality, professional advice to bridge the gap in your knowledge. A bit of naivety is good because it makes you do things you might ordinarily not do, and I think entrepreneurs are very often fueled by naivety in a manner of speaking. But you’ve got to seek quality advice in particularly areas of finance, operational structure, and legal areas.
Oliver Bruce: And in terms of structuring of a day really, because you’ve now gone from five to four, now, are you working that little bit harder because you’re over four days, or are you actually taking a little bit of a step back now and going, “Okay, I’m going to work the same amount of time over those four days, and then reinvest my time into the Union Project,” or other sort of passion projects that you’re undertaking. And what does that structure look like?
Miles Dunkley: Well, Friday’s the day I don’t work on SLG business, but quite often I do. So it’s a great deal for the company actually in that regard.
Oliver Bruce: You just might be hungover on the Friday.
Miles Dunkley: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. When I get out of bed at midday, I work on SLG things. I often work on the more creative SLG things on that day, as I always have done at weekends and so on. You know what it’s like owning your own company, Oliver. You never switch off. And I never switch off on SLG things. But Friday will be more geared towards work with the Union Project, the fashion retail and e-commerce business that I’ve invested in, and other projects that I have at hand. Every other Thursday, I’m not working on SLG things as well, so it’s actually essentially three and a half days. But my mind never switches off from SLG ever.
Oliver Bruce: Are you a man of structure then? Do you get up at a certain time in the morning? Do you go to bed at a certain time in the evening? Or do you just take things as they come?
Miles Dunkley: No, I’m quite structured actually. There’s a lot of chaos in my life, as there is with entrepreneurs and business owners. There’s madness all the time, but I need to put that into some kind of structure. So, yeah, I’m up at 6:30, 6:45 every day. I go to bed pretty much at 10:15, something like that. I am like a little clockwork mouse in that regard. But what goes on in between times can be absolute madness sometimes.
Oliver Bruce: Someone said to me the other day at lunch that they shouldn’t be a sponge. They shouldn’t just take everything on. They should just be a sieve and they should let the things that don’t really regard them or need to be cared about filter through. Now, how do you filter the correct things and run with the things that you want to run with?
Miles Dunkley: Well, I think a lot of it with myself, and I’m sure entrepreneurs generally, is an intuition thing really. I have an attraction to certain projects or certain things, and those are the ones that I pursue. And in my career so far, the things that I really have enjoyed or the things that really have attracted me to them have usually been the things that have been the most lucrative actually. So I tend to follow that. Like I wouldn’t have invested into the Union Project if I didn’t love what they do and have a real belief in what they’re doing. This, for me, is the motivator.
Miles Dunkley: And the same with SLG. I’m so proud of SLG. I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved. I look at it with huge love and affection, and I think that’s really important for me. So I very rarely look at something and think of it just as a financial thing. And should I do it just for financial reasons? That’s not how I’m personally wired.
Oliver Bruce: You’re fairly well known in the southwest for having the largest open plan office around. You pumped 3 million quid into it in 2019. It is fantastic, but why pump so much cash into an office when most people don’t?
Miles Dunkley: I felt that it was an opportunity for us to really underscore SLG as being different to other companies and to really help the company attract the best people, retain the best people. And I think to the outside world looking in, understand that this is no ordinary company. And I thought that we could get a return on that investment.
Oliver Bruce: Yes. And in terms of that, talent is one of the hardest things to attract and retain, right? It’s very expensive to do so. So has it actually made a vast difference? Would you advise people, with hindsight now, would you go, “Okay, pandemic. Offices. Do we need them? Don’t we need them? Pump some cash in?” What’s your thought process now?
Miles Dunkley: Well, of course we were in Studio 19 for just about a year or so before the pandemic, so we’ve had almost as much time with it in pandemic as out of the pandemic. I think the most important asset a company has is its people. And as an employer, as a company owner, you’ve got to look after your people. And you hope that they enjoy and appreciate that, and if they don’t, that’s fine. If that’s not for them and they don’t want to work at your company, that’s cool as well, but for the amount of time that people spend in your office in an office environment, I think it’s really important. 80,000 hours in your career is roughly what you spend in the office. Or traditionally. I think that’s going to change a little bit, of course, post-pandemic. There’s a bit more home working. It’s a new paradigm. That’s a lot of time in the office. You’ve to make that a pleasurable time for those people who are with you for the period of time that they’re with you. Employees don’t stay with you forever, and that’s absolutely fine, but whilst they’re with you, make it the most stimulating and wonderful environment possible. I think that’s the responsibility of employers and it’s very often overlooked.
Oliver Bruce: Do you like working from an office? Do you like working from home? What does your structure in that sense look like? Because for me, I can to a certain extent work from home, but I don’t like it. I have to come into the office, and I have to sit here to get the most out of my day, right? Are you the same, or do you quite enjoy working from anywhere in the world?
Miles Dunkley: People, electricity, chemistry, I need that.
Oliver Bruce: Yeah.
Miles Dunkley: On the most part, people do need that. There is something, I suppose for some, pleasurable about falling out of bed and into your office in your home I’m sure. But I think, by and large, it’s the interaction with people, especially with a creative company like yours actually, Oliver, and the same with SLG. You need that sort of chemistry and that buzz. Just seeing the office return to life at the moment is just the most incredible thing. You’re starting to feel that energy happen, and that can’t come from everybody working from home and working on VCs.
Oliver Bruce: What does leadership, Miles, look like to you? You’ve clearly led your business to great things. Did you get training in that or did you just muddle through?
Miles Dunkley: I think leading by example. I felt that right from the beginning, of course I came from being employed. I was employed for 10 years before I was the employer. And I think I learnt, I guess ambiently from working for some great people actually in the past, how inspired I was by their behaviour as leaders. And I think leadership is by example, by and large. I think you have to show how you feel it should be done first before you tell anybody how that is. I think also it’s very important to give direction positively, to celebrate success, create a positive momentum in a company. I think honesty is very important as well with your team; when things are difficult, to be honest about that. And we’ve had to be very honest during the pandemic times.
Oliver Bruce: Yes, hugely.
Miles Dunkley: But also to demonstrate the belief, and very clearly demonstrate the belief, that is if there’s challenges, that we’ll get through them.
Oliver Bruce: So, Miles, there must’ve been some barriers and mistakes that you guys have come up against over your career in business. What are those, and how did you overcome them?
Miles Dunkley: Yeah, I think if I go back probably 13, 14 years, we’d created some of our own brands at that period of time. And we got them listed, we got them launched, but we didn’t really understand at that point in time how to invest in them for continuity and long-term growth. So they became sort of flash-in-the-pan type brands. But knowing what I now know, they might’ve been quite successful actually. And we spent a huge amount on marketing. And in fact, everything is returned back into the brand, and that’s where we’re at at this present time, with the seven owned brands we’ve got. They’re across 50,000 stores, as you mentioned, and we’re investing everything back into them.
Oliver Bruce: You’re into your investments. You’ve just taken on an investment, or indeed you’ve given them an investment. Union Project. Local business. You are, it seems, wanting to get into this more and more. What is the future for Miles the investor?
Miles Dunkley: Well, I’ve invested in the Union Project. It’s a locally-based company, but it’s very much a national entity with its e-commerce site. I’m very interested in what’s going on locally but really what’s scalable globally out of the immediate vicinity, Cheltenham and Gloucestershire and so on. As I think I mentioned, I’m interested in brands and businesses that I find attractive and interesting fundamentally. It’s not a financially-driven consideration, although that needs to be borne in mind because I wouldn’t do it unless it were to be financially successful. But I need it to be something with soul and something with a greater purpose. I think the Union Project’s interest in ethical and sustainable brands in their fashion curation was really a motivation for me to be involved in that, and we’re really enhancing that as we go along the journey with the Union Project. And I’m interested in those types of businesses really.
Oliver Bruce: Is that the typical style of business that you wanted to get involved in?
Miles Dunkley: I think it probably is really. I think I like the smaller stage where I can have an influence really. If people just want money, then I’m not really the guy. I want to couple money with advice and input really.
Oliver Bruce: So you’re a hands-on investor.
Miles Dunkley: Yeah, absolutely.
Oliver Bruce: What does success, Miles, look like to you?
Miles Dunkley: I think there’s probably some financial indices that will tell you, but for me, probably more important is reputational value. What do people think about you outside of the company? What’s your reputational value? I get an extraordinary kick seeing somebody pick up an SLG Brand off a shelf in a store. That, to me, is success. But it’s important to reflect back sometimes. And we try and do that in our all-staff meetings. For everybody who worked so hard and so close to everything to say, “Hey, guys, look. Look what we’ve achieved.” And it is nice to reflect back on it sometimes. But I think being an entrepreneur is about looking forward, not backwards anyway. So it’s not instinctive to look back and say, “Gosh, look at what we did.”
Oliver Bruce: So what’s on the horizon? Give it 12, 18 months time. If you come back in here, and you’ll go, “Right. We spoke about this, this, and this. It’s all happened, doubled in size.” What’s that goal?
Miles Dunkley: So we’ve got some fantastic new brands in play. We’ve got some existing brands that have broadened distribution hugely during the pandemic. What we’re really excited about now is seeing those take flight globally, particularly in America, which is now our biggest market. And I love the idea of a Cheltenham-based business just nailing it in America. And I think we’re on the verge of that. It’s starting to happen. And I’m so excited to see in a year or two years’ time what has happened, and I’m sure it will be about America and our expansion in the States.
Oliver Bruce: Very exciting. Well, come back in in 18 months time, and hopefully we’ll raise a pint to success in the US. But, Miles, if we want to find out more about you, personally, about your investments, or about your brand SLG, how and where can they go?
Miles Dunkley: Where would you find the information such … Well, LinkedIn. I can be approached on there. I’ve got for a 54-year-old quite a lively Instagram account.
Oliver Bruce: There’s some excellent photos on there. It’s almost like you know what you’re doing.
Miles Dunkley: Well, that’s right. It’s all a fluke. The lens into my world, I guess, is Instagram and LinkedIn.
Oliver Bruce: That is very good. Miles, thank you ever so much for popping into the studio. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Miles Dunkley: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much for letting me tell my story.
Oliver Bruce: If you’re looking for more stories from inspirational entrepreneurs, then check out The Cereal Entrepreneur from Startups Magazine, a digital and print publication that champions tech startups. You can find them by searching The Cereal Entrepreneur, as in your breakfast, into any streaming service or by going to startupsmagazine.co.uk.
Oliver Bruce: Thanks so much for listening and don’t forget to subscribe on all major podcast streaming platforms. Without you, this podcast is literally pointless. Rate and review on Apple Podcasts so that we can continue to climb the rankings, and if you want to join me on the show or know somebody else who will fit the bill, please contact me via LinkedIn @oliverbruceonline. Thanks again for listening. Take care.
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