A GREEK GODDESS, ATHLEISURE UNICORNS AND BIRMINGHAM CITY FC


11 April '23

11 minute read

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NOT OBVIOUS BEDFELLOWS, BUT GUESS WHAT?

He’s a busy man our Paul.

Every facial expression, each twitchy mannerism, every minor adjustment of his relaxed sartorial style is that of someone on a mission.

It’s just a question of which mission he’s on at the time.

We meet in CP’s chilled out workplace and Paul looks, well, suitably chilled. He really shouldn’t be, given that he’s just got lost enroute. Not badly, but enough to hassle most folk.

Situations like this, however, are what entrepreneur Paul Richardson thrives on. Last time we caught up, Gymshark was Lycra-stretched over every part of the media. A Solihull Unicorn was born. £1 billion valued and galloping away from most of the competition. But we’re not here to look back at that awesome story. You can always catch up on that HERE. We’d rather talk about what’s happened since.

As it turns out, that’s quite a lot.

Paul adopts a simple mantra: ‘Work Hard, Stay Humble. Dream Big.’ And he’s worked damned hard to keep the statement real rather than something you’d see on a naff mug around the office.

LET’S KICK OFF WITH THE BLUES

Paul’s a Birmingham City fan through and through. But when he joined the Club Board with David Sullivan, David Gold and Karen Brady back in 2002, it was still an eye-opener. He was the local-lad-done-good and this bond with the West Midlands was critical. Looking back, Paul reflects:

“Reality was, they were porn barons and not particularly liked at the time. Being a local businessman, my role was to bring in sponsorship and the like. And that’s what I went on to the board for.”

That’s what they asked me to do. I mean they were trying to sell part of the club at the time, but I didn’t want that. Within six months, the club had swapped the Championship for the Premiership. The whole dynamic changed overnight.”

“After 16 years in the lower division, fans and businesses were able to watch the likes of Man United and Liverpool. My life was made dramatically easier. Everyone wanted a piece of the action. Do you want to see a match? Sponsor? Or have a corporate box? Previous seasons, the answer was probably ‘No’. Now, the answer was almost certainly ‘Yes’.”

But that was 20 years ago. It’s different now when Paul’s in the maelstrom of trying (along with ex-Barcelona striker Maxi Lopez) to become owner or part-owner of the club. To say the deal is complex is to state the bleeding obvious. Overseas investments, involvement of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, investigations with possible sanctions and separate ground ownership are just some of the factors muddying the blue waters. Most people would walk away. Paul himself even stated that ‘nobody’s mad enough to buy Birmingham City.’

It’s been on/off since then. At the time of going to press it could still go either way. What’s crystal clear though, is that Paul’s able to separate the raw emotions of football fandom from the street-wise savviness of a serial entrepreneur.

It’ll be a while before we hear the final whistle.

With a typically sharp pivot, let’s turn to the Queen of the Olympian Gods, the goddess of marriage, women and birth; Hera.

Paul’s involvement with streetwear brand HERA started at Gymshark. The owner Ash White was looking to sell. The deal didn’t happen, but the connection was made. By 2021, Paul had moved away from the day-to-day involvement with Gymshark and actively looking for new business opportunities. Ensuring there was no conflict of interest, Paul acquired 70% of HERA (Ash White retaining 30%). But within a month, Paul purchased the remaining share for full ownership with the ambition to build a hero brand. Yes, the brand was bruised but it still had a strong reputation and following.

Paul recognised the scenario:

“It was a brand that was hurting. It was like a powerful animal that had been in a bit of a fight and was in the corner licking its wounds. It needed some care and attention. Feeding and bathing its wounds and rebuilding.

We could have started a brand from day one and but that’s far more difficult today than anyone can imagine. Everyone thinks you drop a few posts on Instagram and that’s it. Maybe you could do that a few years ago, but it’s harder work now for various reasons. You know, with the algorithms on social media and now everyone has cottoned on to everything and how it works.”

This is where Paul refers to the Power of Three. Previously it had been himself, Ben Francis and Steve Hewitt at Gymshark. He loves the dynamic that three different personalities and skillsets brings to the party. Now, Paul wanted to try out another trio. “I’ve always wanted to work with my two daughters, Holly and Georgia. I said to them. Do you know I’m looking at this business? Do you fancy it? And they were like, ‘absolutely’.

They both have fashion degrees and backgrounds. Holly worked at Gymshark, as well as HERA. She’d also helped to build the My Protein clothing brand to a successful £30m turnover business. Georgia comes from the Marketing/PR side – for hotels and big London agencies. This is my new Power of Three. Holly as the CEO and Georgia driving the creative brand.”

HERA’s links to skinny jeans and Geordie Shore had had its day.

The three saw the numbers stacking up differently. Paul continues:
“So we’ve embarked on the first year of completely changing that dynamic. But still referencing it from when it was and giving it the respect it’s due. But our new customer base is not as it was. We’ve got a 2 Year model. Putting all those foundations in play, just finding out who we are, who our customer is now, and being able to focus on them – moving forward and building the business.”

POWER OF THREE

Whilst gut instinct still plays a key role, data is king (or goddess). Paul is suitably passionate about it too:

“I can’t overstate the Importance of data and understanding who your customer is and who the next level customers will be. I work with smart people who deliver this data. We then make it work for us to profile our customers (without pigeon-holing them).

We apply the same thinking to our models and their profiles too. It’s about telling the story behind the model. We find out their story and what they’re about. Finding out what makes them tick. And what makes their heartbeat faster. It’s about celebrating what people do.”

As you’d expect, Paul is forthright on hot topics such as sustainability and the modern workplace. His retail experience recognizes that sustainability is not a new issue. He’s seen the hypocrisy. He’s heard the bullsh*t.

And he’s pragmatic, understanding there needs to conviction, commerciality and compromise. HERA is putting in place a pathway towards sustainability. There will be no hint of greenwashing.

“What I’m not into, and I’ve seen loads and loads of this, is the green washing. Five year plans – rubbish that people put together because it looks good. But doesn’t change anything. You need to put something together that’s achievable. We have to explain the impact to customers. If you can’t achieve it, explain why. Be honest.
People will see through hollow words. We want to set a clear pathway. One that we’re accountable for.”

In a fast-changing work environment, Paul’s equally passionate about creating an incredible culture. But, it has to one that is grounded on business-first commerciality.

“If it’s not right for the business, you’re only creating problems down the line. Post-Covid, we’re 100% committed to finding a hybrid solution that offers flexibility but also enables the team to enjoy most fundamental way to learn. By watching. By listening. By doing stuff. Not on Zoom or Teams but in the here and now. It’s the same for leadership. The great art of a natural leader and not a manager is someone who can admit they’re wrong. Stand in front of everyone and say it. Take the flak for it, then engineer and channel it to actually get to where they want again.”

IMPOSSIBLE TO PUT A LABEL ON

LOOKING UP THE ROAD?

“I sat with my daughters and we went through everything. I’m probably the most impatient. They’re far better planners than I am. We went through all the things we’re not going to do this year, as against what we’re going to do.”

They are sticking to their road map. Not rushing. Expansion yes, but not in any egotistical money-pit kind of way. And yet, some of the things HERA are going to do are right at the core of the brand values. For example, they’re launching a ‘pre-loved’ offer to extend the life of a piece of clothing. And, they believe they are the first
fashion brand working with the Salvation Army.

“That’s kind of slightly mind-blowing. In over 150 years, they haven’t done direct. So you’ll come to our site, you have a choice of getting the bag and putting our clothes or any clothes in the bag and it’ll get sent back to the Salvation Army. Then they’ll put it on their website.”

You wouldn’t say Paul has mellowed.

But he is more reflective. He freely admits that he’ll only take things on that he wants to. Only work with people he really likes. And taking more control over the impact on his family and partner.

“I’m now given more of a free reign, although I am trying really hard to be mindful of things. I want a bit more free time and I want to be more present – in the moment.”

The relationship with my daughters is just amazing. They challenge me – for all the right reasons. Initially, they were on my back about not taking more time to myself. But that’s when they realized that I really enjoyed it and it was like, well how can we stop him doing what he really enjoys?”

Espressos finished, we wrap up the chat. But before Paul heads out of Sky View and hits the road, he just has a few calls to make. It could be to Holly or Georgia. Or Maxi Lopez. It might be to The Salvation Army or any of many mentorees.

It could possibly be another new business proposal. The thing is, our Paul’s still a very busy man. And he wouldn’t want it any other way.