A discarded copy of the Financial Times was scant consolation for being stood-up, but as executive MBA student Patrick Grant ate his lunch alone at University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, his eye fell upon the “Businesses For Sale” section. And his heart began to pound.
“It was the first time I’d ever read that section,” recalls Mr Grant, “but I couldn’t believe that a 200-year-old Savile Row tailor’s was being advertised for sale. I’ve always been fanatical about clothes and Savile Row is probably the most iconic street in the world where men’s wear is concerned.
“I had no idea what it might entail or cost, but just knew I wanted to find out more.”
Five years later, Norton & Sons – once tailor to Edward VII and Winston Churchill – has been restored to financial health and Mr Grant picked up the 2010 Menswear Designer of the Year accolade at the British Fashion Awards for reviving another men’s wear brand, E. Tautz.
Much of his success he puts down to lessons learnt during his EMBA and advice received from his professors and classmates.
EMBA director Stephan Chambers, who teaches entrepreneurship, admits some initial misgivings.
“When Patrick first told me he wanted to buy a tailor’s, I remember thinking this can’t be a good idea,” he recalls. “An old, very niche business that is difficult to grow and scale. But I also remember telling him and his classmates that they should expect the programme to change their lives – and that’s certainly what’s happened in Patrick’s case.”
There was no fashion or tailoring experience on Mr Grant’s CV at that point. He began his career in marketing and business development roles at cable-makers BICC and Corning, then moved to optical components manufacturer Bookham Technology. Grooming him for higher office, Bookham offered to fund him through an executive MBA and Mr Grant chose Saïd.
But halfway through his 18-month EMBA, Mr Grant learnt that as part of a relocation of headquarters, Bookham was offering voluntary redundancy packages. “The timing was fortuitous,” he says.
“Bookham paid the rest of my MBA and we called it quits. Importantly, it allowed me to work very hard on planning for the acquisition of Norton & Sons. During the last six months of the programme I took every opportunity to use the university’s resources to get my plan together.”
A feature of the Saïd EMBA is the opportunity to conduct a large piece of in-depth research, connected usually to the sponsoring employer.
“Saïd doesn’t prescribe what you must study, so I was able to use that as an opportunity to research how people were taking slightly knackered but cherished businesses and making them work again,” says Mr Grant.
He also tapped his professors in finance, operations management and marketing for specific advice.
“My finance professor, for example, was more than happy to look through the work that I had done, advise me on raising money and to give opinion on company valuations, which I
discovered are a dark art.” He also canvassed views among his EMBA classmates.
“Having spent the best part of
18 months debating all kinds of businesses with these colleagues, they were a good bunch to ask for objective opinion,” he says.
He did such a convincing job, in fact, that two of the investors in Norton & Sons are former classmates. His former chief executive at Bookham is another, although Mr Grant also needed to sell his house and borrow from a bank to raise the rest of the finance.
Mr Grant completed his EMBA in October 2005 and tied-up the purchase of Norton & Sons in December of the same year.
“The first two years were pretty darn difficult,” he confesses. “We had one tailor and one part-time cutter and I did everything else – the chopping out, trimming, bookkeeping, payroll, marketing, ordering and changing of the light bulbs.
“We tried to go back to doing the simple things very well, but it was slower to turnabout than I expected. However, since we’ve turned the corner it has grown much more rapidly than I had hoped.”
At the end of 2008, Mr Grant decided to reinvest profit in ready-to-wear business E. Tautz, another brand in need of resurrection, and he now
manages a team of 12 across both enterprises. “It hasn’t been the most lucrative five years of my life, but certainly the most satisfying” he says.
“When you walk into our shop you get a sense that you’re walking into a place where people enjoy their work and take great pride in it.
“My EMBA didn’t prepare me for how hard it was going to be, for 90-100 hour weeks with very little holiday and pay,” he adds.
“But what it did give me was the confidence that I could take sensible decisions and run a business on my own.
“The case studies you learn during an MBA take you through the
most interesting periods of development or disaster in businesses’ lives. That, vicariously, gives you a great deal of practical experience, plus
the confidence that what you’ve learnt is applicable to whatever you want to do, whether it’s technology or tailoring.”
No student should leave an MBA without understanding the basics of raising finance, developing a business plan and managing an organisation, says Mr Chambers.
“But students should also choose their business school according to its emphasis.
“At Oxford we are committed to an entrepreneurial vision, even on the EMBA – name me an organisation that would not be better off with more entrepreneurial senior people.
“We also hope the EMBA gives people the confidence to break with tradition and do something a bit extraordinary. And Patrick did.”