TWO'S COMPANY: RICHARD FREEDMAN AND TERESA ROBSON-CAPPS OF ACS CLOTHINGMay 2015 | Feature
Richard Freedman, the chief executive of wedding and formal dress hire specialist ACS Clothing, is among this elite group of people. He was seeking someone with the track record to match his international ambitions. In ACS chairman Teresa Robson-Capps, Mr Freedman found quiet authority and experience. She may originally have come from a very different background, but she instinctively understood the unique company culture at ACS, which allowed her to slot straight into the business with relative ease. Such a dynamic is crucial for founder/ non-exec relationships. The result? A fascinating experience for Dr Robson-Capps and, for Mr Freedman, an adviser with all the corporate rigour, without compromising the company’s culture.
Richard Freedman CEO, ACS Clothing
My dad had a menswear shop in Glasgow that used to sell suits. I went to university in 1990, and back then life was quite difficult for menswear retailers. While at university I decided to set up a small hirewear department in my dad’s menswear store. There was no grand plan, it was really just intended to help stabilise the family business.
The hirewear business blossomed and we looked at how we could supply hirewear to other retailers. We soon began to get contracts with national retail chains such as Debenhams and Burtons, and so in 1997 we decided it was time to set up ACS.
Fast-forward 20 years and we have plans to expand into the US, the next big market for ACS.
The thing about a business such as ours is that it tends to require a reasonable amount of capital – of debt – to buy the hire pieces. Our plans for America are ambitious and we realised we would need to get some equity investment.
We were worried about private equity – having built up our business over nearly 20 years, we were nervous about someone else coming in and what their interests would be. When I learnt about the ethos of BGF, I thought that this would be the perfect way for us to really push the business into the US.
Having agreed the investment with BGF, the next step was to bring a non-executive chairman on board. It was vital that we got the right person.
We had a lot of CVs and conducted interviews and I thought: there are a lot of really great people out there, but how do we know what they will be like? Despite interviews, you only really know whether someone is right on that first day, when they actually come to work.
I thought the best way to find the right chairman was to contrive a mock board, a mock first day, and to discuss some of the real issues the company faced. Teresa’s background in retail and banking, and her understanding of payments and direct consumer services, were all relevant to us.
As well as the hirewear side, we have a software business – we sell software for bridal retailers to make it easier to manage their stores, and we wanted someone who would be on top of the technology as well as the business.
We’re a young, entrepreneurial, dynamic company. Aside from my father, our eldest board member is 44, and we don’t have much formality or hierarchy. Teresa’s experience in retail has been invaluable as we continue to explore new products and markets. She has all the corporate rigour, without compromising the company’s culture. I get very passionate and excited about new things, especially with our development in the States – where we now have a 240,000sq ft premises. At every board meeting, after being in the US, I come back with new and exciting ideas. It is very good having Teresa’s quiet authority and experience to complement that – it just works.
Teresa Robson-Capps Chairman, ACS Clothing
I got involved with ACS in February 2014, after the business had gone through a round of funding with BGF. I was approached two ways, once through a consultancy firm I was working with and also through BGF, who proposed me to chair the board. Then I went through a process of selection.
It was fascinating because Richard is a very creative individual, and he brought that to the whole selection process. We had an initial set of meetings and then I was brought back and we went through a mock board.
I also walked round the warehouse and met a lot of people. From my perspective I got to see a fantastic culture, and culture is very important to me. You could tell that the people had accountability for their own section and really knew the process, so it wasn’t just about fitting in with Richard, the family and BGF, it was also about how I fitted in with the overall culture of the business.
I have got a retail background but I think I was also brought in because of my digital experience, and ACS wanted to introduce the new digital platform. I also have an overall ability to understand the operational side of things.
It is fascinating working with Richard. He has fantastic capabilities and works in an entrepreneurial way but with control. We both respect each other’s abilities and what each other brings to the party to actually deliver strategies.
I don’t really think that I am a mentor to Richard; in a mentoring situation, it means you’re having to provide almost a kind of coaching.
I think with Richard, he is so sharp and business-oriented, you just have to mention something, and he will take it on board and you will see that reflected in the business moving forward.
There’s a difference between being a sounding board and a coach. Richard is quite capable of determining and ascertaining exactly what he needs for his business and moving on.
ACS is now expanding into the US and I think the business has many opportunities. We will be developing in the UK as well. Seeing our big new warehouse in Glasgow, with all the groomswear hanging in it, is very exciting. But it is about making sure that ACS delivers what we have planned.
When we had our strategy away day a year ago and we were bringing everyone up to the same level of understanding about the US opportunity and the strategy, we were just talking about it.
Then you go through the year and you see that what we were talking about developing we have actually developed. It made me think: "We’ve come a long way, in a short period of time, and this is really going to happen."