Saturday 17 March 2018

Getting the measure of clients is key for tailor to the A-listers

'Hugging' your customers is the philosophy that drives Louis Copeland whether they are movie stars, presidents or grooms-to-be

SUITS YOU, SIR: Sean Gallagher with Louis Copeland, who loves what he does and this attitude is nurtured among his staff.
SUITS YOU, SIR: Sean Gallagher with Louis Copeland, who loves what he does and this attitude is nurtured among his staff.
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

I FIRST met Louis Copeland, of Louis Copeland & Sons, in 2009 when I went looking to buy a suit to wear on the first series of the TV programme, Dragons' Den.

The company has been synonymous with men's fine tailored suits and high-end fashion for generations.

I was immediately struck by his ability to connect with customers on a personal level and it quickly became clear to me that here was a man who clearly understood both his business and his trade.

Visiting him again this week in his flagship store in Dublin's Capel Street, I got a real insight into why the business has been successful for almost 100 years.

The business was first started in the early 1900s by Louis's grandfather, Hyman, a Jewish man who moved to Ireland from Lithuania. In the Sixties Louis Copeland's father took over the business and today it is run by his sons Louis and Adrian. Louis's own son, also called Louis, is now also working in the business as is Adrian's son, also known as Adrian.

The menswear business is in Louis's blood. He started working in the family business from the age of 12.

"I would take the bus to town after school and at weekends to help with sweeping the floor and tidying up around the shop," explains Louis.

At the age of 14, he left school altogether to attend tailoring college, then in Dublin's Parnell Street, and later served out his apprenticeship in a factory in Thomas Street, called Two Owls which specialised in manufacturing men's suits.

"I was about 17-years-old when I officially joined the family business," Louis tells me. "My father had his own workshop then where he both designed and manufactured the suits that were sold in the shop." It was here under the watchful eye of his father that Louis honed his now famous skills as a tailor.

Over the years both he and Adrian grew the business to include a network of seven stores, six in Dublin including Capel Street, Pembroke Street where Adrian is based, Wicklow Street, Custom House Quay and two in Dundrum, one of which is a Gant branded store and one in Galway. It's an impressive achievement which has created almost 70 jobs.

"The business itself has also evolved over the years from when we only sold made-to-measure suits to where you can now buy a wide range of ready-made designer suits off the peg," Louis explains.

"You have to continuously change," he explains. "If you are not moving forward then you are actually moving backwards," he adds, "because everybody else around you is moving forward."

There are pictures hanging on the walls of famous celebrities and high-profile individuals who have been fitted out by Louis. These include singers like Tom Jones and Jedward, actors such as Kevin Spacey and Pierce Brosnan, and sporting legends from the worlds of golf, snooker, horse riding and boxing. There are even letters of thanks from former American presidents Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton

What about the perception that Louis Copeland's is only for high-profile celebrities or mega-successful business people, I ask.

"We have dressed many celebrities over the years and we are grateful that they have become great ambassadors for the business. And while many customers are from the business and professional sectors, the bulk of our business comes from members of the general public who come to us for quality wear as well as for special occasions such as weddings," insists Louis.

I want to know why he thinks the business has continued to be successful. "That's easy," he says, "it's because we put our customer first. We treat people the way we would like to be treated."

"Hug your customers," Louis tells me smiling. He is referring to the title of a well-known book by author Jack Mitchell on how to personalise sales and achieve outstanding results.

"Of course he doesn't mean hugging customers literally," Louis explains. "What he means is including personal touches that build lasting relationships and customer loyalty such as remembering a customer's name, what work interests or hobbies they have or simply offering them a cup of coffee while they are waiting for garments to be altered."

In the wrong hands such a philosophy could come across as false or phoney but Louis and his staff have a genuine and authentic interest in their customers.

Louis doesn't have an office. "My office is on the shop floor," he tells me, rubbing his hands. If he was in the hotel business, he would like to be the maitre d', who welcomes customers and makes them feel at home.

It's an approach that is clearly working because this year the company will turn over €12m.

Does he model himself on anyone, I ask. "Yes, I want to do for menswear what Feargal Quinn did for the supermarket sector," he says "and customer service is very much at the heart of that."

I am anxious to understand how he can replicate the integrity of the customer service model across all seven stores.

"We are blessed to have great staff," explains Louis. "Many of them have worked their way up from when they started with us as messenger boys. Staff tend to mirror the attitudes and leadership style of their bosses so we try and set high standards and that seems to be working well for us," he adds.

Every Saturday morning at 7 am he has an hour and a half meeting with all staff in the Capel Street branch where, together, they review the previous week as well as planning the week ahead.

Similarly, every Tuesday at 7am, he and Adrian meet with the managers of all seven stores for two hours to look at how each store is performing. "We typically set no more than two or three goals and focus on them for the week," he explains.

Louis is a member of the highly regarded International Menswear Group, a body made up of the best menswear retailers from each country. It is here he gets many of the new ideas for the business. Likewise, he shares with other retailers what works for him.

"We meet each year for a week," explains Louis. "We share everything from marketing ideas to strategy. We even share staff so that our staff can get exposed to new insights and learning in different countries."

It's an idea he could see working in other sectors to help businesses adapt to changes.

When he can, he also likes to travel where he picks up new ideas, whether attending trade shows or just shopping in other stores internationally.

However, the business has faced challenges. "The recent downturn in the economy has seen turnover fall by up to 40 per cent in some stores," he admits.

To counteract the drop in sales he has worked closely with suppliers to reduce the costs of sourcing products. He too has had to accept a reduction in margins as customers are increasingly looking for better value. In addition he has designed his own brand of suits and shirts at affordable prices.

He is positive about the future. Although he expects like all business owners "to have to get up a little earlier and work a little harder".

However, he already works seven days a week, including four hours on Sunday.

"But it's not really work when you enjoy doing what you do," he tells me enthusiastically. "I love meeting people and making sure they are happy with their experience with us. That's what keeps my adrenalin flowing," he adds.

He also hits the gym every morning at 6.30am before heading to the shop. "It's very important to be fit and healthy and to have the energy to sustain yourself when you are in business," he says.

Last month he launched plans for a National Tailoring Academy with the support of the Dublin Institute of Technology.

"We are striving to become a centre of excellence in tailoring skills, education and practices and the new academy will offer a varied programme of workshops and postgraduate diploma courses in bespoke fashion tailoring," explains Louis. "It's an attempt to nurture new talent and to protect tailoring's heritage," he adds.

Louis took over the business from his father, and together with his brother Adrian, has successfully grown the company to include seven stores.

He has continued to develop the brand as one of high quality. He has cleverly positioned himself to become the go-to store for men's outfitting for a host of personal and family events.

He has remained open to learning and continuously seeks out new ideas and strategies to help grow and develop the business.

He loves what he does and he has also managed to successfully cultivate and nurture a similar attitude among his staff.

No doubt he and Adrian will, in time, pass on the business to their sons. In the meantime though, Louis will continue to deliver the exemplary level of customer service that has become the hallmark of the Louis Copeland & Sons brand.

While I don't actually get a physical hug from him, as we part, I do get a great handshake, a clap on the back and a great Louis Copeland smile. That in itself was worth the visit.

Irish Independent

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