In My View: When does a dominant leader become a liability?
Ted Baker CEO and Founder, Ray Kelvin, has resigned from his position at the British company following an internal inquiry regarding alleged harassment of staff. Kelvin had been on an indefinite leave of absence since December, when the initial allegations were made, but won’t be returning to the business.
Ted Baker was founded in Glasgow in 1988 by Kelvin, initially selling men’s shirts and later expanding into womenswear in 1995. Ted Baker’s huge success, a yearly turnover of £590m and nearly 500 stores worldwide, is undeniably down to Ray Kelvin’s individual hand. On his resignation, Kelvin said, “The past few months have been deeply distressing and I’ll now be taking time privately with my family to consider what my next adventure will be. Bye for now, Ray.”
"I’ll now be taking time privately with my family to consider what my next adventure will be. Bye for now, Ray.”
Whether you like the brand or not, you can’t ignore its growth and consistency over the past 30 years. Kelvin’s hard work, attention to detail, quality control and quirky aesthetic has amassed a huge global fan club. While the majority of people wearing Ted Baker would never have heard of Ray Kelvin, they have definitely experienced his overriding vision and eye. It’ll be interesting how the brand maintains that momentum without him.
Founders are very important to fashion companies and they are seldom as exciting after the founder has left. Fashion businesses need strong people with personality and a determined vision of the direction they need to go in. Arguably, fashion needs these people even more than other industries because it is such an instinctive industry. It’s unpredictable and data often won’t help. You need to follow the leader’s instinct and feel for things if you are to react quickly and timely. Design and decisions by committee is often more conservative and slower and why many companies quickly flounder.
Kelvin’s long-running desire not to be photographed or uncover the fact he’s the real Ted Baker can be twisted to make him look like he was trying, or had something, to hide. Ted Baker, up until recently, didn't advertise and had a distorted relationship with the press.
This is not to condone anybody’s negative actions and anything illegal should be prosecuted, but when does a dominating character become a bully? One person’s clash of personalities is another person’s intimidation. One person’s eccentric way of greeting people, or “banter”, can be another person’s sexual harassment or racist allegation. The line of unacceptability is subjective and often blurred.
Whether it’s Philip Green or another titan of industry, people are, rightly, responsible for their language and actions and companies have to be seen to take any allegations seriously. Nobody is untouchable anymore. Good. We live in an age where you can’t have any element of doubt. If in doubt, then you are automatically guilty. Which puts potentially innocent people into an indefensible grey area and they are shown the door. You shouldn’t or can't hold onto people at any cost, even if they are the founder, and it’s a verdict of guilty, instantly.
Ted Baker had a tsunami of allegations following a petition signed by 200 staff and it’s very hard to accuse somebody that doesn’t appear to have anybody to control their behaviour. Nobody should feel like they are being bullied or pressurised into anything they aren’t comfortable with. It creates a toxic environment and may explain a high turnover of staff. People make a business' culture, but it needs to come from the top down.
"This isn’t a gender issue. This isn’t about men. It’s about people in positions of power abusing those positions."
The shift in society is, rightly, now, controlling these people and losing their positions of power is what will be their biggest loss. This isn’t a gender issue. This isn’t about men. It’s about people in positions of power abusing those positions. It’s that feeling of knowing people have to do what you say and pushing that into a different and negative dynamic. This abuse is what is a shame, as it’s the same energy, when positive, which makes these companies great. It’s the energy of trying something new, sticking your neck out or pushing a few different buttons. Again, particularly important in the fashion and creative industries.
Whether it’s Ted Baker or Arcadia, you wonder whether these companies’ successes could be replicated as big and as quickly in the #MeToo era. You have to break a few eggs to get ahead and often upset and disagree with a few people on the way. Fashion businesses need strong and successful characters to make things happen, but it doesn’t mean they can do whatever they like.