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CEO Interview: Stephen Shortt, Hawkins & Brimble

PUBLISHED: 11:48 18 February 2019

Stephen Shortt, CEO of Hawkins & Brimble (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

Stephen Shortt, CEO of Hawkins & Brimble (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

©Thousand Word Media

Stephen Shortt couldn’t find any men’s grooming products he liked - so he created his own. Now Hawkins & Brimble is worth a cool £4m

Anyone who claims you can’t build a successful company with a staff of home-workers hasn’t met Stephen Shortt.

Founder of men’s grooming brand Hawkins & Brimble, the 47-year-old is on track - with a payroll of just six, all of whom work remotely - to hit a record £5m turnover next year.

And that’s just two years after the brand launched.

Sure it helps that Stephen is part of the Shortt dynasty, a long line of branding, marketing and distribution entrepreneurs who run equally successful companies.

His father ran a tea plantation in India for 25 years, turning it into a successful export business when he returned to the UK.

His brother Denys is CEO of DCS Group, one of the biggest health, beauty and home care distribution giants in Europe.

Another brother, Richard, still runs the distribution company Stephen started, Intamarque.

But to suggest he’s simply absorbed by osmosis his business acumen would be to vastly underestimate this slightly rebellious, motorbiking drummer who, with his range of men’s grooming products, turned over £1.4m in his first year.

Stephen Shortt, CEO of Hawkins & Brimble (c) Andrew Higgins/TWMStephen Shortt, CEO of Hawkins & Brimble (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

Because when it comes to meteoric success, it doesn’t get much more meteoric than the rise and rise of Hawkins & Brimble.

The start of Stephen’s journey was less of a lightbulb moment, more a growing frustration in 2016 that he couldn’t find premium-quality men’s grooming products in High Street retailers.

“I just didn’t like the products on the shelves,” he recalls. “I went into Boots and Superdrug smelling every product I could and I didn’t like anything.”

Everything smelled of tobacco or leather. Or mint. Or lemon. So he decided, with the help of a master barber, to create his own.

And, after a worldwide hunt for invigorating, enlivening natural ingredients like elemi and ginseng and 50 fragrance samples later, in a process which took “a long, long time”, Hawkins & Brimble was born.

“I knew there was a demand for natural ingredients,” says Stephen, who studied product design at university before going to work at DCS with Denys.

“And we saw that demand from abroad, as well as the UK. So we flew out to China for two weeks to find out what barbers wanted, and from then on, we grew a global strategy not a UK one.”

That global strategy has paid off, because the exports book is burgeoning.

Stephen Shortt, CEO of Hawkins & Brimble (c) Andrew Higgins/TWMStephen Shortt, CEO of Hawkins & Brimble (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

There’s a £200k order in the pipeline from Canada; another £150k from Australia; another £100k from the Middle East. And India will, in the next three to four months, become one of the brand’s biggest overseas markets, Stephen predicts.

The brand is already in 15 countries worldwide and on Amazon, as well as in hundreds of Sainsbury’s and Waitrose stores and available through its website. And with a new logistics centre in Virginia in the US and Germany and China, and same day picking and packing, the world is - as they say, Hawkins & Brimble’s oyster.

Every order still pings through on Stephen’s iPhone, which, he says, irritates his friends when they’re out - but gives him an immense sense of satisfaction and pride.

“Every time my phone goes off, they joke it’s my round,” says Stephen, who funded the “lean business model” himself, but has now launched a £250,000 crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube to shore up future cash-flow and build the brand.

So what’s the secret to the range which includes facial scrubs, shaving cream, moisturiser and beautifully-crafted razors?

Essentially, everything a gent-about-town could possibly steal from his wife’s bathroom cabinet, and plenty that he couldn’t - beard shampoo and oil, moustache wax and beard balm.

“It’s about a cache of quintessentially British-made products,” says Stephen. “The branding is deliberately that, with the barber’s pole stripes and the colours of the English flag.

“When we were coming up with a name, we came across a couple of 1930s gents called Mr Hawkins and Mr Brimble - all moustached and British. And that was it, this heritage, this quintessential Britishness.”

Stephen Shortt, CEO of Hawkins & Brimble (c) Andrew Higgins/TWMStephen Shortt, CEO of Hawkins & Brimble (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

But the start-up wasn’t without its critics.

“Everyone told me not to do it,” recalls Stephen.

Early on, Sir Eric Peacock, knighted for his services to international trade, became one of his closest business advisers.

“Pitching a mass-tige product - prestige, but for the mass-market - is a challenge. But I’m a risk-taker.

What does the future hold for the company, made up of just four “creative, conscientious, trustworthy” full-time and two part-time staff, who all work from home, around their children.

There’s been a high-profile collaboration with 20th Century Fox, makers of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, which this month will propel Hawkins & Brimble into the sitting rooms of 750,000 DVD owners.

There’s a new range of SPF products is in the pipeline along with an under-eye cream and they’ll be launching online in Japan shortly.

“Hawkins & Brimble is my first brand,” says Stephen, who takes the train from Kemble to London once a week so he doesn’t get “cabin fever”.

“I love Gloucestershire. I’m sitting looking out over Cleeve Hill now, but I get really inspired when I go to London, every time I see an innovative new shop, a new restaurant or brand.”

Hawkins & Brimble might be Stephen’s first brand, but something tells me it won’t be his last.

Visit the Hawkins & Brimble website here.

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