How Government schemes saved 300 jobs at Leeds-based menswear firm Skopes

The Leeds-based menswear firm Skopes is continuing to support charitable causes, despite being hit by the pandemic. Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright spoke to managing director Simon Cope.

Simon .J. Cope of Skopes Menswear.

WHEN the country finally wakes from the nightmare of the pandemic, consumers will remember the bosses who behaved responsibly.

As the crisis struck, Simon Cope's first thoughts were for the wellbeing of his staff. Skopes' menswear closed its retail operation three days before the Government lockdown was announced.

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Managing director Simon Cope decided that staff safety came first. He acknowledges that the Government furlough scheme and its Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) have saved his 72-year-old company from the threat of total collapse.

He said: "We are very pro what the Government have done."

In common with many firms in its sector, the company had to buy millions of pounds worth of stock over the winter. Once Spring arrived - and the lockdown was imposed - Mr Cope found he was unable to sell it.

Apart from saving 300 jobs, the Government intervention means Skopes has also been able to continue to make its regular charitable donations, despite the company's turnover this year dropping by an estimated £8m.

The company plans to reopen its 70 stores and concessions on June 15.

Mr Cope, said: "Our staff are critical for Skopes and when we eventually looked at furloughing our staff, we furloughed 294 of the 300 staff member but we have paid them 100% of their salaries for 10 weeks..most companies immediately went to 80% of their salaries as that is what the Government guaranteed to pay, up to £2,500 per month."

Mr Cope is determined to ensure Skopes is well-placed to bounce back when the economy starts to return to normal.

He said: "We are a very agile company and will adapt very quickly to the new way of retailing, whatever this entails.

"We have re- strategised our plans for the next two to three years."

Last year, Leeds-based Skopes, revealed that it planned to expand its national high street presence, after gaining a £6 million funding package from HSBC UK.

This growth aimed to complement the retailer’s “extensive” online offering, its multiple department store concessions and existing stores within Westfield in London, Junction 32 and Meadowhall in Sheffield.

The Skopes brand was created in 1948 when Sydney Cope established the business in Leeds, at the heart of the textile and tailoring industry.

The factory produced bespoke trousers using fabrics sourced from Yorkshire mills. The Skopes name became renowned for its use of cavalry twills, corduroy from the town of Hebden Bridge and worsteds from Huddersfield.

Over the following decades, the brand continued to soar in popularity, leading to Geoffrey Cope, the son of the founder Sydney, establishing a ready to wear line of men’s clothing.

In 1987 the family business moved on a generation as Simon Cope, the grandson of the founder took charge. He began to develop into new market areas, supplying casual wear and accessories for a younger audience.

Mr Cope, the owner and managing director of Skopes, oversaw a re-brand of the business in 2018 as it geared up for expansion.

Mr Cope said: "We had ambitious growth plans within shopping centres for 2020. This has been temporarily suspended until we see how the consumers react.

"However, we do believe that the customers will revert to normal behaviour reasonably quickly while taking sensible steps to adhere by the Government rules to protect lives and quell the virus.

"The British public do like bricks and mortar shopping so we still truly believe in this strategy, but we are investing further funds into our online presence.

"We are extremely grateful for the unwavering support of HSBC in many areas.

"Their support will allow the Skopes brand to get back on track very quickly and increase market share.

"We had planned to open seven stores in 2020 and another several in 2021. This has been put on hold barring two sites in the first half of 2021."

Mr Cope predicts the pandemic will fast track change in the retail sector which was already underway.

He added: "You cannot fight change, you have to embrace and adapt.

"We do have financial security now for the medium term but it is essential we are very careful which divisions of the company major capital expenditure is invested into.

"When we do restart the retail expansion again we have to decide which grade of shopping centre to open within, as the top shopping centres have eye-watering rent and rates.. the break-even points are so much higher."

Mr Cope said the board of directors and divisional heads are all in their early fifties, which means they have maturity and resilience on their side.

He added: "We are still are very excited about retailing as it runs through our bodies.

"We have hard working, loyal and intelligent staff - that will be the reason why we will bounce back quickly and take market share ensuring continued success.

"This, of course, could not have happened without the unwavering support of HSBC.

"We do believe the unprecedented measures the Government have taken has resulted in millions not being made unemployed.

"Sadly this will not stop some sectors and companies having to realign..which will result in unemployment, which is catastrophic for those affected.

He believes people should be careful about making critical comments about the Government response to the pandemic when they are not in the "hot seat" themselves.

He added: "Constructive criticism is absolutely correct, sniping to meet your own agenda politically or otherwise is not."

He added: "Many of our other trading partners have been very supportive and honourable with payments and open with their strategy going forward, like House of Fraser.

"We have had a weekly call with David Epstein, the managing director of House of Fraser, as he has been kind enough to keep us fully updated.

"We will give all our customers our full support to do whatever it takes to get the momentum going again so we can regain the market share lost during lockdown.

He added: "We have many collections within the Skopes range and will be adapting them to meet any consumer changes.

"We have fully supported and honoured all our Autumn and Winter 2020 commitments with all our overseas suppliers, as we have seen how some brands have just cancelled their orders leaving many factories on the verge of going bust.

"This is not how Skopes would treat our supply partners.

"We are also very focused on all our charitable commitments for 2020 and 2021 and will not let them down, no matter how difficult our circumstances are.

"These charities need continuity of funds and the support of business.

"This is an area we have been very passionate about for many generations of the Cope family, from my grandfather to my father to myself.

"It is challenging at times to release the funds but it is part of our DNA to support good causes."

He is proud to be a long-standing supporter of a number of local charities, including the Yorkshire Air Ambulance and the Homeless Street Angels.

Mr Cope said: "Sadly my father passed away two years ago after a struggle with cancer so it makes me very happy to make these donations in his memory."

So what's the secret of building a Yorkshire business, which is tough enough to survive seven decades of boom and bust? To Mr Cope, it really is all about finding and retaining the right people.

He added: "The board of directors might write and develop the strategy, and close the deals, but real success comes with all the hard work by the staff who have to turn that deal into a viable profitable trading account."

Box: Simon Cope aims to inspire loyalty among Skopes' employees.

Many of Skopes staff have been with the company for more than 20 years. One member of the team has clocked up 50 years' service.

Simon Cope added: "The saying goes ‘happy wife happy life’.‘Happy staff successful company’ may not have the same word flow but it is absolutely true.

"We treat our staff with respect and we help in many other ways outside the working environment.

"Business can be very challenging but very rewarding; keeping up the staff morale is imperative.

"Just a simple 'thank you you’ve done a great job today we appreciate it” takes 20 seconds but can mean a lot to the person who has worked very hard, as all of us like to be appreciated."

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