Shaper: John Sims-Hilditch

Show aired on 5th May 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Laila Biali with Let’s Dance – her take on the David Bowie classic. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers, I’m Elliot Moss, thank you very much for joining me here on Jazz FM. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people who are shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them we are really lucky because we bring someone who is shaping the world of business. We call them Business Shapers. My Business Shaper today I am very pleased to say is John Sims-Hilditch and John is the Co-Founder of Neptune and if you are in the know you will know that they make amazing kitchens and do other wonderful things for your home. You are going to be hearing lots about his story and how he’s helped grow this business into a significant one across the UK and beyond. Lots coming up from John. In addition to hearing from you’ll be hearing a new feature called the News Sessions where Paddy O’Connell will be discussing GDPR with Mishcon de Reya lawyers; a real insight into a very important topic and on top of that of course you’ll be hearing some music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul including Jamison Ross, Snarky Puppy and this from the brilliant John Coltrane.

That was John Coltrane with Just For The Love and just for the love of it John Sim-Hilditch is here, he’s my Business Shaper today; Co-Founder of Neptune as I said they’re in the business of making kitchens and lots of other parts of your home look fantastic and work in a brilliant way too. Thank you so much for joining John.

John Sims-Hilditch
Well thank you for inviting me, it was very kind.

Elliot Moss
Now tell me what Neptune is and how Neptune happened. Let’s go, start where we are now and then we’ll go back a little bit to 1996.

John Sims-Hilditch
Okay so today Neptune is creating a look and a lifestyle for your home and you can create a whole home using all the lovely things that we do from a kitchen as you indicated but you know simple accessories, candles so we sort of focus on all the senses and try and make homes beautiful places that’s where we are today. But that isn’t where we started in ‘96.

Elliot Moss
Where did you start in 1996?

John Sims-Hilditch
In ‘96 we started with the desire to create a business without much of a particular angle on where we would go with that at all and I had two kids and one on the way and my business partner Giles had recently left Reading University where he had done a little bit of work but had a lot more fun I think and we decided we wanted to start something together and it was summer of ‘96 and we were discussing ideas and he said ‘I’ve sold a few Mexican hammocks when I was at Reading University’ and explained what the advantages were and I said ‘Well I don’t think that really is an ideal product for the UK’ but we were discussing the design of them and the benefits of them and said ‘Well why don’t we try and make one that sorts of styled for the UK market’ and so that was the start of a design journey that we went down and we created this beautiful hammock with canvas and rope and it was quite nautical. I had the two kids I mentioned and so we made it kid safe, kids couldn’t fall out of it and we made this wonderful hammock and we got to the point of the end product and I turned to Giles and I said ‘Giles how many guys do you know or friends of yours who have got two trees in the perfect place?’ and we realised that our product might not have much success as it stood but I sort of went back into my military days and I said ‘We used to use this kind of A-frame structure in the jungle to hold ourselves off the ground why don’t we try and adapt that for one end of the hammock because a lot of people got one tree’. So we created this A-frame it worked really well and actually we worked out once we’d done it that the A-frame could stand at both ends you wouldn’t need any trees so that was our hang anywhere hammock at that point and we sold five and a half thousand hammocks in our first year. So we kind of fell into the hammock world.

Elliot Moss
Now you mentioned in passing there the reference to the A-frame and your military days it should be said I’m talking to a Captain here or an ex-Captain rather, Coldstream Guards up to about ‘94. I’ve had many friends along the way that have spent a time in the Army and they go up to the ten year piece. First question, what made you want to go into the Army and then second part of that is when you left, which was in ‘94 obviously a couple of years before you set the business up, what was the world holding for John at that point?

John Sims-Hilditch
I think going into the Army it was actually a number of very small influences. I didn’t want to continue with further education having gone through school I was desperate to move on from that. I had a friend who, well a couple of friends actually who were talking about going into the military. I liked being outside and fit and so on and so forth so I thought well maybe I’ll have a go at that and that was really, it was really nothing more nothing less than that and it was sort of a happy event I suppose.

Elliot Moss
And you obviously enjoyed your time.

John Sims-Hilditch
I had a great time but I was also determined when I went in it that it wasn’t going to be something I would stay with so I sort of set my limit as I went in because I wanted to make sure that I moved on to something else.

Elliot Moss
Now part two of that question we are going to hold for a moment because I think we’re going to bring in some more music and then we’re going to come back to the part two which is what did the world hold for John in 1994. Right now though this is Jamison Ross.

That was Jamison Ross with A Mellow Good Time. I’m talking to John Sims-Hilditch today he’s my Business Shaper. He is also the Co-Founder of Neptune and he’s also an ex-Captain from the Army and we’re talking about your Army days which it does sound like you enjoyed it and you got from it what you wanted which was a good thing. So come ‘94 you leave was there a sense of I know what I’m going to do?

John Sims-Hilditch
There was no sense of what I was going to do but I was very happy to be moving onto something else and that was the time that I met my business partner in, actually I went to go and work with my dad for a very short period of time and the way that his business operated wasn’t kind of my idea of a business having the military experience I had and so but I met Giles at the same time and so… we were just young and very naïve and we said let’s just do something together. I don’t know what so we both kind of quit and decided to start something on our own.

Elliot Moss
But that in itself is not what everyone does, some people just fall into a corporate job and just get on with it and put their head down. What do you think inside of you drove you to decide yeah let’s just do it, let’s do something for me and something where you would be your own boss.

John Sims-Hilditch
I think actually that was my military experience. I had a lot of autonomy although one imagines and you say that the military is very organised, very controlled, lots of orders and all the rest of it actually individually you have a huge amount of autonomy and I just really didn’t think that working in a structure was what I wanted. In fact one of the reasons and I am sure I was not necessarily right about this because I never went through the experience but one of the reasons I determined that I didn’t want to stay in the military was because when you are in the junior officer levels you do have this huge autonomy looking after your own soldiers and you are goodness knows where but as you get into more senior ranks my perception was you are more office based and in a more controlled environment and it didn’t really, it wasn’t what I wanted.

Elliot Moss
Now five and a half thousand hammocks year one pretty good. When did the hammock business start to morph into something else and how did that happen?

John Sims-Hilditch
Well the hammock business morphed into something else quite quickly. As a soldier I was very keen that we were very disciplined and followed a single route but Giles as…

Elliot Moss
I would definitely do what you told me to by the way, you’ve just got that look, don’t mess with Captain John.

John Sims-Hilditch
Well Giles does mess with Captain John regularly.

Elliot Moss
That’s different you’ve known each for twenty years.

John Sims-Hilditch
We have, yeah and he, you know he is always looking for lots of new ideas all the time and I gave him one accidentally because I had made our garden table at home which consisted of a door with four pieces of wood on it which I thought was very elegant and sophisticated, you could fold it up and put it away but Emma, my wife who has a very keen eye for quality decided that there must be something better than the table I had made so she said whilst we went to this trade fair early on in our hammock experience she said ‘Why don’t you, you know whilst you’re there could you find me a table’. Anyway Giles disappeared off at the trade fair and he came back extremely excited and said ‘I’ve found a whole container of tables’ and I was going ‘Oh no please’ but that was, we sort of fell into those tables which were not perfect but were made by a really great team in Ghana and so we went on from that point to designing our own first set of garden furniture and we suddenly had a sort of a broader collection than just the hammock and then we went back out of, we went back to our own workshops and also started thinking about what else we wanted to create and we designed, well we thought about doing a deckchair and that turned out when we were in the workshop working on it I said to Giles ‘if we put these bits of wood a different way it would rock’ and we weren’t entirely sure but we tried it and it did. We then spent a little bit of time trying to work out the geometry how we could make it rock and fold and we came up with what we think was probably the first rocking deckchair which is now fairly ubiquitous and we sold those to Habitat and lots of well-known companies at the time so we were creating lots of different garden products quite quickly.

Elliot Moss
And right now just for the record there is twenty five stores in the UK, a few across Europe and other distribution platforms as well for this business and around eight hundred people in it, no bad hey from a few hammocks.

John Sims-Hilditch
From a hammock.

Elliot Moss
From a hammock, the humble hammock. Much more coming up from John my Business Shaper in a couple of minutes but first I promised earlier it’s something new it’s called the news sessions it’s with Paddy O’Connell he’s in conversation with a couple of Mishcon de Reya lawyers and he’s talking on the subject of GDPR.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM. Every Saturday I’m very lucky I get to talk to someone who is shaping the world of business, whose doing their thing and getting on with it in an autonomous way too. If you’ve missed any of the programmes go into iTunes put in the words ‘Jazz’ and ‘Shapers’ and if you were just listening earlier you would have heard the News Sessions that too, the full version is available on iTunes right now I hope I’m crossing my fingers and legs and everything else that it has magically landed in iTunes and hopefully on jazzfm.com and Matt the producer is looking at me as if I’m crazy, of course it’s there. Right now today though I’ve got John Sims-Hilditch with me, he’s the Co-Founder of Neptune and Neptune as you heard has morphed from a hammock into a business that employs around eight hundred people that is in the UK, prevalent across the UK but also across Europe and they make all sorts of things for the home.

Your business partner, Giles who you set up with obviously you’re still working together, you also work with your wife, Emma who’s the creative director. Tell me about relationships in your business both from the perspective of someone who is married to someone important in the business. I know Emma has her own business as well but also with Giles because twenty years and I don’t know how long you’ve been married for but these are significant slugs aren’t they?

John Sims-Hilditch
They are definitely significant slugs and I think like any relationship you definitely have to work at it. You know Giles and I are very different characters and actually I think a lot of the team they’re not frustrated with us being different actually say that’s the greatest benefit because we could operate in such different ways and think about different things and what we have learnt over the years is a lot more about our differences and the benefit that they bring to business so where we might have chaffed from time to time in the past over those issues it doesn’t, that doesn’t really happen now we kind of more celebrate what the other member of the team is bringing in and the different angle they’re taking to something it just makes the business stronger.

Elliot Moss
So if I was to ask you John, the thing that you celebrate most about Giles, the adjective that would describe Giles or the talent that would describe Giles what would the first thing that comes into you mind?

John Sims-Hilditch
I already thought of his laugh and anybody who knows him will know what I mean. He has the most extraordinary laugh you could probably hear it a mile away.

Elliot Moss
Okay well that’s brilliant and what would he say about you?

John Sims-Hilditch
I don’t know that’s a very interesting question. I think he would say ‘Much as I don’t want to say this you should listen to John’.

Elliot Moss
And what about you and Emma obviously because you’re married, you’ve got kids and you’re also in the business together how, what is Emma’s biggest talent that she brings to the business?

John Sims-Hilditch
Well she has, as I indicated earlier, we were a garden business and fairly autonomous Giles and I at that point but as we made a decision to swing into the interiors world Emma kind of stepped in a bit and said ‘I know quite a bit about this’ and she helped us initially styling some, we made a table and a chair for the home it was fairly obviously thing to do from all our garden furniture days but it was different because we used to, I used to just go to a friend’s garden and be able to take photographs of our lovely garden furniture and it would look great and styling wasn’t really that difficult but going indoors was really hard and so Emma helped me do that first sort of styling and that had two effects. One effect was that a customer started ringing me up and asking me about the lamp and the colour of the paint and all kinds of the parts of the styling that we had no knowledge of or experience of and I kind of realised that the customers were as interested in the whole concept that we were presenting as they were in our original table and chairs so that is how Emma sort of came into the business giving us that kind of advice about the whole interior style.

Elliot Moss
And briefly in terms of conflict in the business between you and Emma if there is any versus conflict outside of the business, do you manage those conflicts differently when it’s on a professional footing or is just the same person, it’s just you and Emma.

John Sims-Hilditch
Its 100% the same person and actually our business is like that. I don’t think we, we don’t really want anybody to walk into the business and put on their corporate suit and armour. It’s a very friendly personal, we’re a home company, we’re a home business and so we think that actually work should feel like home there shouldn’t be a difference and our stores and our offices are all like that. They’re beautiful places to be and so no there is no difference and you know generally speaking I mean again its learning and we have learnt over time what we’re good at and what we’re less good at so if we’re talking about anything to do with colour or fabrics or you know how it should look I just, I might have an opinion but I would always back off if it differs from where Emma is going with it because she knows better than I do on these subjects. Engineering I might have a stronger view and she would stand back and say you know ‘Okay well we’ll do that differently’.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my great Co-Founder today of the Neptune business, that’s John Sims-Hilditch. Time for some more music right now this is Snarky Puppy who I really like and it’s called I hope I say this correctly, Shofukan.

That was Snarky Puppy with Shofukan. I’m talking to John Sims-Hilditch today and we’ve been talking about a burgeoning business and relationships. You said at the beginning it was just you know two naïve friends, young, having a bit of fun. You’re now overseeing a bit of an empire, you now have upwards of eight hundred people or so. You’re opening new stores imminently – it’s growing, what’s the ambition now as you look forward over the next few years John?

John Sims-Hilditch
It’s interesting I mean we are ambitious but we’re not and I have to try and explain what that means so we’re not sort of trying to drive the business forward at any particular rate but at the same time we feel that we’ve got a really important point of view and something to say so we’re kind of ambitious with what we can do with that. We also talk in the same breath about trying to create a business that will last a hundred years and it’s a sort of interesting concept that because not many companies do and we think that that’s a difficult thing to achieve not least because none of us who are creating the business today will be there in a hundred years’ time so we have to sort of imbu our values and our thoughts and our beliefs into the whole sort of bloodstream of the business really. So the ambition is long and deep and wide actually but it’s not in any particular hurry it’s just we want to do a great thing and do it steadily and do it well.

Elliot Moss
Does it matter if the kids are interested or not? Do you want them to be involved in your business at all?

John Sims-Hilditch
It does not matter but we would be delighted if they were so…

Elliot Moss
Have they ever said ‘Dad would you consider, or can I have a go or could you teach me’?

John Sims-Hilditch
Well probably not no because our eldest daughter you know is a really keen fine artist, our second daughter is loving being in the film world and the son is enjoying university life and discovering his own life and what he wants to do so…

Elliot Moss
Not yet.

John Sims-Hilditch
…nobody’s burning to do anything particularly and I think we’ll just see how it goes.

Elliot Moss
We haven’t talked about money, obviously the business turns over a fair few million pounds and has you know enabled you to live a life I imagine in a great way because you reap those rewards. Does it matter to you? I mean how much does the money feature in the way you view this business. Obviously a business has to turn a profit but is it about scale and about being the biggest and all this other stuff?

John Sims-Hilditch
Its 100% not that. You know the money is, I always say that the money is a consequence. If we make a profit, you know a business has to make a profit in order to survive but assuming that we can do that that’s a consequence of our good work. So it isn’t the objective, it’s not what we set out to do but we believe that if we do great things for our customers and for our team and actually sort of for the wider community then probably the business will work and therefore it will be profitable and it will be from those profits it will be able to grow so that’s the kind of way that we look at money really.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat today with John plus we’ll be playing a track from Natalie Cole, that’s in just a moment.

That was the uplifting Natalie Cole with This Will Be and I’m sure you’ve been dancing or at least attempting to dance if you’re me. I’ve just got a few more minutes with my Business Shaper today that’s John Sims-Hilditch. I just love your surname, I could say it all day. He is Co-Founder of Neptune, they have been doing fabulously and grown fabulously over the last twenty years. Where is the name from – Sims-Hilditch?

John Sims-Hilditch
Sims-Hilditch that is, it’s from sort of north of England and it’s a blend of two families from the sort of late 1800s.

Elliot Moss
That’s proper providence not like my name, I’ve just got a foreigner’s name, it’s been shortened, it’s terrible, there’s no heritage in my name at all. There’s a few things going on at the moment in obviously in the way that people are living in the sense that people are probably, the property market is a bit slower, property people are staying, deciding to renovate which I imagine has helped your business but at the same time I imagine that the threat of Brexit and the cost of raw materials is also affecting your business? On balance how do you navigate between these forces? How much do you need to take into consideration the macro picture?

John Sims-Hilditch
We look at it all the time because you know you just have to be guarding the business carefully making sure that you can look after your team, your supply chain that everybody’s in good shape as best as possible so we of course pay attention but we really focus on our sort of number one principle of doing the right thing and believe that if we stick to that and create absolutely beautiful products which are designed to last indefinitely. You know we have a lifetime guarantee on our kitchens for example then we sort of think that that will win through so we have a sort of, a little bit of a blind faith I suppose that our, the people who know us and get to love what we do will stick by us and support us.

Elliot Moss
Now you’ve got I mentioned around eight hundred people that’s quite a responsibility. You had responsibility before when you were in the Army do you, how does responsibility affect you? You don’t seem, you don’t appear to be the kind of person that would be super stressed but I imagine you do take it quite personally that you want everyone to make a living and so on is that a fair…?

John Sims-Hilditch
Yeah that’s really important so I think we do feel a keen sense of responsibility and want to make sure that you know I mentioned this principle do the right thing that applies across, it’s a 360 degree kind of thing so it applies as much to our team as to anything else. So we look really carefully at how we can try and take care of everybody in the organisation and navigate the business carefully so that their roles are safe, so that they’ve got, not just a future but actually hopefully something exciting to work towards and actually that is the reason we are where we are. It’s not what Giles and I have done it’s because we’ve got amazing people who are all in their own way creative and trying to do really brilliant things and that collective effort is amazing to watch and a real privilege to be a leader of really.

Elliot Moss
And when are you at your most happiest John? When do you think you, do you ever sit back with the metaphorical cigar and whisky in hand and go ‘Yeah I’m pretty chuffed’. Are there moments that are big spikes? Is it the fact that you’re proud of your team or are there other things that make you feel really fabulous?

John Sims-Hilditch
The biggest pride is walking into our, any of our stores or into the HQ in Wiltshire and just seeing everybody, talking to them, picking up on what they’re doing both personally and at work and it’s just, it’s such a privilege.

Elliot Moss
It has been a real privilege talking to you, thank you, thank you for your time. I have learnt a lot about the discipline of the Army and how it might be applied in the world of business and it sounds like you’ve managed to fuse precision and creativity in a really, really well successful way. Just before I let you go what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

John Sims-Hilditch
I’ve chosen Gravity by John Meyer. Emma and I happened to see the Crossroads concert in 2007 and this performance just was a spectacularly creative and emotional and so we were touched by it and never forgotten it.

Elliot Moss
And here it is just for you.

That was Gravity from John Meyer the song choice of my Business Shaper today, John Sims-Hilditch. He talked about doing the right thing by the business so that it can still be here in a hundred years. He talked about the importance of autonomy for him and I think that is absolutely a massive point for anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur and importantly for the culture of his business, he talked about ensuring that people don’t come to work with a corporate suit, we want people to feel at home. Really, really good stuff. Do join me again, same time, same place that’s next Saturday, 9.00am sharp here on Jazz FM for another edition of Jazz Shapers. I hope you enjoyed the programme, thank you very much for joining me.

John Sims-Hilditch

Prior to co-founding Neptune with Giles Redman, John Sims-Hilditch was a Captain in the British Army. The discipline and precision he learned as an army officer, together with his natural entrepreneurial spirit, have helped make Neptune one of the fastest growing retailers in Britain.

“Giles left Reading University having sold only a few Mexican hammocks and I said I didn’t think it was an ideal product for the UK. Then we discussed the design benefits of them and decided to make one styled for the UK with nautical canvas and rope.”

“I used my military experience to create the A-frame so you wouldn’t need any trees. We sold five and a half thousand hammocks in our first year.”

“We spent time working out the geometry of how we could make a deck chair rock and fold. We came up with what we think was the first rocking deckchair which is now fairly ubiquitous. We sold those to Habitat and lots of well-known companies at the time.”

“Giles and I are very different characters and I think a lot of the team say that’s the greatest benefit. We think about things differently and over the years our differences bring benefits to the business.”

“Giles really has the most extraordinary laugh – you could probably hear it a mile away.”

“I realised customers were interested in the whole concept when they started asking about the colour of paint and styling, so Emma came into the business to give us advice about the whole interior style.”

“I always say that the money is a consequence. A business has to make a profit in order to survive but, after that, money is a consequence of good work.”

“The biggest pride is walking into any of our stores or into the HQ in Wiltshire and seeing everybody, talking to them, picking up on what they’re doing both personally and at work. It’s such a privilege.”

“If we are to create a business that will last 100 years, we have to imbue our values, thoughts and beliefs into its bloodstream.”