Shaper: Oliver Tress

Show aired on 18th February 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The genius Dizzy Gillespie with For The Gypsies. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss; thank you very much for joining me. 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 alongside them we bring someone who is shaping the world of business and we call a Business Shapers and I am very pleased to say my Business Shaper today is none other than Oliver Tress. Oliver Tress is the founder of Oliver Bonas and you probably would have been into one of his fantastic shops because there is around sixty of them now. You will be hearing lots from Oliver about how he has built his little empire and how he continues to build it. You will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya with some words of advice for your business and then we have got some music and it is brilliant today from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul, Abbey Lincoln is in there, Christian Scott is in there and this tribute to Fats Waller is from Jason Moran and he is coming up right now.

That was Jason Moran with Honeysuckle Rose. This is Jazz Shapers and my Business Shaper today I am very pleased to say is Oliver Tress; the founder and managing director he is calling himself of Oliver Bonas, which is the store on many, many high streets around the UK selling all sorts of stuff, furniture, clothes, jewellery, accessories, homeware, picture frames, crockery, the lot and I have bought most things as I alluded to earlier. Oliver it is a real pleasure to have you, thank you very much for coming on.

Oliver Tress
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
It’s an interesting thing to set up, a shop of, I mean it was then nicknacks, you know it is a bit more than nicknacks now. How did you get in to it? What made you think about doing this?

Oliver Tress
Yeah well I don’t know if I quite fell into it exactly but I was, I was importing on a very small scale, accessories, bags mainly from the Far East – my parents were living in Hong Kong – so that was sort of my introduction to business and initially I was just selling the product where I could to friends or through charity events, markets if you like and I just eventually after two or three years decided that this, I needed to formalise and turn it into something that gave me the possibilities that my ambition was after so I then opened an actual store in Fulham Road in 1993 and then opened up another world of trade shows where I was shown a whole variety of products from candle sticks to all the variety of products you describe and without any sort of formal strategy I found myself buying a whole range of products, putting them in the shop and ended up with this mix of product that now seems to have a name which is sort of lifestyle mix of products.

Elliot Moss
Horrible name isn’t it?

Oliver Tress
Yeah it is a dreadful name, almost entirely meaningless. But that’s how it started which was sort of the, my sort of magpie style of buying, just the things that I liked and sat alongside each other so the unifying thread really was just my aesthetic I suppose.

Elliot Moss
Which is interesting, I mean obviously we all have an aesthetic, some of us have better ones than others, obviously yours is a good one because many, many people like it. But way back in the day when you, you know, you started at Durham, you did an anthropology degree, I mean that wasn’t a great platform for becoming an aesthetically driven guy who then sets up shops?

Oliver Tress
No.

Elliot Moss
I mean it’s a great place Durham and a great University degree but it has nothing to do with what you do now?

Oliver Tress
On the face of it no perhaps not but on the other hand I think how I might be retro fitting for the facts as they stand now but I think and let’s be clear about this and any of my friends listening can confirm, I am not an academic person and I wasn’t one of the world’s great anthropologists but I did have an underlying interest in the ideas behind anthropology which are the unifying sort of human behaviours and although, as I said, I didn’t actually really enjoy my Degree I still have an interest in the concept of how humans behave regardless of sort of geography so I am interested in human behaviour and I am interested in the ideas that human’s share regardless of where they are from and so perhaps that can be built in to whether or not it is exactly my business, or whether it is just any business that is sort of consumer facing. If that’s not too pretentious.

Elliot Moss
I don’t think it is pretentious at all, I think it is an excellent explanation of why you are now running a business that is turning over fifty million quid and maybe more people should think harder about…

Oliver Tress
Yeah go for anthropology…

Elliot Moss
…anthropology.

Oliver Tress
…and new business.

Elliot Moss
That is the secret. It is the first time I have heard it hear on the programme, that’s brilliant. Stay with me for much more insight and truth from Oliver Tress, my Business Shaper, founder managing director of Oliver Bonas. Time for some more music this is Nina Simone with See-Line Woman.

Nina Simone with the not oft heard See-Line Woman. Actually it’s a brilliant track isn’t it. Oliver Tress is my Business Shaper, founder and MD of Oliver Bonas and he was talking about anthropology, human behaviour, life, the universe and everything but seriously actually Oliver what you really talked about is that the, I think your passion for the variety of where humanity goes and that does link to what people use and what people buy and it does explain to me and I have one, in one of the rooms in my house, we have a lovely big cupboard with a lovely butterfly kind of bronze thing on it and it’s where a bunch of stuff from my kids goes and it’s a piece and it feels like someone has chosen it rather than I have just bought it off a production line. Where did that aesthetic come from for you because you mentioned it and I just want to… was it your mother and father into things, I mean what is it that drove that?

Oliver Tress
Yeah well my mother is an artist and she comes from a family, an artistic family so perhaps there is an element of that, I mean it is speculating a bit but I was also brought up… we moved countries internationally, I didn’t really live in England when I was young so perhaps it was the combination of my mother’s artistic influence and the nature of the countries I was living in and her sort of propensity to look into those cultures on the artistic side that maybe just informed my perspective. I haven’t really long enough on the therapist’s couch to know the answer.

Elliot Moss
More time, more money in the box.

Oliver Tress
That’s what today’s all about.

Elliot Moss
Now moving from your, you know, indulging the artistic to embracing the opportunity that importing gave you and then to go from that to a formal place, to trade fairs, to more shops and acquiring these opportunities. That takes a bit of a move, that commercial thing is interesting to me. Did that come comfortably to you or was it more of a headache as you transitioned from ‘well actually I love these things but now I’ve got to make a business of it’?

Oliver Tress
No I mean what everyone says about my artistic inheritance from my mother, it’s really I was also very commercially driven and very ambitious which again may not have been very obvious to people who knew me but I was and so there was no, there was no doubt in my mind that at some point I was going to you know, actually turn this into or make a go or something and then I just wanted it to really be sort of manifest in some substantial way.

Elliot Moss
And where is that ambition from do you think?

Oliver Tress
No idea, no idea.

Elliot Moss
Really?

Oliver Tress
And actually I have asked myself that recently sort of ‘why are we, why do you feel the need to sort of expand the business’ and I mean actually there are lots of good practical reasons but in fact there is this urge to keep going and to keep exploring new areas and to keep doing things better and so its… I don’t question it too deeply.

Elliot Moss
I find it interesting just looking at you, you sort of look surprised by your own ambition, it’s almost as much as you said, your friend’s wouldn’t notice, it almost feels like its snuck up on you and you are that guy but you can’t really explain where it’s come from?

Oliver Tress
It hadn’t snuck up on me, I have totally been aware of it but as you say, I don’t know where it has come from but in fact you slightly implied two questions there; or I read two questions there which was ‘how did you find the transition?’. The answer to your question is I actually found the transition from, well in fact, if I make it clear, from one store to actually two stores which is a different sort of beast in terms of sort of management. The answer is I found it extremely difficult. Mainly because I assumed or at least I had no idea about business and just thought it was something just quite easy to do and had no idea of all the intricacies so it was actually very painful. The first few years were tough.

Elliot Moss
He is very honest this man isn’t he? That’s Oliver Tress my Business Shaper and founder of Oliver Bonas. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and we will be coming back to Oliver after that and before that some words of wisdom I hope from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your burgeoning business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday morning I speak to someone who is doing a really impressive thing, they are building a business and they are doing it for themselves and for the people that they get behind them and the people that work or them and all of that and it’s brilliant because doing your own thing is not an easy thing to do. Oliver Tress is my Business Shaper today and he has been building the Oliver Bonas business for over twenty years now if my maths is correct which is a long time Oliver, it is almost half your, almost half your life isn’t it?

Oliver Tress
Absolutely yeah.

Elliot Moss
You obviously love what you do. You look very relaxed, you look happy in your own skin. Are there ever days when you think this isn’t what I want to do anymore and I am going to stop because you’ve got to a point now where, I don’t know if you can or you can’t financially, but you may want to do other things?

Oliver Tress
Well there have been… you are right it has been twenty odd years but there has been plenty of time during that period when I wanted to do other things because it was very stressful and it is difficult but I always had this sense that there was something worth striving for and keeping going for and there was if you like, light at the end of the tunnel which kept me going because as I said, I was very driven and I think you really need that as someone who is starting their own business. If you haven’t got an incredibly tense sense of wanting to achieve something, I think most people would fall by the wayside so now the situation, in a funny way our business really in its current existence is only a few years old because we’ve started designing our own products, so within the last four, five years we have really put all our energy into design. So really we’ve got a team of sort of twelve, sixteen designers in the business and that’s where we are creating a real I suppose expression of our business and so in some ways the business is quite young to me. You know it is still very exciting and there is still lots we can do so there is no sense in which we’ve achieved everything we’d like to so that still keeps me very interested. I do have other things I would like to do but if I can sort of, if I can somehow align them with the business that would probably be my ideal.

Elliot Moss
You mentioned stressful days and it is obvious building any business is not going to be a bed of roses. Apart from the inner strength which you talk about the tenacity which you refer to. Externally who was supportive of you and how did they support you as you went through those really tough times when you thought ‘ooh not sure about this’?

Oliver Tress
Well that’s a question that I haven’t sort of thought about because perhaps I am… I mean I am kind of introverted in that sense. I internalise all the stress and the problems typically and that sounds like almost an extremely ungrateful answer because I am sure that there is a mass of people who have been incredibly supportive and actually I mean the easy and obvious answer is all the people I work with and it is probably the exact answer but I am thinking more of the days when I really was very small and sort of on my own. But latterly it is very simple, yeah, it’s the team I worked with and we in fact are, one of our earlier employees has just come up to their twentieth anniversary so that gives you an idea of how long I have been working with some of these people. And those people who, who started that long ago had to be of a special kind of personality who could work with me because I wasn’t easy to work with so it’s quite, in a way it’s quite easy to answer that and it’s those people who I worked with all those years.

Elliot Moss
Very good, stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper today, that’s Oliver Tress. Time for some more music, this is Abbey Lincoln with Afro Blue.

Abbey Lincoln with Afro Blue. I am talking to Oliver Tress today, he is my Business Shaper and if you weren’t listening earlier, you are very naughty but if you did miss, he is the founder and managing director of Oliver Bonas and they are those great stores, shops, whatever you want to call them with all sorts of brilliant things that you can find in them – a Pandora’s box of wonderful things for your house. We are not going to use the lifestyle word because I think it is much better than that. A couple of things you mentioned before which I want to pick up on. You said you were difficult to work with. You don’t strike me as someone who is difficult. You strike me as someone who is thoughtful but what is the difficulty in you would you say?

Oliver Tress
The difficulty, well I think, I think not being experienced in managing people and not perhaps being very clear in sort of expressing myself when I’ve got ideas about how I think things should be. It makes it extremely hard for people to even start to know where to start in trying to sort of do their job if you like.

Elliot Moss
But it sounds like, it sounds like to me that you said you were sort of introverted in the way you held the stress and that you have great thoughts and sometimes you maybe don’t articulate them to other people. They are in your head. It sounds like someone would have to understand that they are in your head and that they have to ask the right questions and then listen intently.

Oliver Tress
Yes and I sort of used to think of it as a sort of, sort of an evolutionary process, a Darwinian process of, of you know, it happens that you have a relationship of trust and you build up trust and you respect, you know, I suppose I just respect their judgment then I can relax and go actually I don’t have to have all the answers, because I didn’t have all the answers and I think people who know me now, they laugh, they joke about the fact that Ollie will change his mind and but they know they can absorb that and quite often make me change my mind back to my original decision without me noticing.

Elliot Moss
There is an art in that as well.

Oliver Tress
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
And you mention one other thing which I just want to pick up on briefly. The reinvention in your business. You talked about this latter stage where you are now designing your own stuff and I am sure there were two or three iterations of that. Did these thoughts of reinvention come to you in a moment of an epiphany or was it sort of without noticing you were kind of going ‘we are move into that now’? Because twenty years plus is a big time to run a business and for you to turn around and say it feels a young business. I think it is fantastic.

Oliver Tress
Yeah I don’t, I wouldn’t say it was an epiphany exactly. I think there was always a sense of frustration that ultimately we were buying other people’s designs and yes we were curating and that was our job if you like but as I said before, the ultimate expression of what we were trying to, what we believed in I suppose has to ultimately come from a team that is very tight and yes it is not me there doing the designing so again, it’s just a constant dialogue and our design team across the different product categories are all in one room – they are actually a bit cramped now – but it is better that they are in one room so they can just cross pollinate ideas and so to try and keep everyone on the same sort of track. But I kind of love the fact that it is not about me at all really now. It’s just a group of people, it’s very much about the group and really they are driving the aesthetic and I am sort of a passenger who happens to be somewhere near the steering wheel.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my founder passenger, I am sure he is a humble passenger too. I am sure he is a bit more than that and that’s Oliver Tress, my Business Shaper today. We will have our final chat with him plus play a track from Christian Scott, that’s after the latest traffic and travel.

That was Christian Scott with the very interesting sounding Twin. He is an interesting artist, I think he was the winner of the Innovation Award last year at the 2016 Jazz FM Music Awards and the 2017 Awards are happening at the end of April and you will be hearing much more about that on Jazz FM. Oliver Tress is my Business Shaper today here on Jazz Shapers and if you didn’t catch earlier he is the founder and MD of Oliver Bonas. Fifty million pound plus business, sixty stores. You sound like a happy camper, humble too. What’s next for the business? Is it just more of the same?

Oliver Tress
Yeah well as I say we have got ambitions in terms of what we want to achieve with the design side of things. We are not quite where we would like to be but that’s… we should get there in the next couple of years and then, and then who knows. We are still a relatively modest sized business based in one country so you know, perhaps we will go international, perhaps… our ecommerce side of the business is growing very fast and that’s got a small international business so it’s, as I said, you know it still feels like there is an enormous amount we can do.

Elliot Moss
I like your motto which I believe is ‘work hard, play hard and be kind’. No as you get bigger and more and more people work for you and scale becomes you know and not just scale, there’s variety, there’s the on-line business, there’s the design business, there’s the front end of the retail, there’s the back end operations stuff that has to work. That must be harder to keep true to?

Oliver Tress
Yes that’s what everyone says and I am sure it may well be true but I think perhaps we are just still at the scale where I do believe it is manageable and I will be faced with the realities that actually we are not delivering on that further down the line and but… well if you start from the place that that’s what you want to achieve and you put a lot of energy and effort into making sure that’s the message that you are passing on and you ask yourselves are you delivering on that and if people challenge you and you discover that you are falling short and you put it right, then at least I think you give yourself the best chance. So we will keep at it.

Elliot Moss
You don’t sound unduly worried about it and you mentioned earlier over the years you sort of internalised the stress and thought about things yourself and then come to conclusions. If you were to open up for a moment and say the number one worry for you right now as you look towards the future – what might that be?

Oliver Tress
What do you mean? In general for the business?

Elliot Moss
For the business.

Oliver Tress
The number one worry, well I mean, the whole Brexit thing did really scare me from a business point of view at one point and perhaps Trump should scare me more, I don’t know. I suppose it was more just general big, those big calamitus scenarios where… I mean serious sort of challenges we face in the business were in the end of 2008 when Leeman’s went bust and our sales really dropped dramatically and dramatically fast and so that really was a wake-up call that you can’t take the general sort of climate for granted and things can change dramatically and in such a way that you know, you could really find yourself that your business can’t survive. So I am quite conscious of those kind of scenarios and Brexit was one of those where I thought well actually we are unleashing forces that we just don’t know how they are going to play out and we still don’t although it has been pretty benign since the actual result of the vote. It still feels like there is a lot still to come. So I do, I do have a certain level of worry about that but actually we have been fine since the vote, it is more how it all plays out over the next few years.

Elliot Moss
Well look Oliver, really good luck. You’ve done good things and I am sure you will do more good things and we will see more Oliver Bonas’s either here or somewhere over there wherever there might be. So thank you very much for joining me and sharing thoughtful things with me today which is also very nice to hear. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Oliver Tress
My song is Sabu Yercoy by Ali Fhaka Toure and Toumani Diabete. It’s just a, it’s got a beautiful sense of companionship between the musicians and it just makes me feel very calm and happy.

Elliot Moss
That was Sabu Yercoy by Ali Fhaka Toure and Toumani Diabete, marlaiyan music legends if you didn’t know. That was Toumani on the African harp, otherwise known as the Kora and Ali Fhaka Toure, no longer alive, on the guitar and one of the many collaborations they did together and it was the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Oliver Tress. A really thoughtful person. I loved the fact that he deeply thought about some of the answers to the questions I asked him. He was ambitious but not overly so just someone who really understood that he wanted to make the best of what he was doing; and honest, really honest, really sought to find the honest truth to what’s been behind his own success and what drives him. Really, really good stuff. Do join me again, same time, same place, that’s next Saturday, 9.00am here on Jazz FM. In the meantime stay with us because coming up next its Nigel Williams.

Oliver Tress

Oliver Tress is the Founder and Managing Director of independent British lifestyle retailer, Oliver Bonas. Having left university with an Anthropology degree, at the age of 25 he opened the first Oliver Bonas store on London’s Fulham Road, bringing together homeware, accessories and jewellery he had found in the Far East, the UK and Europe. Olly’s inspiration for Oliver Bonas, and his love of design, came from his childhood travels and living in different countries across the world.

There are now 59 stores across the UK, as well as an online store. Today, Olly is still at Oliver Bonas and is as committed to design as ever, helped out by an amazing team who share his passion for bringing new ideas to life. They have fun and follow their company motto: ‘Work Hard, Play Hard & Be Kind.’

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

Follow Oliver Bonas James on Twitter @OliverBonas.

“Let’s be clear about this – and any of my friends listening can confirm – I am not an academic person and I wasn’t one of the world’s great anthropologists…”

“I am interested in human behaviour and I am interested in the ideas that humans share regardless of where they are from.”

“I had no idea about business and just thought it was something quite easy to do – and had no idea of all the intricacies, so it was actually very painful. The first few years were tough.”

“I was very driven and I think you really need that as someone who is starting their own business. If you haven’t got an incredibly tense sense of wanting to achieve something, I think most people would fall by the wayside.”

“I think people who know me now, they laugh, they joke about the fact that Ollie will change his mind but they know they can absorb that and quite often make me change my mind back to my original decision without me noticing.”

“You can’t take the general climate for granted and things can change dramatically and in such a way that…you could really find that your business can’t survive.”

“I kind of love the fact that it is not about me at all really now…it’s very much about the group and really they are driving the aesthetic and I am sort of a passenger who happens to be somewhere near the steering wheel.”