Donald Finlay: ‘We have a unique place in fashion for the man in search of style, elegance and the right fit’
John Mulgrew speaks to Donald Finlay, head of the suit and menswear firm Douglas & Grahame, about tough times, Brexit and selling outfits to dedicated followers of fashion to Northern Ireland and beyond
Douglas & Grahame has grown from a small Belfast wholesale business to a £21m company selling Italian-inspired sartorial elegance from the unlikely backdrop of Carrickfergus.
The family-run menswear firm is behind well-known suit brands such as Remus Uomo.
Donald Finlay (60) is now the managing director and has weaved the business through bombs during the Troubles, tough times as the recession struck, and out the other side, expanding sales across the UK, Ireland, and as far afield as New Zealand.
The company now shifts around 750,000 suits, trousers and shirts each year, selling into 400 stores.
“Currently, we have a portfolio of brands including Remus Uomo, Douglas, Wellington, which was an original brand, and 1880 Club, which does smart clothing for boys and school uniforms,” said Donald.
The business was founded by Charles Douglas and Hugh Grahame in 1924, and was based in the heart of the city at Great Victoria Street.
“It then came into the ownership of the Finlay family in the mid 1960s. My father (Dixie) bought the business from Mr Grahame following the death of Mr Douglas,” said Donald.
“My father took it on until he passed away in 1979.”
Once based in Alfred Street, like many of Belfast’s wholesalers, the company was moved to the Donegall Road following a series of attacks on the building during the Troubles.
And that’s where it stayed for three decades, before moving to its current Carrickfergus home in 2009.
The business has three stand-alone stores — including one in Victoria Square — two franchises and a further pair in discussion elsewhere in the UK.
It employs 115 staff at its Carrickfergus base and also has a satellite office in the Midlands, which has around a dozen workers.
Donald took charge of the company two years ago after his brother Richard retired.
“We started to shift the business from a general wholesaler in the 1980s. That was the most significant growth in brands,and we started to respond to that and adapt and change,” he said.
It now designs suits and clothing in Northern Ireland, using materials from across Europe, with the products made elsewhere in Eastern Europe, as well as Asia.
“There are a lot of materials coming from the western European countries, like Italy, Germany and the UK.
“That’s how we started Remus Uomo. We spent time in Italy, where we sourced the fabric — it was sartorial elegance, the styling and the fit. That is when we brought in Remus Uomo.”
The Northern Ireland firm then went up against some of the UK’s top brands, including designers such as Paul Smith, as well as top-end luxury attire from established suit-makers in Italy and Germany.
This year the company’s leading brand, Remus Uomo, celebrated 25 years. And it was also named as the top menswear brand in the UK and Ireland, fending off competition from Ted Baker and Paul Smith.
“The suits are only part of the business. We have shirts, ties, coats and chinos,” Donald said.
“We have a unique place in that fashion. That guy who has a particular attitude to fashion and refined tailoring.”
The firm’s Remus Uomo store is now expanding and moving into a larger shop in Victoria Square.
It also is applying for a bigger store in Dublin at St Stephen’s Green, where it already runs a ground-floor pop-up shop.
A former Methodist College pupil, Donald left school after his A-levels, before joining the Henderson Group on a trainee management scheme. “I spent two very valuable years with them, in which time my interest and understanding of the business grew,” he said.
And like most businesses selling higher-end products, it took a hit when the global recession kicked in.
“From those days back in the late 1970s, and early 1980s, it was quite a difficult time. We were expanding from being a Northern Ireland business to GB and the Republic,” said Donald.
“We saw year-on-year growth from the 1970s right through to 2008.
“We were aware of the economic difficulties in 2008 to 2009. It was a shock to the system. We weren’t immune and have had six or seven lean years.
“But the last couple have picked up and started to grow once again.” However, Donald said since the vote for Brexit “things have flattened out once more”. And that’s “particularly in the Republic of Ireland market, which is a more challenging environment now.
“But looking forward, we take advanced bookings and for the first six months in 2017 have a 15-20% increase (in sales),” the businessman added.
He said that the business avoided having to make staff cuts, even during the tougher years.
“We were fortunate we didn’t have to lay anyone off.
“We were pleased in the end that we didn’t have to make any compulsory changes,” added Donald.
Mr Finlay also has five sisters, who have each pursued careers as varied as nursing to running a contract cleaning and floor-sanding business.
Donald is married to Lynne, and has four children, Carla (28), a radiographer working in England, Adam (27), who is working in the business as design director, Michael (23), who works in London but is returning to join the firm, and Yasmin (22), who is studying to become a vet in Dublin.
Donal is a keen rugby man and played at a junior level for Ulster in his formative years.
“I still play a little bit of golf and if I can play when the succession plan comes into place, I might get a bit more time for that,” Donald said.
But despite a love for the business, he’s already shaping it up to pass on the reins to the next generation of Finlays.
“It would be my intention that I would expect to be able to step aside in the next five or six years,” he said.
Asked what he would like to achieve in his remaining time in charge, Donald said: “Obviously, we are, and need to adapt and change. The environment is about multi-channel business.”