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Home Life Weekend

The couple who are a roaring success

With one Tiger store in Belfast and plans to expand the brand in Northern Ireland, Philip and Emma Bier tell Susannah Butter how their growing family inspired them to bring the Danish lifestyle shop to the UK

When Emma Bier and her husband Philip decided to leave their jobs and bring the Danish lifestyle shop Tiger to the UK she says they had fairly modest aspirations. "I don't think we were thinking about it on a massive level, we just thought we'd open a couple of branches and people would enjoy them." But Philip remembers it differently, interjecting: "It was more ambitious than that. I had a decent photography business and I wasn't going to give it up unless it was something quite substantial so maybe we had a target of 50 stores."

Since the first Tiger opened here in 2005 it has become a roaring success. With 44 outposts in the UK, the shop, which recently rebranded as Flying Tiger, is one of the fastest growing retailers in the country. Earlier this month the Biers sold their stake in the business to parent company Zebra and received a hefty multimillion pound windfall.

"We exceeded our expectations," says Philip, who speaks with a Danish lilt despite having lived in London for 31 years. "It was the best decision we ever made." They are demob happy, full of plans to "play tourist and finally see the Tate extension".

Philip (52) says: "My phone hasn't been off for the past 11 years. That's one reason why the timing was right to leave." They are on good terms with Tiger. One of their leaving presents, a collage of the shops, sits on the mantelpiece of their tastefully designed north London home, opposite a 1920s silver cash register that Emma (51) bought Philip.

They're sitting on a buttery leather sofa while their polite 19-year-old son Noah cooks eggs in the immaculate open-plan kitchen. The family is slowly moving back in after renovating. Windows look out on the garden, where pet rabbits pad around a palatial cage. There are Tiger candles and mugs, but I can't spot anything else from the company. "Oh, we're just moving things back in," smiles Philip.

The couple discovered Tiger in 2003, buying liquorice, candles and what Emma calls "quirky things that weren't accessible in the UK" on frequent trips to visit Philip's family in Copenhagen. It was founded there in 1995 by hippie entrepreneur Lennart Lajboschitz and his wife Suzanne. Everything cost 10 kroner (around £1) and the words tiger and "tier" (tenner) are pronounced the same in Danish. They specialise in making everyday items surprisingly fun. Philip enthuses about a love poncho for two and a toothbrush holder made of grass. "What other toothbrush holder would give you an experience from a mundane thing? There's an innocence to it that appeals across the board and you can't get offended by," he says.

"You'd go for the vibe. We were on normal incomes, working as a photographer and an interior designer, and you weren't intimidated by cost."

Lajboschitz had been on the same table tennis team as Philip and they had mutual friends. "He's really fun," says Philip. "He's probably the most emotionally intelligent person I know, if emotional intelligence is knowing what other people want, and also in discussions - he is very fair." He sold his stake in the company two years ago and his latest project is turning a former church in Copenhagen into a community space.

The couple often discussed how Tiger would be a hit in the UK, but never thought they'd act on this. Then they decided to try for a second child. Emma was working as a designer for John Lewis but "knew I was going to take maternity leave soon". "Philip was self-employed, aged 40 without a pension, and photography was changing a lot, going digital," says Emma, glancing at her husband. "You woke up in a cold sweat one night and thought: 'Is photography going to sustain us long-term? Am I going to be able to put my kids through university?'"

Bringing Tiger here "came naturally", says Philip. Lajboschitz offered them a 50/50 partnership in a UK business. "That deal gave us confidence. I'd recommend it - it worked like marriage, you either divorce or stick together, and it means smaller disagreements don't develop. When it's your own money on the line you learn quickly. And we didn't take much money out so we were never dependent on banks."

Philip and Emma are Jewish and both have entrepreneurial families, which he says made them "comfortable with taking risks". Emma's mother was a window dresser who went into home furnishing and her father was in the car business. She grew up in Liverpool. Philip's father is in travel and his mother trained as a photographer. "You'll know my sister," he says proudly. "Susanne Bier. She directed the Night Manager. I loved how it looked."

Philip met Emma in 1985 when they were both moving into student halls in King's Cross and accidentally picked up each other's portfolios.

Emma says they "both thrive on the unknown", which helped with working together. The early days of starting Tiger were "massively exciting". Their daughter, Georgia, now 12, was six months old and Emma brought her to the first shop with her while she measured it up. Did they get any sleep? "I don't even remember. We just did it because it was fun. These things have to fit in whichever way you can." Emma, who doesn't speak Danish, headed up interior design and marketing, while Philip took care of business. "You live and breathe it," says Emma. "The kids are part of it. Georgia would help set up shops and be paid in ice cream."

The children go to state school and Emma says the family are still cautious with money. Philip adds: "Of course we have a different lifestyle now but it doesn't appeal to us to buy houses or things. We prefer experiences." They're planning a trip to South Africa and a hot air balloon ride, which they wouldn't previously have done. "I bought Emma a decent 50th birthday present. It was a grey Fiat 500 the same age as her."

They use the word "fun" a lot and the spirit of easy enjoyment is evident in Tiger. Philip says: "There's been a structural change in how people shop. Our son only goes to a shop if he can't get it online so if shops want to survive they have to be a good, fun experience. Mary Portas was extremely complimentary - she said she would have saved BHS by putting a Tiger on the ground floor."

The Biers aren't sentimental. "Customers have no reason to be loyal. You have to be a bit futurist, see what society is doing and be ahead of it." Tiger stock changes every two to three weeks, unusual in our seasonal retail market, but Emma says it "keeps people coming in", especially in the midst of a vogue for decluttering. There are variations across London - spices sell well in Harrow, snacks go fast in tourist areas - and a pets range is coming.

The prospect of Brexit has certainly affected the company. Philip says: "If Brexit means a slowdown in people who come here that will be bad. We need certainty now. Uncertainty is terrible in business and life." Emma adds: "They have to get on with it."

It was always the plan to commit to Tiger for 10 years. Philip says: "I got used to a business that was growing between 30% and 50% a year and that is going down. There is growth to be had but it's more a competent expansion than entrepreneurial leadership."

Now they're trying hard to unwind. In their latter years at Tiger, Philip worked from home because he "did strategic thinking better there, without people asking me things", and Emma delegated so that she could spend time with family. She goes to the gym twice a week and he's a Liverpool fan, "hoping that playing football will be my third career".

Emma wants to return to art and is interested in designing for disabled people. Philip is determined not to commit to anything until Easter, although he can't help thinking about the next step. He'd like to "give some political input to trade and local politics in London, having a system that works. It's about having not quite so square thinking as some ideas that might be out there".

Philip is vocal on what Emma calls his "pet hate", stamp duty. "I don't have a problem with tax, I pay what I need to and with a smile, but stamp duty means you have to pay tax before you've made a penny and business-rate policy is ancient and slow. We nearly opened in Muswell Hill but business rates were the same as the rents so we didn't."

But he ends on an encouraging note: "If you want to open a business, go for it. You have blocks in your own head and people blocking you but why not take a bit of a gamble?"

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