Featured Profile: Cotton On

Bec Fary / July 09, 2013 04:48 PM

Cotton On co-founders Tania and Nigel Austin built their retail empire from the boot of a car. 

Cotton On

Photo credit: Sandton City 

The pair used to sell factory seconds at markets around Geelong before opening  their frst shop in 1991.

From humble Victorian beginnings to international business success, Cotton On grew thanks to the assertive marketing strategy of its founders.  

The vibrant appeal of their affordable fashion brand has seen the Cotton On Group dive their fingers into almost every retail pie.

The Cotton On brand now encompasses Cotton On for men’s and women’s wear, Cotton On Body for lingerie, sleepwear and sportswear, Cotton On Kids, Rubi Shoes, Factorie for teenagers and Typo stationary and gift stores.

But when retail entrepreneur Tania and her then-husband Nigel separated, she made the tough decision to cut ties with their booming business.

Tania took her business-savvy skills to struggling Australian fashion house Decjuba in December of 2008.

Tania says she branched out because she was attracted to  the flexibility of a different retail style.

“It was a nice transition for me because Cotton On was governed by price point but with Decjuba I can use lovely fabrics such as silk and leather,” she told The Herald Sun.

“It was a conscious decision to move into a different market, to challenge myself and do something in keeping with my life rather than working on another youth brand.”

With the growth of online shopping and volatile interest rates, many Australian retailers are doing it tough. But Tania and Nigel have bucked the economic trend, both operating lucrative and popular businesses.

After leaving Cotton On, Tania built Decjuba from near-extinction to its current strong position in the retail sector.

Decjuba has since grown to include 26 stores across Victoria, New South Wales and New Zealand, and Tania says she hopes to open more by the end of the year.

Meanwhile ragtrader-turned-millionaire and Who’s Who entrant Nigel kept building the Cotton On retail empire.

Over the 2008-09 financial year, Nigel opened an astounding three new stores a week. At a time when investors and business owners were closing down and playing it safe, Nigel was taking big risks.

The risks paid off; a year later Nigel made it onto the Business Review Weekly Young Rich List.

With more than 1,000 stores in 12 countries, Cotton On Group is one of Australia’s biggest fashion houses.

Nigel attributes Cotton On’s success to the “excellent managers right across Cotton On who are real leaders and business builders”.

“We spend a lot of money on management training to make sure our people have the right skills to drive growth,” he told The Entourage.

But the father of two is motivated by more than business plans and profit margins.

In 2007, Nigel took a trip with lifelong friend and Cotton On’s Menswear buying manager, Stuart Higgins, to the Mannya village in Uganda.

Mannya houses a sister parish to Geelong’s St Bernard’s parish, and what started as a donation program culminated in a “life-changing trip”.

“After a tour of the village it was evident that we had to take the first step to help these people. There was such a huge need for assistance, and the overwhelming concern was – how do we help?,” Nigel reflected on the Cotton On website.

“I knew that whatever we did, we didn’t want to start something and leave the project to be finished by someone else…that was our challenge.”

“We wanted to make an impact so far-reaching and with the right calibre of people. I wanted to engage with our team back in Australia to see the vision through.”

And so the Cotton On Foundation was born, which is now a full-time project with a dedicated team working with communities in Uganda.

Profits from fundraising products sold in Cotton On Group stores are sent to Uganda, alongside projects to build health, education, sustainability and infrastructure.

With a multinational business and a growing foreign aid project underway, Nigel Austin has come a long way for a boy from Geelong.

Sources: Cotton On, Herald Sun, The Entourage, Property Observer. 

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