Former Wellington School pupil Tom Singh is named as 11th in the Sunday Times South West richlist – worth £385 million.
He began his entrepreneurial career in Wellington, travelling around Somerset with his grandfather when he was five or six years old selling bib and brace overalls, cross-over aprons and wellington boots to the farming community. His job was to fetch items from his grandfather’s van, his first taste of retailing.
At 14, Singh completed his first real “buy” when he was sent by his family to source £500 worth of men’s trousers from a wholesaler in Birmingham for the family’s shop in Wellington where Singh worked at weekends and after school.
When he was 17 Singh, his brother and his cousin started working the markets, eventually moving into fashion, buying from the UK’s first cash and carry wholesaler. “We bought quick-response products when the wholesalers in London started to be reactive with women’s fashion,” he recalled.
After graduating from the University of Wales in 1969 he borrowed £5,000 from his parents to set up New Look in Taunton, pioneering fast fashion on the High Street. He recalls selling 30,000 deckchair-striped polyester dresses there.
His business model was to “deliver a fast-reaction product at a great price. But I didn’t have a particular vision of where I was going when I opened that first store. I never imagined we would achieve the success we have.” Singh has said that he doesn’t believe he has a particular skill for knowing or understanding fashion but was more interested in understanding what the customer wants. He said, “You just build up knowledge of what sells and what doesn’t.”
Singh puts New Look’s success down as much to its suppliers as his own talents. He began sourcing in India more than 25 years ago and was one of the first high street fashion chains to cut out the middle man and one of the first to head to China to source cheaper product, having input into telling suppliers what to make.
The business grew quickly, first to 12 stores and rising to 40 after Singh merged his stores with his parents’ shops in 1982. It now has more than 1000 stores across the globe as well as about 540 shops in the UK.
The fast-fashion model he first developed in the 1970s is seen as changing the shape of the UK high street, forcing rival retailers to push for shorter lead times and better prices for consumers, and to develop catwalk copies.
Singh has developed an interest in non-fashion businesses, including renewable energy firms, leisure projects, property and infrastructure firms. He is also a keen philanthropist, particularly helping people in India. “I’m very interested in agriculture and crop yields and keeping people on the land. I’m also working with a cotton producer in India on producing cotton without pesticides in a fair-trade way,” he says.
He was appointed an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List December 2006.