Philip and Emma Bier made a life-changing amount of money this week by selling their stake in the Danish homewares retailer Tiger for millions of pounds.
The London-based couple brought the quirky Scandinavian brand to Britain with just £200,000 in 2005, scraping together the funds by remortgaging their home. They also gave up their careers to do so. Philip, 40 at the time, was a self-employed photographer, and Emma had worked as an interior designer for Waitrose supermarkets.
“We have brought it to way beyond our expectations in numbers of shops, staff, finances, and in finding out our own capabilities,” Philip says. “Neither of us had real business experience before. If you rewind to when we started and you said to us ‘could you run 44 shops, including one on Oxford Street, and have a thousand staff?’, I would have said ‘no way’.
If you had applied logic to it, it was so full of holes. I had no experience of employing anybody and no book-keeping or financial training. It was a brand that nobody knew, and we were underfunded, incredibly underfunded, with hindsight.”
Philip says he decided to change careers because he wanted see his children leave university with no debt, which he considered impossible in photography, an industry under pressure from a digital revolution.
He declines to reveal how much they made by selling their stake, saying only that it was an “amazing return on our initial investment” and that his ambition for his two children has been met. “It depends on what happens to tuition fees,” he says with a smile. “But we should be OK with that, yes.”
In 2015, the most recent accounts available, their share of the Tiger business – which covers London and the south-east – generated sales of £41m and profits of £7m. There are now 44 shops in the region.
Analysts initially described Tiger as a “posh Poundland”, but the Biers believe it has developed into an affordable Danish design store. Tiger now sells products for as much as £60 and has shops on Kings Road in Chelsea and Oxford Street in central London.
One of Tiger’s most popular products over the last decade was a fake Mona Lisa painting. “At first I was like, ‘Ok, nobody is going to buy that’,” Philip says. But then he realised “we had loads of artists buying them to use the frame. There is no way you could buy that kind of frame for £10.”
The Biers initially came across Tiger when shopping in Copenhagen, Philip’s hometown. Emma, from Liverpool, thought it could thrive in the UK.
“When I first saw Tiger there I loved it,” she says. “Philip hates shopping and I would make sure that every visit I would happen to go in there because it’s a fun place and there is always something I would buy. I just thought it would be a brilliant idea to bring it to the UK.
“We knew the guy who had started it, somebody that Philip had known through school and through family. We used to see him a little bit socially and say ‘you know, this would be such a brilliant idea to bring this to the UK’.”
Philip, whose sister Susanne is the award-winning director of the BBC TV series The Night Manager, says: “There was disconnect between the prices and the product and the environment from a British perspective. That is what fascinated me about Tiger. Because something is low-price doesn’t mean it needs to be nasty or negative or anything like that.”
Their idea to bring the business to Britain took off when Philip saw a shop to let in Crouch End, north London, that he thought would be a good site for the brand. He called Lennart Lajboschitz, Tiger’s founder, and although that premises became a Tesco Express the call led to a concerted effort to find a shop.
He found found a site in Basingstoke in 2005, but the key moment came a year later when the couple had to remortgage their house again to open a second shop in Hammersmith, west London.
“We were really maxed out in 2006. That was when we were all in,” Philip says. “That was stressful. If Hammersmith had not been going well then the likelihood is that we would have run out of money. But it was amazing. It was right opposite Primark and I never understood why nobody jumped at it. On the first day my biggest concern was people getting squashed. It was so packed with people. The security told me ‘just relax, it is always like this in Primark.’
The Biers opened the Hammersmith shop in October 2006 and by Christmas Day had got their money back. From Hammersmith, they expanded rapidly. Philip acted as the managing director while Emma focused on merchandising, product and interior design, including designing the company’s head office on Tottenham Court Road, central London. It is now one of the fastest-growing retailers in Britain, and the retail consultant Mary Portas said last year that as similar model could have been used to save BHS.
The arrangement with Lajboschitz was so informal that they did not have a contract for three years, but eventually the Biers took a 50% stake in the business with Tiger’s parent company, Zebra, holding the other half. Under the terms of the agreement, Zebra was obliged to buy back the Biers’ stake when they decided to sell and the couple had to give 12 months’ notice.
Emma says the couple had always planned to run the business for around 10 years and that now felt like the right time to sell. “If we had carried on we might have started feeling that we were getting a bit … not bored, but maybe that we wanted to reach out and do other things.”
The couple will now take a break before making their next move. “I have been quite clear in my mind that I want to take time to think,” Philip says.
Their options include looking for another brand to bring into the UK, while Emma is also interested in working with design students and Philip is intrigued by the politics of retail and local government, such as managing high streets. First, however, he intends to splash out on a top-of-the-range camera.
The biggest lesson from their experience, they say, is that you don’t know your own capabilities unless you challenge yourself.
“Lennart was very instrumental in that,” Philip says. “When I said we are going to open three or four shops, he would say, ‘why are you not opening 10?’
“It is quite liberating when you start thinking about what it is that is stopping you doing things. What goes on in your own head is probably the biggest block. If you can unblock that then you can do what you like … within reason.”