The Big Interview: Brie Read, founder of Snag Group

Brie Read is chief executive of inclusive hosiery and clothing firm Snag Group, a role that last week saw her secure the NatWest Everywoman of the Year Award – the latest accolade of many jostling for space on her mantelpiece.

The entrepreneur was credited by judges with, in just four years, creating a “multi-million-pound success story”, the idea to launch the business originally prompted by her tights falling down when she was out and about.

She started to look into the issue, finding that “everybody was the same, it seemed that whatever size they were, tights didn’t fit”.

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The Livingston-based e-commerce company caters to sizes 2 to 36, and while originally focused solely on hosiery, it has now stretched to encompass clothing. It boasts 1,500 product lines with more than two million customers in some 90 countries, as well as a turnover of £45 million.

Ms Read says being recognised with the NatWest Everywoman of the Year Award 'shows that you can do business ethically and really care'. Picture: Simon Harvey/NatWest Everywoman Awards.

Snag recently unwrapped ambitious plans, with planned expansion in the UK and overseas, and in the next year adding 60 jobs to its current 90-strong workforce. Targets include moving to a new warehouse, also in Livingston, and doubling the size of the current premises – coming after it launched a site in the Netherlands in the face of Brexit, and called on customers to help it survive the pandemic, raising £1.5m in just five days.

Ms Read had something of a global childhood, is a psychologist by training, and moved into marketing early in her career, including spells at the People’s Postcode Lottery, and she joined Diet Chef, also based in Livingston, as marketing director in 2013, becoming CEO a year later, and leading it to a sale to private investors in 2015.

What is your reaction to winning the NatWest Everywoman of the Year Award, and how does it feel looking back over the last four years since you started the firm?

It’s been an absolutely wild ride since starting Snag. I can’t believe we’ve only been trading for three and a half years. We’ve tried to do things really differently by making the customer part of the team and the decision-makers in our product-development. It’s amazing to see this way of thinking be recognised by incredible institutions like NatWest and Everywoman. It shows that you can do business ethically and really care.

'I think business can do a huge amount of good and make real differences,' the businesswoman believes. Picture: Simon Harvey/NatWest Everywoman Awards.

Do you believe traditional clothing firms have been too narrow with their offerings, lacking engagement with and understanding of their customers – and to what extent has Snag shone a light on and capitalised on this? You get customer feedback via Snag Labs, for example

I think size inclusion is the single most dramatic thing that could happen to fashion. Why exclude the 60 per cent of women over a size 16? It doesn’t make business or moral sense. Also, if we want people to buy clothes that are made ethically, we need to drop the huge margins and make them affordable. Everybody deserves ethical clothes that fit.

One of the things we are learning through Snag Labs – our group of 10,000 customers that feeds back on our products – is that they want evergreen products. When you find something that you like and fits you well you want to be able to buy that year in, year out, rather than it just disappear into the ether of fast fashion.

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Snag recently unveiled plans to expand both in the UK and overseas (particularly the US), amid plans to turn over £80 million by mid-2023. Can you give more details on how you aim to achieve this – and become a billion-pound brand further down the line?

For us, expansion takes two routes. The first is to provide quick and reliable shipping to all our territories worldwide. This means we’ll be able to significantly grow markets like the US, Canada, and Asia.

Our second will be to fix our customers’ other issues with clothes. They have told us that there are lots of other areas they would like us to address, so we are working on those. We have so much scope to grow, with the tights market valued at $56 billion (£42bn) and the clothing market at $1.3 trillion.

Snag is an e-commerce business – but would you like to see its products on the high street, either in large retailers or with your own bricks-and-mortar stores?

Gosh no. We are happy to sell directly to our customers and own that relationship entirely. We wouldn’t want to have anyone else be part of that. We’d definitely love to do more events and pop-ups and bring people together in an experiential way. But I don’t think bricks-and-mortar stores will ever be for us.

You are a member of the new Business Purpose Commission for Scotland, which has been set up to recommend how Scotland can become known at home and internationally for nurturing purposeful businesses. What prompted you to get involved?

I think business can do a huge amount of good and make real differences. Scotland is so entrepreneurial we can be a leading light in showing the world that business doesn’t need to be bad, that instead we can change the communities, economy and ecology around us for the good. I’d love Scotland to continue to embrace innovation and really push the idea of what good businesses can achieve.

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In terms of hurdles, Snag spent at least £1m setting up a site in the Netherlands to manage Brexit, and launched the Save Our Snag initiative to help survive the impact of the pandemic. Can you explain more about how you came up with these solutions?

We always believe it’s better to make a decision than to not, and the earlier you do so, the better you can execute on it. We made the decision to act like Brexit was going to happen very early on, so we knew the only way we could still trade effectively in Europe was to have a warehouse there [in addition to Scotland].

We also knew that by being able to dispatch to anywhere in the world from either warehouse would let us take advantage of whatever trade deals were struck by either side. When it came to Covid we had so little choice.

At first, we trusted the government and concentrated on getting free pairs of tights out to NHS workers. But despite government reassurances it quickly became obvious we weren’t going to get the help we needed, so we turned to our customers who helped us raise £1.25m through a “buy one now, get two pairs later” promotion. Our customers saved Snag. Without them we would have gone down, like so many other businesses during the pandemic.

Can you give more details of Snag’s eco-friendly efforts, for example it says it pioneered the first recyclable tights…

We’ve recently developed a way to recycle the blend of elastane and polyamide used in our tights to make component parts for the tights industry, so we can really complete the circular nature of our wee economy. We also have a carbon-neutral production process and are single-use plastic-free throughout the business. The thing we are most proud of, though, is paying everyone who works with us or on our product the Living Wage.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you set the firm up?

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That fast-paced virtual environments don’t suit a lot of people, however much they say they’ll love it. We’ve had to learn a lot about recruiting the right people to fit us, rather than changing to fit them. It’s been a rough journey but one we are getting better at.

Who has mentored you, and do you mentor others?

I think the most important thing you can do is give people opportunities. Careers thrive when someone is given a chance despite not being “traditionally” ready for it. I’m very grateful that I’ve been given lots of chances in my career to prove myself by some amazing women.

Julie Hepburn, Karen Galloway and Jo Bucci stand out. I’m very proud to have such an epic management team with incredible women like Polly Letson (chief operating officer), Sonia Sprules (chief financial officer), and Prema Chablani (chief marketing officer) whom I hope I can give some of the same opportunities back to.

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