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A captain of fashion

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Belinda Seper has proven to be one tough operator, whether she is in the ultra-competitive world of fashion or in the far removed environs of the military.

As Belinda Seper powered around her university campus in the late 1970s and early ’80s, she was part model, part weekend warrior and part entrepreneur. 

Her plan for the future, however, was simple. 

I had absolutely no idea what lay beyond the achievement of this piece of paper,” she says, pointing to her degree. “My single concern then was actually finishing the course because I got diverted by other interests.

So what was the diversion? An exciting business? Or maybe fast-tracking a glamorous career as a catwalk model?

No, by my involvement with the Army Reserve, which was quite considerable at the time,” she replies. “I had all that time up my sleeve, I suppose (to chase a career). I certainly didn’t commit myself to being a full-time student.”

It seems intriguing that someone who would later make her name as a top-shelf model could have been enticed into the Army Reserve, or weekend warriors as they were once disparagingly labelled?  When did Seper join the Reserve?

In the same year as I started university, in 1976,” she says. “It was curious. I was a member of the Sydney University regiment, not the University of New South Wales regiment, and that was simply because they were better at poaching.”

But why the Reserve?

I suppose it was because my father had been very actively involved in the Reserve army,” Seper explains. “Consequently, I grew up in a sort of quasi military involvement … So it was a very realistic part of my childhood.”
Seper admits money played a part, too.

I was also aware that they paid you – and I mean paid you quite well if you were an impoverished student with no money. It always fascinated me, but not to the point that I wanted to commit myself to any full-time involvement.”

Hailing from Muswellbrook in the Hunter region of New South Wales, Seper went to elite girls school Abbotsleigh on Sydney’s North Shore before heading to university.

After university, her entrepreneurial seed still had not been planted. A new diversion materialised that would one day give root to a budding businesswoman.

The other thing that distracted me from being the high-distinction type of student, which I wasn’t, was the fact that I became a model,” she confesses. The apparent extremes of the army and high fashion struck many people, including Seper.

You couldn’t get more North Pole and South Pole than that,” she admits. “I used to get a lot of flak from both ends of the spectrum. When I turned up in the army for the weekend, they’d always be sceptical with the nail polish and the make-up. I tried really, really hard because I wanted to impress my dad.”

Seper modelled until about 1986, with the likes of Qantas’s Deborah Hutton being a contemporary.

It was 1986 when I finished, but I was invited back to do the Bicentennial Wool Show in 1988,” she recalls. “However, by then I was already out in the big, wide world.”

She worked for fashion designer Robert Burton for five years, where she learnt the mechanics of the business of making clothes.

He was very successful in his day,” Seper says. “And because it was so small and I was a model, I got the job as a house model. Then I got the job of being the salesperson and then the marketing person. I was also the telephone answerer.”

The overload of responsibilities – along with the imminent birth of her first baby – led to a realisation that would determine her future.

Her destiny became clear.

I’m selling this product to all these women who have their own little beautiful boutiques in all the best locations all around Australia and I quite liked the idea of having one of those. And that’s really what I wanted to do. So I left his employment to have my first child, Sophie, in 1991 and by 1992 I’d started the business.”

This was only step one along the road, however, to creating a formidable business and a highly respected brand called Belinda. What else?

This is where the story gets entrepreneurial.

Motherhood was a shock to the system for this dynamo.

“I wanted something to do,” she admits. “I found it quite a traumatic experience, being out of the workplace, because I’d been extremely busy. I’m one of those original, got five plates up in the air all going at once. So, I’m left on the mid North Shore and I found that a really desperately lonely place to be — it was death by asphyxiation.”

Inspired by a Parisian woman – formerly the muse of a well-known designer – who became a successful boutique owner, Seper decided to follow suit.

In her thirties with a young child, she could have been excused for putting her business plans on hold. As a customer, however, she could see a gap in the market. And she had inside knowledge.

“I knew all the boutique owners and I knew about them,” Seper says. “I had a bit of an inside in a sense of what was out there and what I thought might have been possible. At the same time there was an interesting emergence of some up-and-coming Australian designers and no one was really taking any notice of them.”

With a marketing background courtesy of UNSW, Seper thought a unique selling proposition could be developed through a boutique that was all about Australian designers. But Seper’s entrepreneurial style would not be purely a product of her marketing experience in the fashion game; her military training would kick in as well.

She explains: “By this point I had actually reached the rank of captain, which in the military sense is a reasonably responsible level where there are a number of people to look after and a very rigorous mental process in one’s approach to problem solving.”

Seper wanted to be better than her potential enemy. Her tactical nous told her she needed a point of difference, and her marketing degree championed the importance of the “hook”.

“Part of my dissatisfaction (with typical fashion stores) was the service level and the way you were welcomed into the store, the whole ambience of the store, the way the product was presented. So I wanted my business to feel like I was welcoming someone into my home,” she says. “It was going to be because it was Belinda, me. It was about me, it was a very personal experience because I was putting myself on the line in a sense and exposing a part of myself.

“I had to have my hook. I looked around and I thought ‘Okay, Double Bay is where the money is, but I didn’t want to be in the mainstream in Double Bay, so then I found Transvaal Avenue, which is nicely set back from the mainstream … When I first took a shop in Transvaal Avenue, can I tell you I had a choice from eight stores! In the early ’90s there was a recession. We were bitten really hard by ‘the recession we had to have’.”

The ramping up of Seper’s goals occurred a few years earlier, in 1997, when she was offered and accepted a major consultancy in Melbourne Being based in Melbourne meant a lot of travel, family pressure and the strain of running her Belinda business in Double Bay.

Drawing on her military experience, she turned to systems.

“I love systems and can’t help myself,” Seper says. “I love checklists and systems and knowing that everyone knows exactly what they’re meant to do, when they’re meant to do it by. It is fantastic because it imposes the most phenomenal discipline, not only on yourself but on everyone around you.”

Her Melbourne gig was at the behest of Steve Bennett, the former boss of the Country Road chain. Bennett was involved in revamping the iconic Georges department store and he liked what Seper had done in her store at Double Bay — “a fresh perspective for fashion.” He thought she had an innate sense of what women wanted in fashion stores.

“The consultancy changed my vision as I became involved in things on a large scale,” Seper explains. “We’re talking from a building site — no renovation had even commenced. I was suddenly catapulted from a back street in Double Bay to (design guru) Terence Conran’s offices in London, where Terence was the design consultant for this entire project. I was the ‘womenswear’ director.”

She reflects on a challenging but invigorating period of her life.

“It made me see a much bigger picture. It took me right out of my comfort zone and hurled me blindfoldedly into a comfort zone or a lack of comfort zone that, when I think back at it today, I don’t actually know how, with no experience, I actually managed to pull that off.”

Seper was managing 60 brands assembled from all around the world.

Two days a week in Melbourne ended up being four. The Double Bay shop chugged along nicely and Seper was honing her market knowledge. After 12 months of trading, Coles Myer pulled the plug on the entire deal and closed Georges. Seper had already headed back to Sydney by this time and, primed by the consultancy experience, was ready to go for it.

“The plan was straight away to distract myself from the misery of this Georges thing by opening our second store in the city,” she explains. “Another Belinda’s store with a different point of view, different market, different segments.”

Seper understood brands, she understood systems, she knew about scale and she was determined to reproduce Belinda’s. Running the show from her headquarters in Sydney, Seper never looked back.

Today, Seper manages nine stores and 50 employees.

She has not had to rely on venture capital, instead growing the business from retained earnings and a bank-provided trade finance facility.

Along the way, the entrepreneurial road has changed Seper.

“I’d feel sorry for young designers in the beginning,” she says. “I’d lose money on people because I believed in them or I thought it was important for the mix in the store. I’d think ‘Oh, poor things, they’re struggling, they really need a leg up’. But I will now only take you on if I think I can make a dollar.”

Seper thinks she has become a merchant and she thanks computers for making it easier.

“I think a merchant has more of a vision, while a retailer is nuts and bolts. It comes in, it goes out, there’s a margin, there’s a markdown procedure … I’m much more inclined to drive it by the numbers. Yes, I’m concerned about my soft turn, but still keep massaging it in a way that makes the business evolve; that makes it grow; that makes it interesting for me to be involved in.  Otherwise it would be just a nuts and bolts enterprise. I’m not that sort of person.”

Maybe Seper is merchant equals retailer plus entrepreneur. Has her success come from using her vision and understanding of the market to buy well in fashion centres such as Paris?

“No, it’s not the buying at all,” she insists. “I think it comes back to the power of the brand. It depends on how you want to define brand. My definition, for the record, is I think a brand is a promise and in creating a brand I have made a promise to those who chose to partake of this brand or support this brand. My customers know I will meet or exceed every time they turn up.”

Building an empire

The early days of the Belinda Seper fashion empire were less than glamorous.

Although located in wealthy Double Bay in Sydney, the business was “minuscule” with a cast of one – no assistant.

“Just me and my then-husband, who unbeknown to me decided to get very involved in the financial side of it all,” Seper says.

“Ultimately, it was a really bad thing. We’re no longer together, so my marriage has been at a cost of doing business. We stayed together for the first 10 years of the business. His need for security versus my entrepreneurial spirit and the difference between his ability, I suppose, to take or not take risks and my comfort level with risks were vastly different.” 

It was the entrepreneur versus the would-be accountant.

“I had big ideas and he had no ideas in terms of any expansion or any progression. We have one profitable shop, why would we want another one? Why should we complicate our lives? I like my life like this. Well, I don’t. So I’m a builder.”

Published on: Monday, June 29, 2009

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