Is Kate Middleton's favourite Jigsaw falling to pieces?
Is Kate Middleton’s favourite Jigsaw falling to pieces? It’s the store middle-class women love – including the Duchess of Cambridge, who used to work there. Now seven directors have quit, leaving its backer asking why it’s coming apart at the seams
With its casual-chic linen tops, cashmere sweaters and floaty floral dresses, Jigsaw has been a fixture in the wardrobes of middle-class British women for 50 years.
Synonymous with the stylish-but-safe look epitomised by the Duchess of Cambridge — who is a devotee of its classic separates — the chain was a sensation when it opened its first boutique in 1970.
Kate Middleton, a friend of the founders, even worked there as an assistant accessories buyer before marrying Prince William.
But having been a fixture on the High Street since the Seventies, there are now serious questions over Jigsaw’s future.
Kate Middleton is pictured above wearing a Jigsaw cardigan. With its casual-chic linen tops, cashmere sweaters and floaty floral dresses, Jigsaw has been a fixture in the wardrobes of middle-class British women for 50 years
Not the least of these is: why has there been a mass exit by directors, leaving the boardroom virtually empty?
These include such well-connected fashion names as Isabel Spearman, a former aide to Samantha Cameron.
Many of the questions looming over Jigsaw trace back to David Ross, 54, the tycoon and Tory donor who has been the controlling shareholder at its parent company for the past two years.
Moneybags Mr Ross, who made his pile after founding Carphone Warehouse, has powerful friends at the top of the Conservative Party.
Events at Jigsaw plunge him back into the cauldron of controversy which surrounded him earlier this year after Boris Johnson declared the mobile phone tycoon had paid for his New Year holiday with Carrie Symonds in Mustique — something Mr Ross denied.
A Jigsaw store is pictured above in Guildford. Despite its enduring popularity with its clientele, Jigsaw has been in poor shape for some time. Its parent company, Robinson Webster, made a loss of £10.5 million for the year to September 29, 2018
As a man-about-town in possession of a considerable fortune, he has squired numerous beautiful women around London.
And, as we shall see, despite his millions, his track record in business is patchy.
During his short reign at Jigsaw, its boardroom has been an unhappy place with a rapidly revolving door; and that was before the virus ravaged the High Street.
No fewer than seven directors have left since the start of this year, meaning practically the entire board has gone.
Although some observers point to people clashing with Mr Ross, who is said to have an abrasive style, it is not clear why they have all gone within such a short time.
Many of the questions looming over Jigsaw trace back to David Ross, 54, the tycoon and Tory donor who has been the controlling shareholder at its parent company for the past two years. He is pictured above with with ex-lover Shelley Ross
By any standards, though, it is an extraordinary corporate exodus.
And it is one that leaves the company apparently rudderless, while trying to navigate the worst retail crisis since World War II.
Sources say former Karen Millen executive Beth Butterwick is the de facto boss.
Of course, Jigsaw, is not alone in having a hard time right now.
Along with other fashion retailers, the coronavirus has forced the chain to pull down the shutters on its 75 stores and concessions.
Although it is open online, like its rivals it has found customers don’t want to splash out on new clothes when they have nowhere to go.
But problems at the upmarket boutique chain pre-date the pandemic. Indeed, Jigsaw has been mired in turmoil since Mr Ross arrived on the scene.
The controversial businessman has been its major shareholder since 2018, coinciding with a clearout of the previous board.
At that time, retail analysts fretted about the fact so many experienced hands had left the company.
However, Ross was given the benefit of the doubt that his new brooms would help revive Jigsaw.
By that stage, its wood-fitted stores and relatively high-priced garments were losing ground to such High Street competitors as Zara, Cos and H&M.
But the rapid turnaround everyone had hoped for was not to be. The future looks even more cloudy now that the new influx of directors who arrived with Mr Ross have gone, in a second wave of departures, having in most cases been in place for less than a year.
Such a wholesale boardroom diaspora inevitably raises questions as to what on earth has gone on.
‘Something major is happening at Jigsaw,’ says retail analyst Richard Hyman.
‘The business probably needs a lot of money — and David Ross has got access to a lot of money — but the question will be whether he still has confidence in it.’
‘Jigsaw was a good business, but the costs got a bit out of kilter. It had recently undergone a restructuring and put in a new senior team. So for most of those people to leave is clearly not a good sign.’
Moneybags Mr Ross, who made his pile after founding Carphone Warehouse, has powerful friends at the top of the Conservative Party. Events at Jigsaw plunge him back into the cauldron of controversy which surrounded him earlier this year after Boris Johnson declared the mobile phone tycoon had paid for his New Year holiday with Carrie Symonds in Mustique — something Mr Ross denied
Constant change had plainly been a feature under Mr Ross. One director who quit in January, Toby Foreman, previously head of human resources, had been serving as a stop-gap chief executive.
He had spent just a year in post — which was twice as long as his predecessor, who stepped down in January 2019 after six months.
Other directors who have headed for the door this year include Ms Spearman, 41, an image and brand consultant who left last month.
She is the ‘face’ of Cefinn, the fashion brand run by Samantha Cameron, wife of the former Prime Minister. Intriguingly, Mr Ross, who is a prominent Tory donor, hobnobbed with the Camerons.
Ms Spearman, who will continue to act as an adviser, declined to comment when contacted by the Mail, saying only: ‘It’s all there in Companies House.’
Indeed, the records at Companies House show the other directors who have gone include Jamie Murray Wells, who set up the Glasses Direct eyewear business.
Also among them is Richard Walker, a former executive at telecoms company TalkTalk and a former managing director at Carphone Warehouse.
Silvana Rossi, a brand consultant, left the board in April, along with finance director Despina Don-Wauchope and financial consultant David Hall.
In fairness, a new director did join the board in April.
This was Carlton Greener, 54, who is listed on the LinkedIn professional networking site as ‘Commercial Director Workwear’ for Cosalt Marine, which is part of Mr Ross’s family business.
Jigsaw confirmed that the directors have stepped down and said it is looking to ‘streamline its board to ensure the business is more agile and better placed to deal with the challenges posed by the current Covid-19 outbreak’.
A spokesman added that ‘now is the right time have a smaller board’ that is ‘fully focused’ on getting through the pandemic.
Despite its enduring popularity with its clientele, Jigsaw has been in poor shape for some time.
Kate Middleton is pictured above wearing Jigsaw trousers last March
Its parent company, Robinson Webster, made a loss of £10.5 million for the year to September 29, 2018. Perhaps tellingly, these are the latest figures available, as the firm has extended its financial reporting period.
This could be an indication that the results are bad again, though companies do take extensions for a variety of reasons.
In 2018, Jigsaw was in difficulty but it managed to secure a rescue deal led by Mr Ross, which must then have seemed like salvation.
He is listed as the owner of Robinson Webster through his investment vehicle Mountain Berg, based in St James’s, London. Under that deal, Mr Ross put in £5 million. So, too, did his friend John Robinson, Jigsaw’s co-founder, who set up the company in 1970 with its first store in Brighton, followed by Hampstead in North London two years later.
As well as being chummy with Mr Ross, John Robinson and his ex-wife, Belle, who left the board in 2019, were friends of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and loaned the couple their Mustique villa during their courtship.
Another £15 million of finance came from Secure Trust bank, which replaced Barclays as the firm’s main lender.
The auditors, from well-respected firm BDO, resigned and were replaced by little-known accountants Duncan & Toplis. By all accounts, Mr Ross can well afford to invest in fashion.
He possesses an estimated fortune of £642 million — albeit down by around £26million compared with last year, according to the Sunday Times Rich List. Both his career and his personal life have been colourful.
A scion of the Ross frozen food dynasty, his father, John, ran family firm Cosalt — originally the Great Grimsby Coal, Salt and Tanning Company — which dates back to 1873.
Sadly, that company folded in 2013, a year after Mr Ross — a large shareholder who also loaned money to the firm — failed to take it off the stockmarket.
That provoked a bitter row with some shareholders.
They claimed he was trying to buy up the whole company at a rock-bottom price — accusations he denied, saying he was simply trying to save the business.
Grimsby-born Mr Ross, however, made most of his money from Carphone Warehouse, which he set up in 1989 with Sir Charles Dunstone, a friend from their time at public school Uppingham.
Mr Ross still owns 4.8 per cent of Dixons Carphone, worth about £40.6 million yesterday, as well as 11.2 per cent of mobile phone group TalkTalk, worth about £113 million.
Dixons Carphone has also been hit by the pandemic, and was forced to ditch its dividend last month, which will have been a blow to Mr Ross.
It has shut all of its 300 stores and placed 16,500 staff on government furlough.
Ironically, given the source of most of his fortune, a spokesman said Mr Ross is isolating from the coronavirus in an area without a mobile phone signal and is therefore not contactable.
A generous donor to the Conservative Party, he gave £279,000 before last December’s general election and rubs shoulders with its most senior figures.
It was in February that he was dragged into the political row over the £15,000 holiday in Mustique enjoyed by Boris Johnson and fiancée Carrie, over New Year.
The Prime Minister declared the villa stay as a donation from Mr Ross, but a spokesman for the entrepreneur denied this. The affair is now being investigated by the parliamentary standards watchdog.
Mr Ross was also closely connected with Boris Johnson when the latter was London mayor and was given an advisory role in preparations for the 2012 Olympics.
Boris is not the only Prime Minister to be a beneficiary of the mobile phone mogul’s largesse.
Dixons Carphone has also been hit by the pandemic, and was forced to ditch its dividend last month, which will have been a blow to Mr Ross. It has shut all of its 300 stores and placed 16,500 staff on government furlough
In 2006, he paid for David Cameron, then leader of the Opposition, to fly out and attend a World Cup match in Germany.
Three years later, he loaned the future prime minister his private helicopter for a trip to West Yorkshire. A business scandal in 2008, however, resulted in Mr Ross resigning from the boards of several well-known companies, including Carphone Warehouse and coach group National Express.
He was accused of breaking company rules by using £200million of his shares in Carphone and various other companies to secure a loan for a property investment, without telling other board members.
He denied wilful misbehaviour and regulator the Financial Services Authority accepted that its code of conduct may have been too vague.
Yet Mr Ross was damaged by the affair, and had to resign from five roles he held.
Notwithstanding the blots on his copybook, his fortune has opened doors. He has socialised not only with Tory leaders but also royals including Prince William and Princess Beatrice, as well as Pippa Middleton.
Known to enjoy having a beautiful woman on his arm, his former girlfriends include Ali Cockayne, former sister-in-law of Gary Lineker, glass company heiress Emma Pilkington and Shelley Ross, a ballerina turned-pole-dancer, with whom he has a teenage son.
The statuesque brunette had a penchant for revealing outfits far too risqué for the rails at Jigsaw.
But his stake in that firm is not the first fashion investment to have gone awry for Mr Ross.
Along with City financier Michael Spencer and former Tory trade minister Lord Marland, he funnelled millions of pounds into a start-up business by Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon, which subsequently went under.
The trio objected in a U.S. court in 2016 to her plans to revive it under American bankruptcy law, but lost their case.
Ms Mellon accused the three men of having no experience in the fashion or creative industries, and said: ‘They don’t know a stiletto from a Cornetto.’
Along with City financier Michael Spencer and former Tory trade minister Lord Marland, he funnelled millions of pounds into a start-up business by Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon, above, which subsequently went under
Mr Ross also previously invested in luxury e-retailer Gift Library, founded by socialite and star of the Ladies Of London reality TV show Caroline Stanbury.
Documents show he owned 17.8 per cent of shares through one of his companies.
However, Gift Library called in administrators in 2015 after making repeated annual losses.
In truth, the bombastic Mr Ross never looked like the most obvious person to save Jigsaw.
And in January, even before the pandemic struck, there were signs of distress. The company was reported to be seeking a 30 pc rent reduction from landlords and to have been asking to delay rent payments.
As Richard Hyman says: ‘The events at Jigsaw suggest turmoil that goes beyond just an interruption of normal business from the Covid-19 crisis.
‘A big problem for the business is that it probably entered this very difficult period in a weak state.
‘Trying to cope with such a terrible crisis, even with the most seasoned executives, is a huge challenge. To have to face the pandemic with a boardroom almost entirely denuded of directors looks utterly daunting, but that is the task the company is currently facing.’
The middle-class customers who still adore Jigsaw can only hope it succeeds.
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