The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles a different business leader from around the world. This week we speak to Tom Davies, founder of his eponymous eyewear company.
Tom Davies sat in front of Rome’s Colosseum and drank a beer to toast a sale that was about to transform his glasses business.
The British spectacles designer had flown to the Italian capital in 2004 at the behest of the boss of a global electronics giant, who was on holiday in Europe.
The chief executive had seen a pair of Tom’s £5,000 handmade, made-to-measure glasses featured in a fashion magazine, and wanted to take a closer look.
“So I walked into his hotel room and opened up my colour chart [that showed all 34 colours that the frame was available in],” says Tom, who was 30 at the time.
“And he just said, ‘Great, I’ll have one of each.’ It was a transformational moment for the business.”
Taking £170,000 in that one order, Tom says he was able to use the funds to significantly expand the business he had set up in London two years previously.
Today the company, TD Tom Davies, makes 50,000 pairs of glasses a year, and has a host of celebrity customers including singer Ed Sheeran, chef Heston Blumenthal and Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie.
Not a bad state of affairs for a former art student from the East Midlands city of Derby who never actually intended to become a glasses designer.
Graduating from the University of East Anglia in 1996, Tom decided to travel to Hong Kong with a friend.
“It was a big adventure,” he says. “I had just £200 in my pocket, but I was able to get a job in a bar while living at the most horrible hostel you had ever seen.
“Then I just started to apply for as many design jobs as possible, something I could use my art degree for.”
One interview Tom went for was at a Hong Kong watch-making business that was planning to branch out into making glasses, and wanted someone to design them.
“I had never planned to design glasses, but the boss of the company was so passionate about them,” says Tom. “He told me that it was a very worthwhile thing to do, because glasses define you, they are the first thing people notice about you.”
So taking the job, Tom was asked to produce a range of glasses. The problem was that he had no idea how to do it.
“I had to learn fast,” he says. “I started by buying a magazine, Vogue, and drew glasses on the model on the front cover.
“Then I started asking customers at the bar where I had worked what sort of glasses they wanted, and designed frames for them. I really got into it.”
Thankfully for Tom he was a fast learner, and sales soon took off, with the company making glasses for a number of different brands. By the time he left the firm in 2000 to return to the UK, he says it was selling 20,000 frames a month.
He went back to the UK planning to set up his own glasses business, but needing a steady income he says he got sidetracked and ended up running a more diverse design company that designed everything from product packaging to websites.
It was not until two years later, in 2002, that he was able to focus entirely on glasses and launch TD Tom Davies. He would design the eyewear in London, but without the funds to set up a factory and train craftsmen and women he would contract out the actual manufacturing to a company in Japan.
Sales started to increase slowly through word of mouth, and then jumped after he was featured in the Financial Times newspaper’s How To Spend It luxury goods supplement.
In 2008 he could finally afford to start a factory in China, and two years ago he opened one in Brentford, west London. The company is now in the process of shifting all production to the UK by 2021.
It currently employs 100 people in the UK and 100 in China.
“Being a British business, it has always been the aim to make everything here,” says Tom. “It is important.”
That’s a sentiment that is welcomed by the UK manufacturing organisation, the EEF, who says it is “pleasing” to see Tom bring production to the UK.
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Tom’s bespoke spectacles take three weeks to design and make, with prices as high as £10,000. However, the firm now also sells much cheaper glasses too, with average bespoke prices around £600. Its annual turnover is said to be around £10m.
Brand expert Rebecca Battman says that Tom’s glasses, like other bespoke fashion items, help celebrities create a unique look.
“If you are in the public eye you want to stand out, you are always looking for something different and unique,” she says. “And you also have the back story of knowing that they have been made especially for you.”
For us mere mortals Tom says he wants people to at least spend more time picking their glasses.
“The average amount of time a person spends choosing their new pair of glasses is just seven minutes,” he says. “For something that will define them for the next two to three years.
“That is bonkers. People spend longer picking a new pair of shoes or pair of jeans.”