Made to measure

The Brian Ferrari story

For many, the name Ferrari is synonymous with formalwear in Australia. Whilst the arm operating in Victoria is no longer under Brian’s control, after establishing the company in Victoria, he went on to set up retail outlets in South Australian and Western Australia. I’ve always thought that Brian embodied success, but rather than simply project an image of success onto another human being, it’s helpful to understand their criteria for success. Many who appear successful on the outside consider themselves failures, or feel they do not measure up to the arbitrary standards of the world. So I thought I would ask Brian Ferrari, whether he met his own standards of success.

‘Well, there is no sense in being coy about the success I have enjoyed,’ he said to me, anything but coy. Brian, a childhood friend of my father’s, was always one of those very direct blokes, whose confidence radiated from him and who could command the attention of a room with his presence, voice and self-assured manner. However, rather than boast about his accomplishments, which are legion, he ascribed much of it to luck: ‘I am not saying that it is all due to luck but in my case to get into the formalwear business was lucky.’

Brian’s operation started small. He had been working as a sales representative but his ultimate desire was to run his own business. It was also the 1960s, when young men and women’s social lives comprised of attending balls and dances. The idea struck him to hire suits to the young socialites, something which potentially had low overheads and strong profit margins, given that he could easily undercut the leading suppliers of the day. Whilst clothes don’t always make the man, as Brian points out ‘every young man likes to look his best, whether it is to impress members of the opposite sex or just for his own self-image.’ Through drive and initiative, he capitalised on this fact of human nature and on the trends of the era. However, with little capital of his own, it seemed unlikely he would ever get the venture off the ground.

Young and brimming with self-confidence, Brian was driven by the goal of getting his ‘own business’ with his ‘name over the door’.  This was where the luck came in to the story. By choosing to enter the hire business, it allowed him to start up with only a small outlay and grow the business, redeploying the cash flow it generated. Funded in part by an entrepreneurial aunt, and beginning the business from his mum’s front room, he established a thriving dinner suit hire company. ‘Many businesses fail because they grow too quickly’ reflects Brian wistfully. He saw it as another stroke of luck to have got into the business at the ‘right’ time and that it was an operation that could run with few overheads so that he did not have to take out additional loans, without which many businesses find it  ‘impossible’ to operate, and which can destroy them in periods of economic decline.

Brian has an ebullient smile and his face is full of life, exuding the confidence that comes across in his words. He reflects that the ‘timing’ for when he entered the business was not only luck but a ‘blessing’. And it is Brian’s talk of faith and luck, his deep spirituality, which is both endearing and surprising. His ego is not such that everything happened at a particular whim of his.  ‘Again, I got into the business at the right time,’ he maintains.  He humbly accepts that everything did not come down to his own brilliance. Brian Ferrari, however, is enough of a straight shooter to evaluate his own efforts. ‘Enough about luck.’ he said, demonstrating his plucky, determined nature. ‘You cannot live on luck alone.’ He relates how he ‘honestly just loved’ his work, the striving and the world of business.

Brian contrasts the exhilaration he got from making a sale or closing a deal with the ‘unpleasant’ experience that characterised his school days. As an asthmatic boy who missed many lessons, the stinging rebuke he received at the hands of a school master: ‘You’re a fool Ferrari! What are you?’ seared his memory, poisoning him against education.  Instead of caving in, Brian found a new lease of life in the world of work. Despite having no qualifications he not only received praise for what he was doing but money. That he was ‘appreciated’ motivated him greatly, and who can blame the man?

It was this willingness to do well, to provide value to others, that motivated Brian to establish the formalwear stores and to pour so much time and effort into getting it right. His fastidiousness is a hallmark of his, and he ensured his franchise stores were immaculately presented, with brand new clothes on display in a spotless store. Even the dry-cleaning plant, which he purchased rather than outsourced, was kept tidy, something unheard of in dry-cleaning outlets. Brian would meet with his dry-cleaning staff for coffee at five in the morning, which was their start time, in order to have plenty of stock in his stores. He did lots of things like this that seemed to be common sense, but which were anything but common. Unlike many people today, who are motivated simply for material possessions, ‘trinkets’ were never Brian’s main motivation. Whilst he won’t deny his cars and mansions give him pleasure and represent earnest of success, they are also a potential Achilles’ heel for those continually keeping up with the Jones’s. Rather, ‘achievement is the key to happiness’.

Whether it was going out individually to measure up sixty young debutantes for suits personally or ensuring that all items of stock were displayed precisely, passion was always a strong driving force.  Money was never Brian’s main object but rather what he saw as ‘a by-product of doing things properly.’ Such is his drive for perfection, he will only wear a pair of trousers once before having the professionally dry-cleaned.  Passions run deep in the Ferrari veins, translating into competitive sporting triumphs as a football coach and competitive golfer, so when he describes the role of money in life, the sporting analogies slide off the tongue: ‘It’s like playing any sport you like to name. Don’t keep looking at the scoreboard, keep your eye on the ball and stay with the game plan. The scoreboard will keep ticking over if you are doing the right things.’  The fact that Brian was able to ‘continue in the same field for many years’, where his innate common sense has led him to make ‘good decisions’ at the ‘right times’, enabled him to consolidate his wealth and experience over time.

Something you don’t hear too often from successful business men is their reliance on their faith in God. A devout Catholic, despite the guilt inducing torture of a Catholic education, Brian is quick to emphasise the extent to which he relies on ‘faith’.

‘It is difficult to explain because one cannot touch it or paint it or put it in one’s pocket but the gift of faith is super important to me. I draw on it in times of stress and self-doubt.’

More a ‘realist’ than an ‘optimist’, he sums up his attitude to faith with the scripture: ‘faith without works is dead’ to indicate that faith is not an excuse for lethargy and moral turpitude. He is overflowing with gratitude, which is characteristic of man of the wealthy people with whom I have been associated, and instead of bolstering his ego further, he emphasises he did not make it alone. Likewise, his love of family is evident in the way he talks of his great love, his wife Marie, and their three children, two of whom are currently running the formalwear operations.

It was family and faith that helped the great Ferrari to pull though the hardest moments in his life. In 1976, after having already made a fortune in menswear and formalwear, the Ferraris almost lost everything. Through some overcapitalisation and a general economic downturn, Brian’s five stores were forced into liquidation. He almost lost the family home as a result in what he refers to as, ‘the most stressful part of my life so far. I had five beautiful menswear stores one day and lost the lot the next.’ Hubris can occur to almost all people, no matter how great. ‘Basically I got too big for my boots,’ admits Brian regarding why this situation came to pass.

‘Because of the success which had followed me I thought I was invincible. I genuinely felt that all I had to do was put my name over the door and all would be well. I took my eye off the ball and immersed myself in pleasures far removed from the day to day life of a businessman.’

It was a trying time and they lost a lot of money. Forced to tighten their belts, they resorted to a much less lavish lifestyle, essentially starting from scratch. Brian returned to work full time and wife Marie worked in the store to keep overheads low.  Despite the strain on the finances, the family actually became closer as a result. He credits Marie with putting in a huge effort to turn things around. Through her faith and encouragement, Brian rebuilt not only his business but his shattered sense of self-worth. He and Marie were able to rebuild a successful menswear and formalwear business and while hard work, goal setting and frugality were essential components, ‘faith played a big part.’ At this point in the interview Brian struggles to explain the importance of faith seeking to put the transcendent into mere words: ‘I don’t know how it works, it just does.’

Nowadays Brian devotes himself to golf and travel, while his sons Anton and Bevan run the company he started and which bears his name.  ‘I do not play an active role in the business these days.’ Whilst he has every confidence in them, he does occasionally oversee, ‘the figures that they produce’. He jokingly dismisses getting seriously involved again indicating that no one over fifty can be taken seriously in fashion: ‘to convince a young bride of a trend when you look like her grandfather is a difficult proposition’.

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