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August 4, 2015updated 29 Jan 2016 6:44pm

The business brain behind Bates, home of the ’12,000 Panama hat

By Christopher Silvester

Lawyer, banker, farmer… Michael Booth had a diverse range of skills and experience under his hat long before he started selling Panamas as owner of Bates says Christopher Silvester

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Bates, the gentlemen’s hatters founded in 1898, has just sold a Panama hat for ’12,000… twice. This item of luxury headwear has only been available for a short time. The first such hat was bought by a hedge-fund manager who simply asked for the best-quality, made-to-measure straw hat money can buy. Apparently, it’s all down to the closeness and fineness of the weave.

Panamas, which are actually made not of straw but of split cane, do not come from Panama but from Ecuador; they acquired their name because they were the favoured sun-protective headwear of the labourers who dug the Panama Canal, yet are now the preferred summer titfer of the affluent. The first Bates ’12,000 Panama will be collected by the hedgie at his earliest convenience, though the shop had offered to have it hand-delivered in Paris by the salesman… all part of the service, sir.

Both Bates and another Jermyn Street institution, shirtmaker Hilditch & Key (founded in 1899), are owned by 75-year-old ex-banker Michael Booth. ‘Most of the hats we sell at Bates are off the shelf, although a substantial proportion of our made-to-measure shirt customers in Hilditch don’t ask the price,’ he tells me over a long lunch at Wilton’s, across the street from Hilditch. ‘We’ve got to cater for luxury customers with the rents we have to pay.’

One of the biggest costs for businesses like Bates and Hilditch & Key is their leases and rents. Back in 1975, Hilditch was paying around ’15,000 a year for its Jermyn Street shop. Now it has to pay ’225,000 a year to the Crown Estate, plus business rates. Bates’s premises cost about ’120,000 a year. The company cannot afford to stand still.

It is five years since Booth bought Bates, and 40 since he bought Hilditch & Key. ‘I’ve had a big shake-up,’ he says. ‘I employed a new MD, Steven Miller, two years ago, and he’s changed the whole thing.’ Indeed, Miller, a former Hilditch & Key salesman who subsequently proved himself as managing director of Turnbull & Asser, has revamped the shop and website, adopted a more classic slim fit for Hilditch shirts and stocked more lifestyle products. Also, the shop now allows passers-by to glimpse Hilditch’s master pattern-cutter at work through its window.

Jermyn Street’s shirtmakers have chosen different business strategies during Booth’s time. Hilditch & Key and Turnbull & Asser have both remained luxury businesses emphasising bespoke, while TM Lewin and Hawes & Curtis have gone down the mass-market retail route, with dozens of branches across the UK. Hilditch has concessions in a handful of Bloomingdale’s department stores in America, but its only other stand-alone shop is in Paris, on the corner of the Place de la Concorde, from which Chanel’s head designer, Karl Lagerfeld, buys his signature high-collared shirts (as he has done since he was sixteen).

Booth was born in 1939 in Brighton, having been evacuated there while in his mother’s womb. His father was a schoolmaster at a grammar school in the East End of London and the family lived south of the Thames. He attended Dulwich College and in 1959 went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read natural sciences before switching to law. While there he met his German wife, Inge, who was a student at a language school.

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His tutor, the eminent lawyer Glanville Williams, got him his first job as a solicitor. ‘He rang up a friend at Herbert Smith, the City firm, and I started there as an articled clerk. Of all the people in the City I came to know, I didn’t know one with a degree. Stockbrokers, solicitors — they just went into it straight after school.’

Booth qualified in 1967 and spent a year with Herbert Smith as a junior solicitor (‘the only job I really applied for’) before going into banking. ‘Jim Slater was in the papers all the time and I wrote to him saying I might be interested in working for him.’ Slater, a former accountant and share tipster, had co-founded the investment bank Slater Walker, which specialised in corporate raids and takeovers, in 1964. Booth joined Slater Walker in 1969, when it was riding high, and was soon running its banking division. ‘Mergers were our business and I was used to dealing with quite large sums of money,’ he says.

Michael Booth

Michael Booth

During the secondary banking crisis of 1973-75, which followed a credit-fuelled property boom, Slater Walker ran into difficulties and had to be bailed out by the Bank of England. ‘The secondary banking crisis was serious,’ says Booth. ‘People talk about the collapse of the stock market in 2008, but it was much worse then. The market went down from somewhere between 350 and 400 to 150 — a huge drop.’

Jim Slater resigned over a dispute with his fellow shareholders about the size of his shareholding, but the perception was that there must be another, more sinister reason, and the company soon collapsed. ‘Jim was very much a publicity man. He was the company in the eyes of the investing public; he had been such a visible presence in the City. Jim lived by the sword and died by the sword. That’s never been an approach that’s appealed to me.’

After leaving Slater Walker, Booth bought Hilditch & Key. He had been a Hilditch customer, although the opportunity arose because a business associate, Jeffrey (now Lord) Sterling, used to get his shirts from Harvie & Hudson and knew a salesman there who was interested in buying Hilditch but needed a co-investor. Booth paid about ’100,000 for his stake in 1975, together with Alex Finch, who ran the business for the next fifteen years, until they disagreed over management issues, whereupon Booth bought his partner out.

‘I’ve always had City interests, investments in one thing or another,’ he says. In addition to Hilditch & Key, Booth has owned a couple of other businesses, which did well for him before he sold out. One was National Dental Plan, which insured the dental expenses of large companies, including several large banking organisations. He sold it to his partners for several million in 2007. Another was Microfilm Reprographics, whose main business was COM, or computer output microfilm. If you walked into a bank branch 30 years ago, it had a microfiche reader from which a bank employee could tell you the up-to-date balance of your account. ‘What our company did every evening was convert bank tapes into a microfiche for each branch. It was an excellent business while it lasted, and I sold it in 1991, before it became obsolete.’

Beyond business, Booth’s other major interest is farming. He owns a beef cattle farm in East Sussex and a sheep farm in Snowdonia, and he likes to spend weekends and holidays at either property. ‘I like having animals,’ he says. ‘Once I’d made a bit of money in the City I bought a farm in East Sussex in the early Seventies, and as time went on, I bought more land around there.’

One thing that was very different about City life in the Sixties and Seventies compared to today was the scale of the drinking. ‘I remember one lunch with a client at which we drank a bottle of champagne followed by three bottles of white wine between us — out of half-pint glasses. I remember Duncan McGowan [the 3rd Lord McGowan], who was chairman of Panmure Gordon, would drink four or five large gins before lunch.’

Being bald and with sun-sensitive skin, Booth has worn hats for 40 years to protect his scalp, so acquiring Bates came naturally to him. ‘Hats is the apparel business that has changed the most,’ he reflects. ‘If you look at a picture, say, of a cup-final crowd after the war, every man would be wearing a hat of some form or other. After the war there were dozens of hatters all over the place. They’ve completely gone now. Suddenly, within ten years, most men stopped wearing hats.’ Hats went from a mass-market business to a niche fashion business.

As we leave Wilton’s on a hot July afternoon, Booth pops a Panama on his head. I ask him whether it is of Bates’s ’12,000 variety. ‘Certainly not,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t possibly afford one of those.’

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