LEADER -- The pyjama game

Pyjama king Peter Alexander tells mortgage business’ Kate Miller how small business principles and his unique approach to customer service helped turn his boutique pyjama business into a multi-million dollar empire.

YOU only have to peer through a couple of window curtains after dark to discover just how successful Peter Alexander has been.

From his famous  ‘home boots’ – which have attracted a cult following – to his trademark flannies, indulgent intimates and cosy dressing gowns, this Melbourne boy has changed the way Aussie girls – and  guys – go to bed.

But just how did Alexander spot an opportunity in humble old pyjamas?

“It’s probably the question I get asked most in my career – why pyjamas?” he laughs.

Ironically, Alexander was not even a fan of pyjamas before his career took off. But having fallen in love with a pair he bought on a trip to Hong Kong in the mid 1980s, his future path was set.

“I analysed why I liked them and I realised they sort of reminded me of my childhood,” he says.

On returning to Australia, he discovered that sleepwear options were much more limited, especially for women.

“There were either virginal white, ‘little house on the prairie’ numbers or lacy red numbers,” he recalls.

“So I saw a gap in the market... and decided to give it a go.”

For around six years Alexander worked from his mother’s dining room table, selling his home-made pyjamas via mail-order. With his mum lending a helping hand, Alexander did everything from taking orders to personally delivering pyjamas to customers.

Starting out small ultimately proved a blessing. When Alexander launched the business, the Australian economy was in the grips of a recession. Alexander says tough times proved a good training ground.

“In hindsight it was probably the best time for me to start because I needed a couple of years to really learn the business,” he says.

“The recession allowed me to stay small, keep my overheads really low and then grow with the economy.”

Starting out as a small business was instrumental to Alexander’s success in more ways than one – and serves as a simple lesson for budding business owners everywhere. It’s all about the customer.

“I think in my first ten years of business, my customers really enjoyed my success in so far that I was in touch with them... I was personally involved with them,” he says.

“Being so hands on, taking phone orders and even sometimes delivering pyjamas myself... I think it just became successful because I had such a connection with the customers.”

Being able to engage with his customers on such a personal level and discover what they did and didn’t like not only helped Alexander build a loyal customer base but enabled the business to grow organically.

“I was offering them something that wasn’t in the market place and I was listening to them. If someone suggested something I would do it and send them a letter or phone them up and say ‘I took up that idea of yours’,” he says.

Alexander likens those early years to being the leader of a secret sect with a few loyal members. “[The brand] wasn’t well  >>       >>   known then, it wasn’t available in places – it was such a private group... and I think that’s why it became such a success.”

Of course, the Peter Alexander secret has long since been revealed. There are now 17 Peter Alexander stores across the country as well as a handful in New Zealand and more recently, the USA.

Alexander’s mail order system has moved on-line and in 2000 the business attracted a buyer in listed company The Just Group which paid an undisclosed, but likely very healthy, sum.

Alexander says The Just Group gave him the financial backing and support to really expand.

“The Just Group allowed me to completely change my business to retail. I would never have been able to do that on my own,” he says.

“It’s allowed me to do the job that I’m good at without the stress of the jobs I was bad at.”

But despite joining a sizeable, listed company, Alexander still understands the value of having a true connection with customers.

He maintains that connection by cultivating a high media profile and sharing his personality with customers, including his great fondness for his pet dogs.

“It’s obviously a bit more difficult now but I’ve tried to maintain that [connection] as much as I can,” he says.

“I put myself out there so people see I’m a person and that I have a face and I love my dogs – [that] although this is a corporation there is still a figure here that people can relate to and see.”

Keeping his brand fun and approachable is important to Alexander, and his offices reflect this. Stuffed toys, a welcome sign for dogs and a casual dress code are all part of the mix.

“What Peter Alexander is about is fun and excitement and being delightful and intimate and I think that has to start in the office,” he says.

“Although we’re part of a big public company now we tend to run ourselves as a small boutique within the business.

“It’s a very relaxed culture. My door’s always open and it’s not hard to get to me.” Despite his success, it seems Peter Alexander has not lost touch with his humble beginings.

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