Julia Irvine 5 Dec 2017 01:18pm

Mister Christmas

Spreading a little festive cheer, NPW finance director Matthew Brown tells Julia Irvine why the impulse gift business is shaping up to bring joy to its shareholders all through the year, not just at Christmas

Caption: NPW finance director Matthew Brown. Photography: Tom Campbell
If you want to know what the next big thing is going to be this Christmas, just ask Matthew Brown, finance director of NPW, the fast-growing “impulse giftware” company.

He predicts that this year’s best-seller will be the gold face mask, one of the products from NPW’s Korean beauty range that are sourced in South Korea and apparently so popular that NPW is cheekily selling them back to Korean high street retailers.

“The Koreans are leaders in facial treatments and skincare and they’ve got lots of products,” Brown explains. “There are 47 routines that they do to their faces on a weekly basis. They pop into a beauty salon at least twice a week for facemasks. And it’s moving across now into North America…” He stops and laughs. “Whoever would have thought, when I was studying for my ACA exams, I’d end up discussing Korean beauty treatments?” And yes, he admits, he has tried one – a facemask that “bubbles up when you put it on”.

The Oh K! range is not the only winning product line NPW has come up with – its inflatable king’s crown graced the heads of the Chelsea football team when they won the Premier League last year and hip-hop and grime artist Stormzy wore one on stage at a September gig. And then there’s been a craze among children for NPW’s unicorn-branded stationery, shortly to be joined by another range with mermaid designs.

These and other goodies you may not have come across unless you’re a parent of young children or have been on a stag do recently – “Our target market is anywhere between five and 30 years” – are currently contributing to NPW’s rapid growth, with some parts of the business experiencing rates of 20% year on year. In September, the company discovered it had made it into The Sunday Times and HSBC’s International Fast Track Top 200. Brown considers being placed 197th as just “scraping in” and is determined that next year NPW will make it into the top 100.

Brown has been with NPW for three years.
He joined in 2014 as head of group finance but within a year found himself thrown in at the deep end when there was an interregnum between finance directors. It was, he recalls, a question of “sink or swim” in board meetings and “going through the finance deck when the numbers weren’t always so great”. He must have impressed his executive colleagues, however, because despite his youth (he’s now 31), by September 2016 he’d been promoted to the role on a permanent basis.

“I am relatively young,” he says, “but people do respect what you’ve achieved through the ACA: it brings gravitas to what you say and the judgements you make. Also, having dealt with business owners and senior businesspeople from a relatively early point in my career has made it easier to understand what people are concerned about and how to communicate with them.

“I’m fairly level-headed and I find the best approach is to tackle things honestly and back them up with explanations and solutions. I do think that is something that comes from dealing with an audit because if you find things that aren’t perfect, you have to communicate it back to the client.”

Brown has come a long way since his days post-university working for Mark Warner as a chef de partie in Méribel for a couple of ski seasons. He admits that accountancy was not first on his list of career choices, but 2007 wasn’t the ideal time to be applying for jobs in the City. He flirted with the army and TeachFirst but ended up as a trainee ACA at Shipleys, a medium-sized firm based in London’s Soho with a client base largely in media but also encompassing owner-managed businesses in manufacturing and retail. He enjoyed the formal training and stayed on after qualification for two years before moving to the other side of the table.

Working in the giftware business presents particular challenges, he says. Historically, it has been a highly seasonal business. “Q3 has been our busy period when the retailers are stocking up for Q4 and in previous years it has generated 50% of our business. We are now working to become an all-year-round business. While there will always be a peak ahead of Christmas, we are designing products that we hope will have appeal throughout the year. There’s always birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Hallowe’en, St Patrick’s Day, Easter.” It’s already starting to pay dividends. “Two years ago, we had eight loss-making months. Now we are forecasting we will only have four this year. We have always been profitable: it’s just that the gains made in Q3 have funded the rest of the year.

“We are on course for a turnover of £36m in 2017, roughly split 40% to the Americas, 40% UK and 20% rest of the world. The Middle and Far East have been growing fast and I think next year the three territories will be nearer a third each. UK retail, which is relatively flat, is a smaller market and developed in terms of our customer base, whereas there’s still plenty of growth for us throughout the US and the rest of the world.”

Brown says his job is fast-paced and demanding. He won’t be drawing breath now until Christmas arrives because NPW retail customers will be queuing up for re-orders as the pre-Christmas rush gathers pace. However, there’s always time for a bit of festive spirit in the office before it closes between Christmas and New Year for a “proper break”.

“We always do a secret Santa but we have a rule that it cannot be an NPW product. We’ve
lots of creative people around so you tend to get homemade gifts. However, one year I got a mug with a heater that plugs into your USB and keeps your coffee warm. They clearly know that I’m chained to my desk…” 

The Xmas Account

The best Christmas present I’ve given myself is… The ACA because it allowed me to get the job I’ve got now.

My favourite gift to give is… The inflatable crown – “King for the day”. Much better than what you get in a cracker.

The love of my life gives me… Lots of support and an objective view.

I’m happiest at Christmas when… I can be with my family. It’s becoming more tricky with two siblings in Sydney and Abu Dhabi, but Christmas has always been a time when we can get back together.

My worst festive habit is… Still checking my emails. We always say we won’t but we inevitably do.