Meet the multimillionaire entrepreneurs who rule the Den — and know a good business when they see one
President and COO, La Senza, Montreal
Best advice: “Have a clear and focussed vision. Don’t get sucked down in unnecessary, trivial details”
An elegantly dressed fashion retailer with a hint of transatlantic Ã©lan in his prim English accent, Laurence Lewin is the most eclectic of the Dragons, an accountant turned computer programmer who maintains an unfashionable enthusiasm for fast cars, motorcycles and model airplanes — not to mention his very own antique fire engine. But he’s not an active angel investor, as he believes his first loyalty is to the company he’s being paid to run. Plus, his first two exposures to venture investing couldn’t have turned out worse.
Lewin invested in a musical (which he won’t name) that didn’t just flop, he says: “It collapsed.” A few months later, he naturally turned down a second offer to play impresario. Big mistake: Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story went on to capture the Olivier award for best new musical and ran in London for more than 5,000 performances. Buddy continues to rake in the dough on tour.
But that doesn’t matter anymore. Lewin’s hands-on operating experience and acerbic sense of humour enabled him to keep pace with his more experienced colleagues on Dragons’ Den, and match them quip for quip. When one Dragon described a particular opportunity presented to the panel as a “crapshoot,” Lewin snapped back, “It’s not a crapshoot. It’s crap.”
Lewin believes listening to pitches and tearing them apart is second nature to any senior executive. “Every week, every month, people pitch ideas to me that will cost a lot of money,” he says. “I have to weed through them and then pitch the best ideas to my board.”
Lewin got his start as an accountant in his native England before becoming a programmer for then-computer giant Honeywell. He was transferred to Montreal to work on a pitch to supply a new computer system to Air Canada. He jokes that the computer was 1/100th as powerful as today’s laptops, but Honeywell won the bid, and Lewin decided to stay in Canada. “Compared to Britain under [1960s prime minister] Harold Wilson, Canada was alive, modern and exciting,” he says. But when Honeywell asked him to move to Ottawa to oversee a project for the federal department of Supply and Services, that wasn’t the kind of excitement he had in mind. So Lewin changed course once again and accepted a friend’s offer to run his small chain of clothing stores. When Lewin said he knew nothing about retail, his new boss said, “No problem. We just need some new discipline. You’ll pick up the rest as you go.”
In fact, Lewin worked his way up in the Montreal fashion industry. In 1987, he joined apparel retailer Suzy Shier Ltd., where founder Irving Teitelbaum asked him to start up a new lingerie company. With more than 300 stores in Canada and 300 more around the world, La Senza has since emerged as one of Canada’s top retail success stories; in fact, the company adopted the La Senza name in 2001 and sold off the Suzy Shier operations two years later.
Whether as a Dragon or an executive, Lewin knows what he wants to see in a pitch. Seekers of funds should be friendly and enthusiastic, and clear about what they want. They should know their market, their costs, their margins and their potential. In short, they should be in control.
Sounds easy, but many pitchers failed this test on Dragons’ Den. “Some came in incredibly arrogant. Many didn’t have a plan, and some didn’t have a clue. And some had software and engineering ideas that were just incomprehensible to me.” He also complains about the pitchers who had bold sales goals, but not one piece of supporting evidence: “You have to demonstrate there is a market for your product. Saying, ‘We’ve had discussions with Wal-Mart’ does not mean anything if you haven’t got the orders.”