2XU co-founder Clyde Davenport reflects on 35 years in retail

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From launching his eponymous underwear brand, Davenport, in 1987, to distributing Calvin Klein in Australia, to growing a global compression sportswear business, 2XU, Clyde Davenport has had a very successful retail career. And it’s not over yet. He recently reunited with a former colleague from 2XU to launch a new business. TheRY, which stands for The Reason Why, specialises in compressional apparel for pregnant women.  We recently caught up with him to learn more about his career journey, i

, including the biggest lessons learned along the way, and the leaders he looks up to. 

Inside Retail: You’re known for starting several successful retail businesses, including Davenport and 2XU. Were you always interested in being an entrepreneur? 

Clyde Davenport: I did a Bachelor of Science, and straight out of uni, I went to work for the chlor-alkali division of RCI, without really knowing what I wanted to do. Then, I went to Kodak as a salesperson for consumer goods. At the time, I just wanted to make enough money to afford to party on the weekend and have a good time. The first interest in business I had was when I joined an advertising agency, [then called] Ogilvy & Mather. I was an account executive with them, and my job was to advise brands on how to advertise and market their product, but ultimately, I had the desire to actually market something myself. 

I thought I saw an opportunity in the sleepwear market to do more contemporary sleepwear. I’d saved up $100,000, and I gave it a year. If I couldn’t make it work in a year, I’d go back and get a real job. I reckon I came within six weeks of saying, “Well, I’ve given this a red hot go, but it’s not working,” when I used some of the off-cuts of the sleepwear I was making to make boxer shorts. I saw this trend coming from overseas, and it took off like crazy. 

From there, I went over to the US and asked for the Calvin Klein underwear brand. At the time, a couple other people from Australia were also trying to get the brand, and we all got no. I went back the following year and I got no again, so I went back the following year and I got the licence. I sold that business to Gazal Group in Sydney, and about three months later, I founded – along with two young Kiwi guys – 2XU. 

We had a couple of sell-downs, not because we needed the money – it was cashflow positive – but because we wanted to de-risk what we were doing. First, Tannara [Capital] came on board, and they invested, and then, L Capital [the investment arm of LVMH] approached us and wanted to come on. They bought a share, and then ultimately, in December 2018, we sold to them. It’s great when you sell to someone who’s already in the business because they know the business as well as you do. It’s a good way to exit. 

IR: What are some of the key leadership lessons you’ve learned over the course of your career? 

CD: Whatever you do, you’ve got to have passion, because business is tough enough. You’re going to go through hurdles along the way, and if you’re not passionate and don’t love what you do, it’s hard. 

In terms of leadership, we always look for attitude rather than experience. You have to have a good attitude, you have to believe in what you’re doing. No one’s got a monopoly on good ideas. If we had an idea from someone in the warehouse, we’d embrace it. As long as it wasn’t financially crippling, we’d always do it, and if it didn’t work, we’d celebrate it, because we wanted people to have a go. 

The one thing I’ve learned from my leadership position is that you can’t not fail from time to time. When someone tried their best and failed, we would say, “It’s fantastic, you gave it a go.” We tried to develop a culture where people would not feel uncomfortable, not feel threatened, to say what they think, and come up with ideas. 

Even myself, we started [2XU] with triathlon, swim, bike and run. Along the way, I saw this compression Careers, and I thought it was a great business, because it had broad appeal to every single sport. But the guys said to me, “We don’t really want to do that. We’ve got enough on our plate.” I had 80 per cent of the business, so I could have said, “No, you just have to do this.” But if I had said that, it wouldn’t have worked. What I said was, “If you felt passionate about something, I would support you and do everything I could to make it work. All I’m asking is for you to offer that to me in return.” And they did. They embraced it. And it was only through the way they grew it and developed it that it worked. 

It’s all about passion. It’s about creativity. It’s about having a go. It’s about creating an environment where people are not fearful of making mistakes. 

We always operate on creating the best [offer]. Number one is quality. Number two is value for money. Number three is good distribution. Only then, is it your advertising and marketing. But if you’re talking about leadership, it’s all about creating a comfortable environment where people are encouraged and nurtured to have a go. 

IR: I’m sure for many people, you are their business hero, but are there any leaders or founders who you look up to? 

CD: Of course, not so much the people who you’d think. My father-in-law was a great business person. He was able to run a fantastic business whilst creating that sort of culture. You don’t have to be an asshole to be successful in business. 

Over the journey, I’ve had different people. Copeland Barnes, who used to run Mars Confectionery, who I knew from my advertising days, was very helpful. My wife – every decision I make I bounce them off of her. She’s way smarter than me, very intelligent, and if I’ve got something I want to talk through, I’ll talk it through with her. There’s lots of other people. But there’s no single mentor. 

What I’ve found is that, generally, people want to help. If someone wants to chat about business, I’ll always sit down with them. I often say, “Speak to me, but reach out to other people, you don’t have to agree with everyone, but speak to a range of people.” 

I try to help where I can, and I often ask for help. It’s not an imposition…unless you’re an asshole. 

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