The founder of clothing brand Ted Baker sees it as one of the secrets behind his multi- millionaire success.
“You have to touch everything to be a good CEO,” the 63-year-old explained. “I touch everything. I touch the garments, I touch all the cloths.”
But yesterday his fondness for touching got him in trouble when Ted Baker’s share price fell 15 per cent following revelations of a petition by employees and former staff to end “forced hugging” by their boss.
It meant the company’s value had fallen £123million, from £814million on Friday to £691million last night.
When news of the petition broke on Sunday, Kelvin’s PR team released a statement trying to brush off the “hugging culture” as cool and casual.
However, last night it had turned into a PR disaster for the firm, with the petition amassing more than 2,600 signatures.
That prompted Ted Baker’s board to agree to independently investigate the complaints and ensure “appropriate responses are taken”.
One who signed the petition claimed: “I’ve seen the CEO ask young female members of staff to sit on his knee, cuddle him, or let him massage their ears. I went to HR with a complaint and was told ‘that’s just what Ray’s like’. The owner regularly makes sexual innuendos at staff. He strokes people’s necks and took off his shirt on one occasion and talked about his sex life.”
An anonymous former employee said Kelvin’s hugs were “extremely physically imposing as well as awkwardly long”, adding: “They were often conducted very publicly in front of the whole office.
“The discomfort came from what tended to accompany them. Unwanted personal comments, kissing on the cheek, neck stroking all used to happen, particularly with women.”
She remembers her “welcome hug” — a rite of passage most staff are put through, explaining: “It was in a relatively private environment of a meeting, but even so I felt massively uncomfortable.”
Another former junior employee said the “enforced” hugging is at best awkward, at worse sinister and intimidating.
They added: “Everyone has a hug from him. When you haven’t met Ray that sounds fine. But when you are a young man or girl and a big old guy points at you and tells everyone you are going to get a hug, that’s really embarrassing.
“It was never a hug like you or I would do with mates for one or two seconds. It was always too long.”
Pulling away was not done, either. “He holds you in. He’s a big guy and it was my first job,” one victim said.
Last night other stories emerged from friends, contacts and former staff detailing the peculiar culture fostered by the twice-married tycoon, who calls himself an “ugly bugger”, hides his face in photographs and boasts an estimated personal fortune of £522million.
The company’s empire has a £600million annual turnover and extends to 532 shops and concessions worldwide. It is run from a head office in, London’s King’s Cross, where there is a sign on the floor near his desk marking a “hug zone”.
He knows the names of all 350 staff in the HQ and is full of interest in their personal lives. Staff report that he likes to play matchmaker in the office and insists on everyone having an “office boyfriend” or an “office girlfriend”.
Sometimes, in a light-hearted tone, he would point at two members of staff and suggest they might like to have sex with each other. Latecomers to meetings are told to do press-ups.
In 2016, a journalist said he was hugged by Kelvin for a full 73 seconds. “It was the sort of hug two reunited lovers might indulge in,” he wrote. “Don’t report me for sexual harassment,” Kelvin then joked, in his strong North London accent.
One day Kelvin, who launched the business from a single shop in 1988, took things further. A former employee said: “I was working with headphones in and felt a solid hand on my shoulder, digging fingers into my back and shoulders.
“I turned round and it was Ray, who was in the process of showing a group of visitors round the office. He was digging both his hands into my shoulders while commenting loudly on the tightness of my muscles — something which most the office could hear. Although not illegal, obviously, it was deeply embarrassing.”
The initial statement from Kelvin’s PR team about the “hugging culture” said: “Ted Baker has always placed great importance on the company’s culture and owes everything to the commitment of our people. It is critically important to us that every member of our staff feels valued and respected at work.
“Ray greets many people he meets with a hug, be it a shareholder, investor, supplier, partner, customer or colleague.
“Hugs have become part of Ted Baker’s culture, but are absolutely not insisted upon.”
When questioned about the company hugs turning into something more, Kelvin protested that there was no coercion.
He has claimed he embraces people because “chronic psoriatic arthritis” means he is unable to shake hands.
“Shaking hands is really, really painful,” he has said. “I switched to hugs. It breaks barriers and it is a nice thing to do.”
And in an interview published in Retail Week magazine online yesterday, he took offence at the suggestion that sometimes his hand would wander below the waist.
“If they are happy to sit on my knee . . .” he said with a shrug. He continued: “What was acceptable in my life — and this is very important — stays with me. My father had lots of people sit on his knee because it was a friendly thing to do when I grew up.
“You can’t expect my life to change because today people are particular about certain things that we grew up quite naturally with. Plenty of people might have sat on Ted Baker’s knee.”
Kelvin did note that his staff would probably be reluctant to turn him down. “We just do it. I don’t know if I ask them enough.
“They probably wouldn’t want to be negative to me.”
Kelvin’s remarkable success started with his first menswear shop in Glasgow 30 years ago. Although hopeless at school, his father had owned a blouse factory in Edmonton, North London, and he is said to have got the idea of Ted Baker’s colourful shirts while he was fly fishing.
Kelvin says he learnt everything he knows from his glamorous mum Trudy, who died in 2011 and whom he idolised.
“She called me her diamond,” he said. “My parents taught me that you had to work hard for anything you wanted.”
While his celeb pals include big names such as tennis star Andy Murray, Kelvin says he spends his evenings “in front of the TV farting”. His two sons compare him to the dad in US comedy Family Guy.
Kelvin wants to see himself as Ted Baker, his alter ego — once described by the company as an “intrepid aviator, an all-round sportsman and the consort of princesses and Hollywood beauties”.
To this day he runs the business as Ted, not Ray — and Ted is a hugger.
His friends dismiss the allegations as the quirks of an eccentric entrepreneur. Retail consultant Richard Hyman said: “If I turned up to meet Ray and he didn’t hug me I would think I’d offended him.
“I’ve known him for many years and every time I’ve ever met him he’s always hugged me. Ray hugs everyone. He doesn’t discriminate between men, women, bankers, lawyers, clothing suppliers.”
Retail consultant and friend Greg Lawless added: “It’s not helpful to the brand but are you trying to tell me that Richard Branson doesn’t have quirks? Or Tim Steiner of Ocado? Or Mike Ashley?
“I don’t think he’s been accused of anything apart from giving someone a hug. If there are other allegations then I’m not aware of them. I hope no one is suggesting he’s the next Philip Green.”
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