Anne McKevitt’s life could have turned out a lot differently if she wasn’t injured in a car crash and forced in another direction
After dropping out of school aged 15, Anne McKevitt worked her way up in London’s cut throat fashion industry as a hairstylist for the rich and famous.
Then, at 19, she injured her back in a car accident and was told she would never walk again.
Fortunately her clients included Paul and Linda McCartney, who helped pay for alternative treatment which eventually got her back on her feet.
“After that I realised I couldn’t go back into fashion. Physically it was too difficult because I was working on photo shoots and magazine and catwalk work which is a bit different to being salon bound – it was pretty heavy and hard work,” McKevitt recalled. “I was still recuperating, there was a whole year when I couldn’t walk at all for two and a half years. I met my husband and got married and bought an apartment and I did it up as a form of therapy really, because I was sitting there twiddling my thumbs and not knowing what to do with my life.
“When it was completed all my friends said I should put it on the market. I put it on the market and had a lot of interest from some well-known people – Alexandra Shulman, who is the editor of Vogue, Kate Moss, Jay Kay from Jamiroquai and lots of other well-known people trying to buy it and outbid each other. Eventually I sold it to an American businessman who paid 40,000 GBP ($64,000) over the asking price, which was a lot of money at that time in the recession. No-one was even paying asking prices, they were getting well below, so I went with that deal.”
“This was when mobile phones weren’t really in existence, there was just the odd brick that you carried around. That sale went through on the Friday and on the Monday Alexandra Shulman rang me up and I thought, ‘Oh shit, if I ever want to go back into fashion it’s not going to happen now’, but she just said, ‘I want to buy your next one’. I said, ‘My next what?’, and she said, ‘The next apartment that you do up’.”
Realising the potential for a business, McKevitt started buying properties to do up and within the year had a multi-million dollar business.
“We were turning over between eight and 10 properties a month,” she recalled. “They were very different from anything else on the market because I was doing very contemporary design when Britain was still in flags and tails. It was horrendous cornicing and very ornately over the top and I came in with a very sleek look. People were willing to pay a lot of money for that.
“I started doing interior design alongside the development business for clients like Annie Lennox, Elton John – serious A-list people spending serious money.”
Keen to keep challenging herself, McKevitt decided to write a book – because she is dyslexic.
“I went about doing the first book called Style on a Shoestring, which was the opposite of what I was doing for my clients because all of them were spending millions of pounds,” she said.
“There was one client who spent 42 million pounds ($62.7 million) on interior design for their home, and they only lived there for 10 days of the year.
“We would have carpets woven for them and fabrics made from scratch. The book was the first time I’d tried to do something for the mass market. I was halfway through the book and I realised that the amount of effort we put into making a piece of carpet for a client was the same amount of energy to make that carpet for a big consumer base.”
Around the same time, the BBC contacted McKevitt to try out for a new lifestyle show.
“I did this one piece for them which took about two weeks to film. When it came out it went on air prime time and got eight million viewers,” she said.
“The following day I realised my life had changed because I got in a cab and the driver started talking in great detail about a pair of curtains he had seen me do on the television.”
The BBC looked at the figures and offered her the whole series. Eventually, McKevitt went on to record 18 series for the BBC and ITV – although she remains very grounded.
“I sort of became a celebrity, as you do,” she laughed.
“That was odd, because I had been in the celebrity world from the other side when I was in fashion and suddenly I was the one that was the celebrity.”
Realising the amount of effort put into developing products for clients, McKevitt decided to scale back her interior design and development businesses to focus on creating a retail operation.
“I started to create ranges of products,” she said.
“First we launched a bedding range, then it was paint and so on. These were all branded with my name and image and there were millions of them coming out on the shelves.
“I did things that were quite different. For example with the paint, it was traditionally being marketed to women but the tins were very masculine. Ultimately it was a masculine thing to buy paint. I started to study cosmetic counters and realised that all the lipsticks and varnishes were always on display. I came up with a concept of paint that was already premixed – because women don’t have time to stand around waiting for it to be mixed – and was sold in clear containers so you could see the colour.
“We took that concept to two of the biggest retailers in the UK and they bought it in five linear metres across every store – our first order was for 45 million pounds ($72.7 million).”
With the UK market performing exceptionally – McKevitt’s book had also gone on to sell more than a million copies – she turned her focus to America.
“I spent four years going back and forth to the US - every Wednesday I would fly to New York and every Friday I would fly back to London,” she said.
“My target was Wal-Mart, because K-Mart had Martha Stewart and I wanted to do something with their competitor, basically. Eventually we did a whole series of proposals and they all bought into it.
“That did really well. Within four years we had a Japanese conglomerate wanting to buy it. I had envisaged it would take eight to 10 years.”
Despite the success in the US, McKevitt was starting to tire of the travel and work.
“Ultimately, three years later, I was in LA for the fourth or fifth time that month, exhausted after multiple flights back and forth from London and I had a massive deal that I had been offered for television,” she said.
“I remember sitting on the plane on the way back to London thinking, ‘This is not the life I want… it doesn’t matter how much money you have got if you are not where you want to be’. When I got back to London I rang a migration agent and told them I wanted to migrate to Australia.
Now AMI Group Enterprises works across several continents – thanks to remote working arrangements made possible by the internet – across a range of industries.
“There’s multiple parts to the business. There is a branding business, publishing business, three different coaching businesses, import and export, property – it’s been up to about 22 different strands but in the past year I have been refining that and it will probably be around 12 different businesses six months from now,” McKevitt explained.
So what’s next? Nothing less than tackling the social issue of gender equality, starting with the She Success conference later this year.
“It’s not just about trying to get a few women to do something, it’s about moving everything forward,” she said.
“I love this country so much, but I think there are some things that we could be doing even better. Hopefully She Success becomes a strong vehicle to get people talking about what can be done to speed it up in the way that Nordic countries have done in terms of legislation and action which has made a huge difference in the way those countries are running.
“It would be great to have Australia as an incubator to show what is possible in a 10-year period.
“It’s not about coming and being entertained for two days, it’s hopefully the starting point for something bigger.”
And with McKevitt applying her personal mantra for entrepreneurship to the task, it will be interesting to watch the She Success concept evolve.
“Most people who think they are entrepreneurial aren’t,” she explained.
“You only get to be entrepreneurial when you are prepared to ride by the seat of your pants – that’s the difference between being a business owner and an entrepreneur. Sure you look at the risks, but ultimately you tell yourself that you are going to make it happen.
“You don’t wait for perfection, you don’t wait for everything to line up, you just have to go and make it happen.”
At a glance:
Name: Anne McKevitt
Position: chief executive AMI Group Enterprises
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