My life’s work | Simon Cotton, CEO of Johnstons of Elgin

In this weekly series, we meet a Walpole member chief executive to discover what makes them tick, how they define success, and what keeps them awake at night. This week Simon Cotton, CEO of Johnstons of Elgin – makers of cashmere and fine woollen cloth, knitwear and accessories in Scotland – on ensuring the longevity of the 220-year-old heritage brand, and being inspired by the mills of Elgin and Hawick.

Simon Cotton has been the CEO of Johnstons of Elgin since 2013. Prior to this, Cotton spent 11 years in textiles at Russell Europe, before a five-year role for Swiss group Franke Kitchen. His early career started in Marketing and Product Development after graduating in Marketing and Business Law from the University of Strathclyde.

What does British luxury mean to you?
In textiles, British luxury is very well respected, with a high-quality reputation. However, it is sometimes seen as traditional and occasionally restrictive. At Johnstons of Elgin, we aim to marry the rich foundation and reputation with something more innovative and extensive that overcomes restrictions and is unexpected from a British mill.

What’s your vision for the company?
We are in the midst of celebrating our 220th anniversary year, and we want Johnstons to live for another 220 years, and more! The unparalleled quality of our product and our obsession with innovation will, I believe, attract the talent, partners and customers that will make this possible.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My children.

How do you define success?
Being happy in your life.

What’s your greatest extravagance?
I rarely do extravagance, but my wife likes to surprise me with vintage Hermès ties.

What do you like most about your job?
The joy of working with people who are so passionate about what they do and the sheer variety.

And least?
There is never enough time in the day.

What has been your greatest regret?
My policy is to not have regrets. We make the best decisions we can at the time, knowing what we know at that moment.

What inspires you?
Every time I walk into the mills in Elgin or Hawick, I see something we have never done before or that has never been done in the world. It’s impossible not to be inspired.

What was your big break?
I was the Marketing Manager at Russell Europe when the whole senior management team got cleared out. Suddenly I was one of the few people who knew how things worked.

What is your guiding principle?
Find great people, agree the direction and give them as much responsibility and authority as they can cope with.

Which living person do you most admire?
I was lucky enough to see Barack Obama speak on his recent visit to Edinburgh. His perspective, sense of history, and oratory blew me away.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Journey”. We are always talking about “personal learning journeys” or “brand development journeys”. As long as we are progressing every day in the right direction, I am happy.

What keeps you awake at night?
I sleep very well. It’s during the day that I think about every little detail.

What do you most value in your friends?
Humour and chat.

In a parallel life, what would you be doing?
Exactly this.

What piece of advice would you give someone entering the luxury industry now?
Be patient. Achieving excellence is incompatible with a short-term focus.

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