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Fat Face: Jules Leaver and Tim Slade

Jukes Leaver & Tim Slade started off selling t-shirts at ski resorts, now they're turning over £25m

At first glance they are not the most likely people to become successful entrepreneurs, but when two skiers decided to sell T-shirts at a ski resort to finance their lifestyle, they laid the foundations of a very successful clothing empire.

That was in 1988. Today, Jules Leaver and Tim Slade have just opened their 50th Fat Face shop, selling outdoor clothes and leisurewear. The company is estimated to turnover in the region of £25 million this year and is recognised as one of the fastest growing companies in Britain in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100.

After completing a business degree at 21, Leaver decided to indulge his love of skiing by becoming a “self-confessed” ski bum in Meribel, France. But rising early to get the best skiing and working late in a bar to earn enough to live on was not a viable lifestyle for a long period of time. Together with fellow bar worker, former policeman and friend, Tim Slade, Leaver decided to exploit the gap in the market for ‘been there done that’ T-shirts to sell to holidaymakers.

The pair chose to manufacture their own T-shirts to enhance appeal, rather than buying them off the shelf, and found a company in Leicester that did short runs at a reasonable price. The T-shirts were then printed up with the ‘Meribel 88′ back prints at a company in East London. While Leaver stayed in Meribel to sell the merchandise behind the bar, Slade travelled back and forth transporting the goods.

Fat chance

“We began by getting small batches of 100 or 200 T-shirts printed, based on the minimal capital we had to invest,” said Leaver. “They sold well because no-one else was doing anything similar, and we gradually increased the quantity to 400 then 800 and so on.” Their bold approach paid off and when they left Meribel to travel the world they continued to sell T-shirts, and later fleeces, at different ports of call.

“It wasn’t until we got back to the UK in 1993 that we realised what a good business idea it was,” explained Leaver. “So I sold my VW Combi van and Tim cashed in some shares, and with £12k we opened our first shop in Fulham.”

Leaver and Slade knew that by appealing predominantly to the skiing and snowboarding market they would only be in business for half of every year – not a viable option. So the pair built on the success of their T-shirts and fleeces by developing a range based on another interest of theirs – sailing and windsurfing. It proved to be a successful formula. “Having a mixture of High Street and activity-based portfolio has worked very well for us, yet it isn’t something that would fit most brands,” said Leaver.

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