How business agility has kept Weird Fish thriving in a tough market

MD John Stockton reveals all


John Stockton knows wholesaling. Having spent the best part of 20 years supplying retail chains with stock, he’s managed to continue growing active lifestyle clothing business Weird Fish throughout the economic turmoil.
Qualified as a chartered accountant Stockton was chief executive of boardsports brand and retailer Animal for eight years. In 2008 he left and took over as managing director of active lifestyle clothing business Weird Fish, before leading a management buy-out in 2010 from founder Doug Tilling with £8m in backing from Piper Private Equity.
Expectations late last year were that the £12m turnover to year-end 2010 was going to hit £14m for last year. The company has continued to flourish through sales to more than 400 independent retailers and department stores around the UK, with its online operation and small number of high-street shops accounting for the rest of its business.
Here, Stockton shares his belief in an agile approach to business to buck the trend and thrive in a tough climate.

Being quick and nimble can get you a long way in business. Yet once a company reaches a certain size, various structures and procedures start kicking in which prohibit fast and decisive action – a lesson I learnt early in my career. I had trained as a chartered accountant, but left the day I qualified! It was obvious to me that I would be constrained by the tightly controlled structure and procedures of a giant corporation.

Eventually my career took me into branded leisure goods and clothing, where in the early 1990s, I ran a subsidiary of H. Young Holdings Plc which had the UK licence for Head sports brand. It was around the time sportswear brands began crossing over into the mainstream through the big chains such as JJB and All Sports. As the volumes went up, I wanted to sign bigger minimums – the Head bags alone were worth £15m – but the Plc was nervous about renewing the clothing license which I found immensely frustrating. So, since I’d acquired the knowledge and the contacts, I went out on my own and set up a little office with a partner near Castle Donnington, designing and sourcing bags and footwear for the multiple sports chains.

It was here that I really understood how a fast moving and independent approach can bring in big returns. Our sports company always maintained high levels of professionalism and structure but our ability to think on our feet enabled us to deliver on some substantial early orders, including one for 400,000 backpacks. We ended up supplying the chains with millions of clothes.

Being away from the tighter constraints of big business allows you much more time to have an impact on the day to day running of an organisation, whether it’s handing out payslips, dealing with suppliers or even observing how different markets are evolving – and reacting accordingly.

In fact, in the current economic climate, where larger firms are having to undergo reorganisation after reorganisation and spend time trimming corporate layers, there are real opportunities for smaller companies to experiment with new ideas and make significant gains.

At Weird Fish, we’ve had great success recently with pop-up stores – opening temporary shops, at much lower rents, in vacant high street locations. Landlords like pop-ups because they fill empty units, consumers like them because they make the high street less homogenous and we like them because we get the brand to the mainstream market without paying a fortune in rent.

At a larger company, you might spend months trying to get a simple decision out of management. But in a smaller outfit, where everyone has a focused and common goal, communication is far easier and creativity is encouraged. You don’t need big corporate meetings to set the agenda, you knock some ideas around the table on a Monday morning and away you go. In this kind of environment, small businesses can gain early momentum and soon begin punching above their weight.

Growing a brand in a smaller, more entrepreneurial environment presents plenty of challenges along the way but it can be hugely satisfying if you get it right. Though there are times when you’re reminded that reaching the next level, ultimately depends on the big boys themselves. Back when my business partner and I were selling bags to the big sports chains, I used to spend time with JJB founder Dave Whelan – and had a few swimming races in his pool. Sitting in his sauna one day, he turned to me and said: ‘Lad, do you know what the definition of a big brand is? Any f*****g brand I put on my shelf’.

There was no arguing with that.

This is an extract from ’25 Years, 25 Insights’, published by Piper Private Equity to mark its 25th anniversary. A specialist in consumer brands, Piper founded Pitcher & Piano and has helped grow businesses such as Boden, Las Iguanas and Maximuscle. To order a free copy of the book go to www.piperprivateequity.com

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