Who will be the new kings of UK’s retail sector? Retailers are synonymous with their founders and leaders, who have an ability to shape a business in their image perhaps like no other

Who will be the new kings of the retail sector?

There is a changing of the guard, and the incoming generation appears to be finding life hard going

On July 9, Justin King will end a decade as Sainsbury’s chief executive Photo: Rex Features

By Graham Ruddick

7:18PM BST 19 Jun 2014

The retail industry has produced some of the best-known business leaders and entrepreneurs in Britain. Ask any member of the public to name a British businessmen, and personalities such as Sir Philip Green, Sir Terry Leahy, Sir Stuart Rose and Justin King are likely to be on the list.

Over the past decade and more, they have shaped the high street; and, before Sir Philip, Sir Terry, Sir Stuart and King, it was no different.

Retailers are synonymous with their founders and leaders, who have an ability to shape a business in their image perhaps like no other.

For years, retailing was dominated by figures such as Sir Jack Cohen, the founder of Tesco, Sir Ken Morrison, the man built Morrisons into a nationwide food retailer, and Sir Stanley Kalms, who ran Dixons. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer was run by members of its founding family until the 1980s, with Sir Richard Greenbury then growing the high street retailer’s profits to £1bn for the first time in 1998.

The industry is inherently entrepreneurial, with many of the biggest retailers beginning life as a single market stall. M&S started as a penny bazaar in Leeds in 1884, Tesco was a market stall in London’s East End, while Sir Philip used a £20,000 loan to start importing jeans from the Far East to sell to retailers in London.

But where are the new generation of retail entrepreneurs?

At present, there is a changing of the guard. On July 9, Justin King will end a decade as Sainsbury’s chief executive. This means that, since 2010, the bosses of M&S, Tesco and Sainsbury’s will all have passed on the baton after long periods in charge.

But the incoming generation appears to be finding life hard going.

Whether it is the challenge of the economic downturn, the dominance of Tesco, or the changes in shopping habits brought about by the internet, a new collection of retail chief executives and entrepreneurs have not yet stamped their mark in the same way as Sir Terry and his peers.

For example, since replacing Sir Terry at Tesco, Philip Clarke has overseen three years of declining sales as discounters Aldi and Lidl grab customers. Meanwhile, at Sainsbury’s, King is handing over to Mike Coupe, a man who is actually eight months older than he is.

Two men who appeared to be leading a charge for the new generation were Julian Dunkerton and Nick Robertson.

Dunkerton has built Superdry into one of the country’s leading fashion brands, while Robertson is leading the online revolution as co-founder and chief executive of Asos.

However, both companies have suffered significant setbacks in 2014.

In trading statements less than a month apart this spring, Superdry’s parent company, SuperGroup, and Asos warned that profits would not meet prior expectations for the year. These warnings have led to a reappraisal of the long-term prospects for the companies.

SuperGroup has lost a third of its value so far in 2014. In the course of five trading sessions leading up to this Tuesday, the company lost 25pc of its value, despite no new information being provided to the market.

There are doubts about whether the limitations of the Superdry brand and its clothing style mean it can be a long-term success. One rival retail executive said this week: “How are they supposed to react to the latest fashion trends? They can’t.”

Dunkerton may be the last retail entrepreneur of his type – he started selling clothing from a market stall. In contrast, Robertson is a new breed of retail tycoon.

He was born into a wealthy family – he is the great-grandson of Austin Reed – and initially enjoyed a career in advertising. Then in 2000 he founded an online retailer called AsSeenOnScreen – later shortened to Asos – with Quentin Griffiths. He financed it with money from family and friends.

The idea behind Asos was to sell products seen in television programmes and films. Today, it is as a fashion retailer worth £2.3bn.

However, at the start of the year, Asos was worth a lot more than £2.3bn. Shares in the company have fallen 55pc in 2014 on the back of two profit warnings.

Despite its rapid growth, critics of Asos claim it faces an uphill battle to grow its profit margins while winning customers from established fashion brands such as Topshop.

Sources in the retail industry suggest that brands whose products are sold via Asos are growing increasingly frustrated with the business. The brands, thought to include Superdry, are deeply unhappy at the discounts that Asos is offering to boost it sales.

Behind Robertson, however, there is a march of online entrepreneurs looking to follow in the footsteps of Asos and Amazon in the US.

These include John Roberts, the chief executive of, who founded the white goods retailer after a bet over a drink in Dunscar Conservative club in Bolton.

Staying in the north-west, Manchester-based business partners Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane created Asos’s rival in 2006, while Nitin Passi built fashion website Missguided in his bedroom, using photographs of clothing he had seen at a local wholesalers.

But despite the lofty valuations attributed to and in their IPOs, they remain businesses with a lot to prove.

Indeed, despite a technological revolution, the most impressive of the new generation of Britain’s shopkeepers could still emerge from traditional bricks-and-mortar chains.

This includes the Arora brothers – led by Simon – who have transformed discount Liverpool-based retailer B&M into a business that is on the brink of the FTSE 100. The brothers bought B&M in 2004 and changed it from a small grocery chain into a non-food retailer with a sophisticated Asian supply chain.

Another name that stands out, of course, is Mike Ashley. Like him or loathe him, Ashley has built Sports Direct into a £4.5bn sportswear retailer. His peers refer to him as a “genius” for the logistics network he has put in place at Sports Direct.

Also, although these are tough times for the supermarkets, there is a new group of individuals whom headhunters will be calling when the top jobs become available over the next few years.

This includes Roger Burnley, retail and operations director at Sainsbury’s, and John Browett, who left Tesco to rescue Dixons and now runs Monsoon Accessorize. Despite leaving Apple after only months in charge of their high street stores, Browett is one of the favourites eventually to replace Clarke at Tesco, alongside Dave Lewis, head of personal care at Unilever.

Although M&S profits fell last year, it has installed an admired management team below chief executive Marc Bolland. Laura Wade-Gery, the executive director for multichannel, John Dixon, head of general merchandise, and Steve Rowe, head of food, will all be battling for the role of chief executive when Bolland departs. The two who miss out are likely to be offered plum jobs elsewhere.

So while the influence of Sir Terry and King will be felt for some time to come, a new generation is slowly but surely emerging.



About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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