Shaper: Peter Williams

Show aired on 29th July 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Gil Scott-Heron with The Bottle, one of my all-time favourites. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss, thank you very much for joining me. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul; and right alongside them we bring someone who is shaping the world of business and we call those people Business Shapers. My Business Shaper today is a biggie, he is Peter Williams, he is the founder and CEO of Jack Wills, the unbelievably successful clothes business, fashion business on High Streets mostly around the UK, but not just in the UK, they are all over the world and you can buy their stuff online as well. You will be hearing lots from Peter very shortly. In addition to hearing from Peter, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business; and then we’ve got the music and it’s a brilliant mix today from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul. Omer Avital is in there, Aretha Franklin is in there and so is this from Joyce Moreno.

That was Joyce Moreno, one of the Brazilian greats with Meu Piao. I hope I said it properly, I am sure I didn’t. Peter Williams is my Business Shaper today as I said earlier and Peter is the CEO and founder of Jack Wills and Jack Wills a great British success. Where are we now, 1999 it was created, hello Peter.

Peter Williams
Hello.

Elliot Moss
Thank you so much for joining me.

Peter Williams
Thank you for inviting me to be here.

Elliot Moss
You’re a teenager now as a business, seventeen years in.

Peter Williams
Eighteen.

Elliot Moss
Eighteen in fact, yes my maths isn’t so good, you can see we are going to have fun. Peter, what I am really interested in, we are going to start at the beginning about how this came about. You’re an economic student, that’s what you did at university, you went into a management consultancy, and then you decided just like that to set up a business in fashion selling clothes. Talk me through how that happened. Obviously, my researchers haven’t done me proud today. Where did that desire to set up a shop and set up a clothes shop come from?

Peter Williams
I suppose before I’ve distilled it down to the soundbite, the arrogance and naivety of youth, we didn’t have, I didn’t have any idea as to how difficult it was going to be so I couldn’t really understand how it couldn’t be possibly be anything other than wildly successful. But when you get old and jaded like I am now, maybe you would point out all the reasons why it wouldn’t work, but when you’re young you are sort of at the start line of life, you just don’t see how you can do anything other than take over the world.

Elliot Moss
But taking over the world people choose to do that in all sorts of ways. You chose to set up a shop in Salcombe selling clothes and a certain type of clothes. That couldn’t have just happened in the blink of an eye.

Peter Williams
Yeah so my background was, I obviously went to school, I then went to university, I had a good time at school and university, played lots of rugby, worked hard, generally had fun like many people do. I then got a job and the job was absolutely brilliant, I loved it, it paid well, it was really fascinating and in my first few months I thought I can’t believe I’ve so landed on my feet here, this is, this is just going to be great. And then after a few months I started to think, hang on a second, there’s nothing really wrong with the job and it’s quite interesting work and I like the people that I was working with, but when I look in the rear view mirror that seemed like a lot more fun than when I looked out in twenty years. And it wasn’t just all of the obvious sort of fun and games that one gets up to at university, but it was more about the fact that when we were, and I was twenty one and all my friends were twenty one, we had this almost unfettered, untainted outlook on life and there is a spirit that that age group has where you’re an adult, but you’re not a proper grown up. So you have all the independence and freedom that comes with adulthood, but you don’t have, I don’t know a mortgage, a wife, a husband, a boss, you’re all gorgeous not really necessarily because you are, just because you’re young I suppose. And so your standing at the start line and the excitement and the optimism and the enthusiasm that everybody has at that point is intoxicating and I figured that if I could create a brand which bottled that spirit, that sort of youthful spirit if you like, then that was going to be a very compelling proposition not just domestically, but around the world.

Elliot Moss
Ah so you’re really Peter Pan this is what it’s about. Stay with me for Peter Williams who I’ve now cast as Peter Pan the incredibly successful founder and CEO of Jack Wills which I should mention is over in around ninety locations around the world and has a turnover I believe in excess of a hundred and twenty five million quid, is that right?

Peter Williams
A hundred and forty five million quid.

Elliot Moss
Wow there you go, it’s gone up even since, even since this piece of paper was written for me. Not bad and it’s probably going up as we speak. Stay with me for much more from Peter, my Business Shaper. Time for some more music now, this is the Israeli jazz bassist , we play him quite a lot, it’s Omer Avital with Hafla.

That was Hafla from Omar Avital and as I’ve said he’s an Israeli jazz bassist and he is really good too. Peter Williams is my Business Shaper today, founder and CEO of Jack Wills and beyond the numbers which of course I got wrong, which is very nice because it’s more not less. At least it’s more Peter…

Peter Williams
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
And there is always that…

Peter Williams
Yeah, yeah we are growing.

Elliot Moss
…you’re growing which is fabulous, but what you talked about in terms of bottling the youthful spirit. I’d buy that and that makes and you’re right about that age. Enabling or being enabled to do that and actually having the capability to do that and taking a small loan or some money forty thousand quid I believe it took to set the first thing up. I get the youthful spirit thing, but how did you know what you were doing when it came to actually a store with clothes in it.

Peter Williams
Well I didn’t know anything about anything really. Many would say that’s still the case.

Elliot Moss
You’re just fearless basically.

Peter Williams
We made, we just made everything up I guess.

Elliot Moss
Really? Really?

Peter Williams
Yeah. And that’s one of the most brilliant, it’s one of the most brilliant things about starting a business because you break all sorts of rules, but you don’t even realise you’re breaking them because you didn’t really know what they were in the first place. And actually when people say to me, or I am thinking about starting a business, I would like to start a business, what I am going to do is I am going to get a job and I am going to get some experience and then when I’ve got some experience then I will start it and I always think. No, no, no that’s the worst thing you can do because actually when you say experience, what you really mean is I am going to get indoctrinated in a whole set of ways of doing things and it’s very hard to break out of that. If you never really knew what the rules were in the first place, it’s quite easy to break them all. And so there’s lots of things in our business that have made it uniquely, that are unique about the way, about why the business has been successful which is directly as a result of, I just didn’t really know what the rules were so we just did things in a different way from maybe how other people did them.

Elliot Moss
And doing them in a different way obviously worked. At what point did you say, I’ve got something here, this not knowing is kind of fun and now I know a little bit, I am going to open shop number two and then shop number three and then so on. I mean was it a nice simple trajectory upwards or was it much bumpier than that?

Peter Williams
The first, the first, the first two years were pretty tough and it was 1999/2000 dot com boom, no self-respecting 24/25 year old ex-strategy consultant was doing anything other talking about burn rates and that sort of thing in flashy offices in Soho and I was living above a shop in Devon with my mate. So, I did have a reasonable amount of, ‘ohhh have I made a terrible mistake here’ and then, and then by probably the third year, in our first year we turned over fifty six thousand pounds and in our second year we turned over fifty nine thousand pounds and I said to Rob one day, I said ‘the worst thing that can happen next year is we turnover sixty two thousand because by then we will have probably starved to death’.

Elliot Moss
Rob’s your friend and co-founder?

Peter Williams
Co-founder yeah. And so I said ‘well if we gonna, we’ve got to think we are going to go for it or we will go down in flames’ and we found another store, actually on the other side of the country, so we were down in the south west in Salcombe to begin with and then we found a store in Aldeburgh in Suffolk and…

Elliot Moss
Lovely beach…

Peter Williams
Lovely beach.

Elliot Moss
…and famous sculptures and things like that.

Peter Williams
Yeah lovely, lovely place and it was almost like a romcom. I was driving into the town with a friend and this guy is literally just putting a sign in the window saying ‘Shop to Let’ and I sort of screeched to a halt and I said ‘is that a shop to let?’ and he was like ‘erm yeah’. He said ‘but you can only have it for three years because I am going to knock the building down’. And I was like perfect. So we opened that shop up there and that was when it took off.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out what happened next after it had indeed taken off. That’s Peter Williams my Business Shaper, founder and CEO of Jack Wills. The latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom, I hope, from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your burgeoning business idea.

You’re listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I am very lucky because I get to meet someone who’s shaping the world of business. Peter Williams, my Business Shaper today, he’s in over ninety locations and I think with plans to do more than eleven or sort of ten or eleven in the next few, however many…

Peter Williams
We are opening probably eleven over the next twelve months.

Elliot Moss
You’re not ambitious enough Peter. I think. That was a joke obviously.

Peter Williams
I’m peddling as fast as I can.

Elliot Moss
Get a move on! But Peter you mentioned earlier you said you skidded up to the shop, you saw it, you took that rent, that place for three years or whatever it would have been, a maximum of three years and that, that fun of kind of not knowing what was next, how do you sustain that over a long period of time because it strikes me that when you’re now employing 1500/1600 people whatever it is and you’ve got a business with a turnover of a hundred and forty five million quid, you are all over the world, now you’ve got your digital bit going, it took you a while, but you’ve got, I mean compared to where you were in 2000 of course. But you’ve got so many elements. This is a mature business now, are you still having as much fun as you did when that car skidded up in Aldeburgh?

Peter Williams
I’m not even, I’m not even completely sure I would have described it as fun. It’s a sort of weird love/hate relationship one has with it. It’s a combination of fear that you know, I don’t know, you haven’t got any money and you don’t know what you’re doing and you are not proven so all the time you are trying to blag your way into this, that and the other. But then also just the utter exhalation of walking down the street and seeing someone wearing one of your T-shirts I mean I still feel like that you know, I still feel like that. So that raw sentiment is, is, it stays. I mean I think it’s part of the DNA of anybody who founds a business.

Elliot Moss
And the confidence though, are you, it sounds like you were pretty confident then in your twenties with the kind of, as you said, that the naivety and the arrogance of youth and the fun of it and we were all there.

Peter Williams
I am not sure confidence is really right, it was more about naivety to be honest.

Elliot Moss
But then, but now though, do you now have more of a swagger? Do you now feel like well I must be okay because I’ve kind of made some good decisions here?

Peter Williams
Well trust me, I’ve made my fair share of bad decisions as well. Yeah, no, no, swagger is quite the opposite. Absolutely the opposite. I think anybody who has anything other than humility along with that naivety and desire to be successful is going to fail. As soon as you have a swagger it’s the day all your shareholders should sell their shares I think.

Elliot Moss
But do you think every day therefore you do wake up still and go how am I going to make this work, if I am not good enough, I am not on it enough, it’s not going to be as good as it should be, that’s what you’re saying?

Peter Williams
Yeah I mean what, what, I mean challenges evolve, but at the nub of it you’ve got to make a product that your target customer wants to buy and you’ve got to sell it to them at a profit. I mean that’s not new news that applied on day one, it applies on the last day of the business. So, all of the challenges, you have new challenges that arise, so for example when you are large, it’s actually much easier to make stuff in factories around the world because they really want your business than when you’re really tiny because no one really wants your business because it’s not worth their while. So in that sense challenges become different, but at the core of it, you know we are, the consumer is right at the heart of it so you’ve got to really intimately understand who your customer is and what they want and then also you need a team of people in the organisation either directly employed by you or indirectly through third parties and suppliers and what have you who operate a very motivated, want to win, want to success and we will work as a team. Again you know that doesn’t really matter how big your team is, they’ve all got to work together. So that, that’s a challenge that stays constant as well.

Elliot Moss
I’m going to pick up on more on that, I want to find out why it sounds so simple and yet obviously it isn’t. Stay with me for more from Peter Williams my Business Shaper today. Time for more music right now, it’s Aretha Franklin with Respect.

That was Aretha Franklin with Respect and Peter Williams my Jack Wills’ founder and CEO is here with me talking about all sorts of stuff. I mentioned, I wanted to pick up on this team thing and also put in the customer at the heart of the business. We’ve all read the books over the years and they all say the same thing and they say those things and yet so few businesses succeed. What do you think it is about your journey and your ongoing journey that ensures that you are still succeeding?

Peter Williams
Well I mentioned earlier about this thing that we had, we didn’t know what any of the rules were so inadvertently you end up breaking quite a few of them. And because we didn’t have any money, if we’d had a load of money, particularly if we had a load of someone else’s money, we would have just sprayed it all on advertising probably because that’s how you build a brand right? It certainly was twenty odd years ago and we didn’t have any money so we had to think in a slightly different way and we found people who you know liked us and liked the product and liked the brand and we gave them a load of stuff and they told their friends about it and it’s what we would now describe as viral marketing and we would probably describe them as influences or something like that. But I wouldn’t say we could have claimed to have been terribly sophisticated in how we did it, but it was very raw and it was very, very authentic. And word of mouth, you know there’s no better marketing than any of us as consumers can ever have than someone saying ‘oh Peter I like your shirt, where’s that from?’ or ‘you look good in that shirt’.

Elliot Moss
At the heart of it though, as you’ve said, a product that people want to buy, the shops are laid out in a certain way, there’s a vibe to them. I have been in and out over the years but there is a certain feeling in there, it’s pretty relaxed, it feels quite informal and I know that shopping generally has become much more informal over the years. It’s not precious. Are all those things part of the promise or have they just evolved again because you just thought that was a nice way of doing business?

Peter Williams
Well I think, going back to your point about the consumer that because, the only thing I, because I came out of university and briefly did this trashy consulting job, I didn’t know anything about any aspects of our industry whatsoever, so you know retail, logistics, marketing, design, anything. Anything at all. The only thing that I reckon I could probably work out because I’ve got eyes and ears is what our consumer stood for and so I talk about having an obsessive interest in our consumer and when I say obsessive I mean like proper stalking like obsessive and if you really, really observe your customer in to the nth degree, my philosophy is actually you can sort of sell them anything as I have to some degree proved right? But if you don’t flip that on its head and you say well if you don’t really, really, really intimately understand your customers, I am not quite sure how you can hope to ever succeed. So the one thing that we were good at, and I hope are still good at, is understanding our customer. So everything that we do, talking about a store environment, our hope is a reflection of the fact that we hope we’ve created an environment that authentically just works for the customer that we want to sell to.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for our final chat with Peter plus we will be playing a track from Louis Armstrong. That’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Louis Armstrong with Mack The Knife. Peter Williams is with me just for a few more minutes and we have been talking about being obsessive and about the DNA that goes right through founders. You said something about if we had had money at the beginning we probably wouldn’t be, I don’t think we would be talking now because it would have informed your behaviour in a very different way and needs must and so on and so forth. Money has obviously been forthcoming in terms of investments along the way and you’ve I think in 2016 kind of one investor was bought out by another and so on. Do you think about the money for you personally? It doesn’t strike me that you are driven by it, but that’s like, it’s an assumption on my part hence the question?

Peter Williams
I mean I see the, I mean founders tend to be quite competitive people and they want to succeed. The financial, whatever your financial measure, it’s simply some sort of yard stick of success. But you know do you want to make more money so you can buy more stuff that’s not particularly a driver of mine. I just love what I do. I love, because I don’t really have any particular skills, what you end up as a business gets big you get to recruit some incredibly talented people who can do some amazing things, the things that you can’t do. So all your job is to conduct the orchestra to some degree and then they collectively produce things that are incredible and that is a very, very thrilling experience because you are able to do stuff that you personally would never be able to do.

Elliot Moss
What is the skill that you have though because conducting is not an easy job. So what would you say if you had, if someone said, if some of your friends said or your wife or whoever said ‘actually Peter’s biggest skill is …’?

Peter Williams
I mean I suppose, I suppose, I mean I’ve thrown my hand in at pretty much everything over the years, but I suppose my job now is you know to lead the vision of, the direction of travel the business and the brand is travelling and to chorale everybody behind, getting behind that vision and delivering. So friends of mine often say to me ‘what exactly is it that you do during the day’ and I am always a bit like ‘mmmm I don’t know really’. But that’s, I do seem to work quite hard, I get up very early. So yeah I guess my role now is to aspire the organisation and get everybody lined up.

Elliot Moss
And the fact that you’re still running your own show, you’ve obviously got shareholders and so on. But is that something you’d want to tinker with in the future, if some beer moth of a business came along and said we want to buy you for, insert number that sounds ridiculous. Is that something that interests you? Or are you much more about it’s not about that?

Peter Williams
I’m in it for the long haul. I love it. The world is a big place and there is lots of people we would love to get the brand in front of and sell to so, and I’ve had some extraordinary experiences really privileged opportunities around the world and yes it’s not about the money, it’s about much more than that.

Elliot Moss
It’s been really good talking to you. Thank you.

Peter Williams
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
And thank you for your candidness if there is such a word, for being candid is probably better isn’t it. Peter, just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Peter Williams
So, when I was at university, I used to listen to Charlie Parker quite a lot and there is a very appropriate track my gorgeous wife called Laura who I met on the school bus when I was twelve so my, my track of choice today is Laura by Charlie Parker.

Elliot Moss
Here it is just for you.

That was Laura from Charlie Parker the choice of my Business Shaper today, Peter Williams. He wanted to bottle up youthful spirit, that was the idea behind Jack Wills. He has an obsessive interest in his consumer and that’s really been the focus of how he has grown that business so considerably and he is in it for the long haul, this is not someone who is trying to make a quick buck and indeed eighteen years in business and counting would be testimony to that. Great stuff. Do join me again, same time, same place, next Saturday for another edition of Jazz Shapers. Meanwhile stay with us, coming up next it’s Nigel Williams.

Peter Williams
Peter Williams is founder and CEO of Jack Wills.

Established in 1999 as a single shop in the seaside town of Salcombe, Jack Wills has since expanded to become an international brand with 90 stores (and counting) across the globe, including the UK, US, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Middle East, and currently shipping to 130 countries worldwide via jackwills.com.

Jack Wills is a British fashion and lifestyle brand that has always believed in creating premium clothing and accessories for people who appreciate design, quality and attention to detail. It’s known for heritage inspired classics with a contemporary twist and is proud to fly the flag for Britain around the world, whether through a collaboration with a Yorkshire mill or the Jack Wills Seasonnaires’summer on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Authenticity, honesty and irreverence are just three of the qualities woven into the ‘Fabric of Jack’ and this company ethos has stood fast for 18 years.

Peter Williams founded Jack Wills at the age of 23, having graduated from UCL with a degree in economics. He returned to the position of CEO in August 2015, having stepped away in 2012, and has since orchestrated a buy-out with BlueGem, owner of the iconic Liberty brand and department store in London, driving forward the reinvigoration of the Jack Wills brand.

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“The arrogance and naivety of youth…I didn’t have any idea as to how difficult it was going to be so I couldn’t really understand how it could possibly be anything other than wildly successful.”

“I figured that if I could create a brand which bottled that spirit, that sort of youthful spirit if you like, then that was going to be a very compelling proposition not just domestically, but around the world.”

“One of the most brilliant things about starting a business is you break all sorts of rules, but you don’t even realise you’re breaking them because you didn’t really know what they were in the first place.”

“I said to Rob one day, ‘the worst thing that can happen next year is we turnover sixty two thousand because by then we will have probably starved to death’.”

“…the utter exhalation of walking down the street and seeing someone wearing one of your T-shirts. I still feel like that, you know. I still feel like that.”

“Trust me, I’ve made my fair share of bad decisions as well.”

“I think anybody who has anything other than humility, along with that naivety and desire to be successful, is going to fail. As soon as you have a swagger it’s the day your shareholders should sell their shares I think.”

“Challenges evolve, but at the nub of it you’ve got to make a product that your target customer wants to buy and you’ve got to sell it to them at a profit.”

“If you don’t really, really, really intimately understand your customers, I am not quite sure how you can hope to ever succeed.”