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Tom Joule

Seven years after setting up countrywear label Joules, founder Tom Joule now aims to widen the brand’s lifestyle appeal to help it square up to its retail rivals

A glance at Joules’ website gives the impression of a tried-and-tested brand with a secure niche in the industry. In fact the firm only launched its own products in 2000, with 16 staff and 20 years’ experience selling clothes at equestrian events.

Fast-forward seven years and the brand is heading for sales of more than £14 million. New £2m offices are opening later this year; the company has a new warehouse and is planning a roll-out of new stores; and the firm owns its sourcing operation in China.

Despite its brand recognition and cachet being nowhere near that of competitors such as Boden, most signs point to a company primed for rapid-fire growth. At least founder Tom Joule - personable, talkative, fizzing with self-belief - certainly thinks so, and the brand’s financial figures paint a picture almost as bright as its product range.

Sales have risen 50% or more year on year since 2002, when Joules turned over £1.5m against a pre-tax profit of £142,000. Provisional figures for 2007 estimate turnover of £14.1m and a profit of £1.2m.

Although Joule is no retail specialist, he insists that years of on-the-ground experience helping his father sell clothes at equestrian events - including Badminton and Burghley horse trials - placed him in a sound position to spot opportunities. “We were selling long coats, big hats - brands such as Toggi and Aigle,” says Joule. “We merchandised things well. People started asking our opinion, wondering which brands were going well. There came a point where I thought ‘we can do this ourselves’.”

Propelled by youthful optimism and the confidence that his events colleagues showed in his judgement, Tom bought 80% of the business from his father in 1999, and the company known as Joules was formally brought to life. The first own-label clothing - in the form of two shirts - rolled out the same year, followed by a small line of branded goods in 2001.

With uncannily bad timing, the foot-and-mouth crisis hit the UK farming industry the same year, shortly after Joule remortgaged his house to place a £100,000 clothes order. The shows were cancelled and he had little choice but to knock on the doors of rural clothing stores to sell the stock.

That was in February 2001; by summer the same year the stores were coming back for more. Six years later, the 50-plus country and equestrian events that the company still attends account for £1.5m of sales.

Although this side of the business is now relatively small, Joule says those formative years on the road are at the core of what the brand is all about: bright, sporty, weekend clothes with a genuine country-roots heritage. Retail prices start at £7 for a pair of socks and rise to £150 for boots. Clothing lies somewhere in between, with many items selling for less than £20.

“Our country origins are genuine,” he says. “Our main rivals imagine them. We are a family brand, selling real clothes for real people. Our clothes are reasonably priced, and are for people living the good life.”

He uses the word “sunshine” a lot and says the brand’s colour-led theme stemmed from a need to stand out from the drab greens and browns of most of the product on sale at the shows. The comparison with Boden is obvious; although the larger company operates at a slightly higher price point, the breezy, feel-good designs have more than a few passing similarities.

But Joules insists that similarities with the older brand, for which he has huge admiration, are coincidental. He says: “We never set out to compete with Boden; we were just operating in a countrywear market where we wanted to add an element of fun and fashion. In doing that we have drifted towards a more lifestyle-oriented market and found ourselves compared with Boden. It is absolutely brilliant at getting to its customers, and we are now working out how it gained its broader market, and making steps in our campaigns to appeal to that market. We’d be stupid not to.”

There’s no doubt Joules’ 220-piece range is breezy, cheery, and well constructed by a four-strong design team headed by Chloe Ward, who has a Jasper Conran pedigree and is now Joules’ creative director. But it could also be described as safe, and heavily reliant on tried-and-tested staples guaranteed to appeal to a conservative middle England country set. Joules readily admits the brand has been short on surprises, but says this is changing.

“To begin with, we were quite careful. We played safe with rugby shirts and shorts. But now our appeal is far broader. We’re becoming more adventurous: last summer we did a dress for the first time and a bikini range, which quickly became a bestseller.”

Retail is one of Joules’ five main channels - the others are trade, mail order and the internet, export, and shows. Two of the retailer’s eight stores opened in March this year. The branches nestle in genteel market towns: the flagship is in Market Harborough in Leicestershire, the others are in Dartmouth and Salcombe in Devon, Leamington Spa in Warwickshire and Cowes on the Isle of Wight, with new outlets at Aldeburgh and Burnham Market in East Anglia. There is also a 12ft by 15ft shopfitted area on the fifth floor of Harrods in London.

But why open shops at all, given the high overheads involved and the success of internet and catalogue sales? There is no hesitation in Joule’s reply. “We want to show the brand in the way we want it to be perceived,” he says. “Opening shops allows us to do things our way.”

Joule is cagey about the finer details of the company’s retail roll-out, but says there “might” be another two shops by the end of the year, situated in other market and coastal towns. Some could be abroad. He admits the retail side has been a “big learning curve”, but says Joules’ two full-time merchandisers and bespoke stock management system - which is plugged into all its selling channels - makes things easier.

Retail aside, Joules’ main focus is geared towards mail order and the internet, which the company treats as one channel. This area is projected to net sales of between £4m and £5m this year, compared with £2.3m in 2006. The catalogue is mailed to half a million customers via a mix of the company’s own database and bought-in mailing lists.

The export market is another growing focus: 600 shops across the US, Canada, France and Germany now stock Joules product via overseas distributors, and the division accounted for sales of about £1m last year. Now into the third season, export orders have doubled.

By contrast the UK wholesale business has “matured”, as Joule puts it, with farming and equestrian chain Countryside Stores now a major customer. “We are with all the customers we would like to be with,” he explains. “We don’t sell through high fashion independents. It’s not to say we wouldn’t fit in, but we have to be careful where we’re sold. We’re the market leader in our sector, which is country clothing.”

The offer for this side of the business is slightly different from product sold through direct retailing; Joule describes the range as traditional lifestyle and country clothing. “We’re one brand with two offers,” he says. Wholesale prices range from £3 to £60.

About 85% of Joules’ product is sourced from China: late last year, after a three-year partnership, the company acquired its supplier. This gave Joule more control and enabled him to compete more easily on price. He is confident that buying the supply arm places the company in sound position for “lift-off”.

“My sourcing is more sophisticated and competitive than any other brand of this size,” he says, adding that moving some sourcing to Turkey is mooted as a future possibility.

He says it is not necessary for Joules to act as fast as big-name high street brands. “The main part of the business is selling forward order from samples. I don’t know if we need to react quickly - we can always fly product in.”

Joule is clearly keen to maintain tight day-to-day control, but has also recognised the need to bring in specialists to plug his knowledge gaps. “I’ve recruited well,” he says, before adding that the company “probably does need more experience”. He acts as the buyer for the whole business but hints this is an area, along with marketing, that needs to be beefed up.

By Joule’s own admission, brand awareness is still a weak point, with many rival retailers never having heard of the company. However, one chief executive of a premium high street retailer, who has not come across the brand, says: “I can imagine our customers could also be shopping with Joules. Although I think we have a very loyal customer base, all that really means is there are a lot of people who buy from us every season, whether they get one piece, or 20. There is a lot of room for growth in the market for the busy, well-to-do customer who doesn’t have time to explore what’s in the shops.”

Joule is equally breezy about the potential for growth. So far, the business seems to have been built on sound business plans and a good relationship with a bank manager, and he sees no need for a divergence from this strategy.

He won’t be drawn into exactly how growth will be sustained, but admits there have been takeover approaches. “I enjoy this business so much, but I’m not a fool. If someone came along with the right offer, I’d consider it. Then again, while it’s growing as it is, why sell it? I earn a brilliant living from my business; I’d need a bloody good offer. If I wanted to open seven more shops without outside investment, I could.

“There’s plenty of growth in this business; I don’t see any limits. I am very optimistic. You have to be excited about things, don’t you? No one else is going to be excited for you.”

 

JOULES FACTS AND FIGURES

- Tom Joule bought 80% of his father’s business, which sold other brands at equestrian shows, in 1999 and started rolling out his own branded Joules product two years later.

- Estimated turnover is £14 million for 2007, against a pre-tax profit of £1.2m. In 2002, the figures were £1.5m and £142,000 respectively.

- The company has eight stores, a trade division, an internet and catalogue arm, an export division, and a business selling at equestrian and country shows.

- It employs 160 staff. Three main office sites will be amalgamated into one new base, opening in September.

- A 42,000 sq ft warehouse opened in Corby in Northamptonshire in November 2005.

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