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Top 100: 01. Nick Robertson

Chief executive, Asos

The Asos boss has built an etail giant that everyone in fashion pays attention to.

Nick has this very affable exterior but he’s as hard as nails. I don’t know what it is that drives him - he’s not exactly short of money - but he’s still so determined to grow and innovate,” says Lauretta Roberts, brand extensions director at trend forecasting website WGSN and friend of the Asos chief executive. “I wonder if it’s that £1bn sales target he set himself all those years ago.”

Nick Robertson has always been goal-obsessed, according to a former employee.

“At the beginning, Nick wanted Asos to be the Amazon of fashion,” he remembers. “He liked the idea of being so comprehensive, of having every brand so that people didn’t have to go anywhere else. That’s the sort of scale he chased. He was so happy when we achieved our first £1m day. He was like a kid at Christmas.”

That’s small fry to today’s numbers. Robertson rewarded himself with an early Christmas present this year: £16m. As part of a long-term incentive plan, Robertson sold a chunk of shares. And who could argue that he didn’t deserve it? In an economic climate where many fashion businesses are struggling, Asos reported an increase in profit margins on top of group revenues jumping 37% to £553m for the year to August 31. Gross margins increased 220 basis points to 51.2%, recording a profit before tax and exceptional items of £44.5m, an increase of 40%.

At the Drapers Fashion Awards judging day this year, the judges were unanimous in awarding Asos the Larger Etailer and Growing Retailer of the Year awards. It might not be the biggest online fashion business in the UK but Asos is the retailer everyone in fashion looks to for innovation and inspiration.

As such, Robertson deserves his climb to the top in this year’s Drapers Power List.

2012 also saw Robertson poach one of UK fashion’s biggest names: Marks & Spencer’s Kate Bostock. The jury is still out on the appropriateness of the appointment - can the darling of the mid-market replicate her success in the young fashion sector? - but it’s a coup, nonetheless, and testament to Robertson’s unrelenting quest for the best. “Nick was always shit hot on talent and people management,” says the former Asos employee. “He always wanted the best staff. And he invested hugely in every area of the business.”

Robertson’s international ambitions are also being realised. International sales growth significantly outpaced that of the UK, with Asos recording revenues of £332.6m overseas this year, a rise of 64% on last year, compared with £205m domestically, an increase of 10%. Asos now has five million customers worldwide. By this time next year, Asos will have local language sites in China and Russia. “We haven’t opened the door to 98% of the global population who happen to live outside the UK,” Robertson told Drapers last month. “The UK represents 3% of global internet traffic. I’d be surprised if the UK wasn’t sub-10% of the business in five years.”

But Robertson’s focus isn’t just on big ambitions; his attention to detail filters all the way down the Asos hierarchy to small-scale, yet hugely successful, social media campaigns, for example. Earlier this year, Asos launched the simplest of Twitter campaigns: #FMLMonday. Asos encouraged its followers to tweet the hashtag #FMLMonday (“Fuck My Life” - the expression of choice among teenagers) with their funniest or most embarrassing stories from their Monday in order to win Cheap Monday (clever) product from Asos in return. Not only was following the hashtag hugely addictive, it was also indicative of Asos’s innate understanding of its customers’ attitudes, its unrivalled creativity and grasp of social media.

And this level of detail will be key to Robertson’s success in the years to come.

While 2012 has been a great year for him, some industry commentators have started to question the impact of Asos’s growth on the etailer’s culture of fun. While Robertson can boast the appointment of Bostock, he’s likely to be less proud of the string of departures in 2012. Buying director Caren Downie, womenswear design director Sarah Wilkinson, product director Robert Bready and head of womenswear buying for trend brands and branded accessories Moriamo Oshodi have all left or are due to leave the business.

Robertson has been known to engage in tug-of-wars at summer parties and encourage lavish Christmas displays in the office. He even ‘married’ a copywriter at a Las Vegas-themed Christmas party (don’t ask). Few businesses could boast such eccentric initiatives, but they’re part of the Asos culture and vital to nurturing the creativity the business is known and admired for. The trick for Robertson - if he is to be number one in the Top 100 next year - will be to balance Las Vegas weddings with the corporate culture of bulging profits.

 

 

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