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Jack Wills founder Peter Williams' recipe for success

 mg 2090 web version

For Peter Williams, who set up Jack Wills when he was just 24, there is only one thing you need to succeed – the right attitude.

Drapers Next Generation, now in its ninth year, turns the spotlight on young fashion retail professionals and the industry changes shaping their careers today.

All new starters at Jack Wills – whether in the head office or on the shop floor, in IT, design or logistics – are given a copy of Legacy, a book about New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks. Author James Kerr explores what makes the All Blacks such a successful team, and applies this to business. The All Blacks firmly believe that better people make better players. Kerr concludes that being the best – in sport and in business – is about much more than technical ability: it is about character.

“The odds are stacked against them. It’s a small country, miles from anywhere, yet if you look at the statistics they are far and away the most successful sports team,” says Jack Wills co-founder Peter Williams. “In simple terms, it’s about attitude. There are plenty of capable rugby players in New Zealand who have never played for the All Blacks, because they don’t have the right attitude. Nobody’s bigger than the team.”

I had no background whatsoever in the industry


Williams is almost as passionate about this philosophy as he is about Jack Wills, which he founded in 1999, when he was just 24 years old. He took a step back in 2013 because he wanted to spend some time with his young family, but returned to the helm as chief executive in 2015 after the business suffered problems following attempts to outsource its warehousing, and began to rely too heavily on discounting.

It has quickly turned a corner, thanks to a renewed focus on selling high-quality product at full price. Sales were up 4% to £142.4m in the year to 29 January 2017, and it made an operating profit of £730,000, compared with a £13.8m loss the year before. It currently has 104 stores in the UK and internationally, including franchises, and its ecommerce site ships to 79 countries.

In September, the business revealed plans to scale up its wholesale operations in the UK and overseas, which Williams predicts will lead to a “significant” rise in sales – not bad for someone who says he is “the least qualified bloke to start a business”.

“I had no background whatsoever in the industry,” he admits, as he relaxes back on a battered brown leather sofa upstairs in the busy Jack Wills store in Soho, London. The idea for the brand was sparked when Williams was studying an economics degree at University College London from 1993 to 1996. He went on to get a job in a management consultancy where he worked on a number of projects, including Niketown Europe. He could see a gap in the market for a fashion brand that captured the university spirit, as well as a sense of British heritage. 

Jack Wills store in Soho, London

“Ralph Lauren had become obsessed with British heritage, and created this whole genre that has been replicated in various guises, primarily by American brands,” he explains. “I thought, why isn’t there a British brand in that space?” 

In 1999 he made the leap, teaming up with his friend Robert Shaw to open the first Jack Wills store – named after Williams’ grandfather – in Salcombe, Devon (Shaw is no longer involved in the business). Williams puts the early success of the preppy fashion retailer down to the fact that he had no idea what he was doing. 

He says: “I didn’t know about retail, finance, logistics, HR or property, so instead I was obsessed with the customer, because I reckoned that was something I could work out. To this day, I believe that if you’re obsessed with the customer – and I do mean obsessed – you can sell them anything.”

Williams acknowledges that it is a challenging time in fashion retail, but he encourages other budding entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. 

“The day I decided to start Jack Wills, I could have listed 100 challenges that I had no experience of dealing with. I still did it. Fearlessness is important. My whole life has been massively enriched by starting a business – the people I’ve met, the buildings we’ve built, the clothes we’ve made. It’s come with its fair share of stress but, given the prize, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it.”

If you’re obsessed with the customer – and I do mean obsessed – you can sell them anything

That fearlessness, he admits, was an advantage of youth – and his subsequent respect for younger people in the industry is clear: “I look at 21-year-olds today and I think, ‘Wow, there’s so much brilliantly unbridled naivety.’ I don’t mean that in a patronising way – I wish I still had it. You lose it when you get older. If you can temper that spirit of fearlessness with some seasoned old hacks who know what they’re doing, it’s a compelling combination.”

Today, Jack Wills employs more than 2,800 people. These include 27-year-old Soho store manager Thom Astley, who is part of Drapers’ 30 Under 30 class of 2018.

However, Williams stresses that it’s not about age. Like the All Blacks, he looks for the right attitude: “For most jobs – excluding those such as law or medicine, which require an inherent amount of learning before you can practise them – the primary driver of success is your attitude, not your aptitude, irrespective of age. If you have someone who’s technically very able but a bit of a nightmare, you know it’s going to fail. But if they have a fantastic attitude, they can move mountains.”

jack wills campaign shot from peel km to find out season

Jack Wills spring 18

So, what is the right attitude? “You’ve got to want to work hard, to have an inquisitive mind and peripheral vision. In any business, there are some jobs for which you need a deep level of expertise in a narrow field, but many jobs – particularly in a consumer-facing business such as fashion retail – you need the ability to see what’s going on around you. 

“What makes that happen is cross-functional working, and the only thing that makes that happen is amazing team spirit. You’ve got to be able to do the job, of course, but at the heart of it you succeed or fail as a team.”

Former non-executive chairman Derek Lovelock says: “Pete passionately believes in promoting the qualities that gave him success – having determination, and not necessarily following all the rules. Those are the qualities that got Jack Wills to where it is now, and it is those messages he imbues in new starters.”

As well as a copy of Legacy, new starters are given the Jack Wills rules of engagement, which describe the behaviour and attitude each member of staff is expected to have. Among the statements of intent, such as “Our people will never be bullshitters”, one theme stands out – passion. The rules sit on an open website,, giving potential applicants a window into what the brand stands for. “If people are attracted to that environment, it’s a self-selecting process,” says Williams.

Our people are never bullshitters

Once they are in the business, Jack Wills helps its staff to come up with a learning and development plan. It also has an internal promotion-first policy, staff awards and a mentoring scheme, among other initiatives.

“I have a personal vested interest in letting young people progress through the business,” insists Williams. “About 50% of our roles in head office are internal promotions.”

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Jack Wills spring 18

An example is Charlotte Dredge, who joined the business in 2012 as an administrator and is now wholesale and franchise manager. “She was bright, she didn’t know what she wanted to do but she wanted to progress, and she loved the brand,” recalls Williams. “She got a job on reception, then became my PA and was fantastic. She is now a key component in our rapidly growing wholesale division; she’s got a great career ahead of her.”

Astley, meanwhile, joined Jack Wills as an assistant manager in its Covent Garden store in 2013, and became manager of its Soho flagship in February 2016. He has continued to impress ever since.

Williams says: “During the incident at Oxford Circus [when large crowds fled the Underground station on 24 November 2017 fearing a rumoured terrorist attack], 400 people were locked in the store and the police wouldn’t let them out until it was safe. Thom handled it all.

“He embodies the Jack Wills values: he’s fun, energetic and committed to everything he does. He’s very proactive about feeding back to the creative team and the buyers about what’s working and what’s not. He’s not ‘just’ a store manager – he’s got a much broader influence across the business.”

In Legacy, Kerr concludes that the key to the All Blacks’ competitive advantage is the ability to attach the players’ personal motives to a higher purpose. The identity of the of the team matters more than what they do – who they are, what they stand for, and why they exist.

Williams agrees: “The best businesses are full of great people who are bright and hard-working, and, most importantly, do everything as a team.”

Peter Williams’ tips for success

  • Success is about attitude, not aptitude. To be successful in most roles, you don’t need to have all the technical skills for a job if you can demonstrate that you’re a team player
  • Do something you’re passionate about. Don’t map out your career, go where the opportunities take you
  • Don’t be afraid to start your own business. There will be challenges, but there’s nothing you can’t overcome if you take them one at a time

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