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John Stockton

Building closer relationships with independent stockists flies in the face of many rival brand strategies but for Weird Fish’s managing director, wholesale comes first

Focusing on wholesale growth when so many other brands are going down the retail route is a canny move, and it’s one that Weird Fish managing director John Stockton feels is vital to survive in a changing market.

It’s an opinion shared by Piper Private Equity, which invested £8m in Stockton’s management buyout of the ethical lifestyle brand in April, when founder Doug Tilling sold up. In fact, Stockton and his opinions were what sealed the deal for Piper, which has previously helped fund the growth of lifestyle brand Boden and outdoorwear retailer Rohan.

Having seen what Stockton achieved in his eight years at the helm of boardsports brand Animal, when he increased revenue 15-fold to £60m by 2008, the Piper team was confident about his ambitious plans to double turnover at Weird Fish by 2013 - primarily by stealing market share from brands he feels have alienated their stockists by opening their own standalone stores.

“Since I joined [in September 2008] sales have risen 50% and that’s mainly through selling more to existing stockists,” Stockton says. “The market isn’t growing but we’re taking share from all these brands that are doing a big retail push and setting themselves up as competitors to the indies.”

Upward trajectory

The strategy is paying off, with Weird Fish’s spring 11 orders up 28% on last year. Stockton has so far boosted sales predominantly by selling more product categories - going from T-shirts to a more rounded collection including casual tops, skirts and dresses - to his existing 400 accounts. He plans to continue on this route, as well as expanding overseas.

With a turnover of £9.9m in 2009, Weird Fish is a mere tiddler compared with the beast that was Animal. However, for Stockton, Weird Fish’s growth potential was the major draw.

“Weird Fish is far bigger than Animal was when I joined,” he says. “I like looking at where the market is heading and joining small brands I can grow.” In the case of Animal, Stockton took a watches and accessories brand and grew it into a clothing-led surfwear giant, but he also knew when it was time to get out. “By 2008 surfwear was getting diluted by mainstream retailers like Next and Marks & Spencer jumping on the bandwagon. You’d be crazy to launch a surfwear brand now.”

With Weird Fish, Stockton felt the customer loyalty and core product were bang on but saw potential to grow product categories and market share. Well known for its “macaroni” - a heavy, textured cotton smock - and its printed T-shirts, Weird Fish had a limited offer when Stockton took it on but he’s expanded into more styles such as casual tops, skirts, dresses and outerwear. The latter, he says, has the biggest growth potential because of the new stockist avenues it opens up.

“We’re in a lot of outdoor stores now,” he says. “Cotswold Outdoor is one of our biggest accounts and it plans to open 12 stores a year, so we’ll grow with it.”

Weird Fish introduced denim for the first time for autumn 10 and has added loungewear for spring 11. Significant expansion in kidswear and accessories is also on the cards in the next two years.

While wholesale is the definite focus for growth, Stockton is not planning to close Weird Fish’s five company-owned standalone stores but neither will he open any more. “It’s easier to retail because you can make a double margin and keep the accountants happy, but you lose the stockists so ultimately you have to decide what you are - a retailer or a brand,” he says.

Weird Fish also has six franchise stores, each run by a different indie stockist, and this is an avenue Stockton will grow. He is also eyeing more shop-in-shops. Weird Fish has 22, and Stockton says the brand’s sales have rocketed at all of them. One of the first to open was in Newark lifestyle indie Gente Bella in September, and owner Judith Jess says she has upped her Weird Fish order by 30% since then. “The product has got better each season since John took over. People would come in for tops to throw on when it got cold on the beach but now there are some great fitted tops and skirts - he’s growing it into a full lifestyle brand,” she says.

Any retail growth is targeted to come from Weird Fish’s transactional website. Stockton wants to boost online to account for 20% of the business by 2015. Currently, online makes up 10%, wholesale 80% and retail 10%. “I envisage us selling a separate, smaller range online within two years because I don’t want to compete with stockists by discounting online with the same range,” he adds.

International growth is also high up the to-do list. With a handful of accounts in Portugal and Spain and a few ex-pats buying from the website, international only accounts for 2% of Weird Fish’s turnover, but Stockton sees that increasing to 20% within five years through accounts in Northern Europe, Scandinavia and Canada, where he says cold weather products would do well.

While Stockton is looking to sign stockists further afield he is keen to keep production close to home. “We still source 60% from Turkey because the quality and choice is better and lead times are fast; we never moved to Asia in a big way and we’re looking smart now that labour costs there are rocketing,” he says. “The fashion industry has grown on the back of strong sterling and cheap labour and neither of those are sustainable. Brands that moved from Turkey to China to India to Bangladesh are in trouble now - where do they go next?”

Stockton is not ruling out spring 11 and autumn 11 price rises as materials and labour costs continue to rise: “New items may have a higher price point but we’ll keep the classic items the same.” However, he is confident they can be kept to a minimum through negotiation with factories, many of which have worked with Weird Fish since the brand was founded in 1993.

“I always nurture those partnerships so we share the good times and the pain,” he says. “I’ve racked up 70,000 miles visiting suppliers and stockists.” With international expansion set to keep his milometer whirring, that charm could be the most important bait as Weird Fish angles for international success.

CV

2010 Leads MBO of Weird Fish

2008 Managing director, Weird Fish

2000 Chief executive, Animal

1998 Starts up design and sourcing business JAM, (Stockton sold it two years later)

1998 Chief executive, UK and RoI, Head Sportswear

1992 Managing director, Celestian

1986 Financial director roles, various non-fashion firms

Q&A

What’s the secret of longevity for a lifestyle brand?

When Doug Tilling set up Weird Fish he was careful not to align it with any particular sport and I think that’s key. We’ve seen the rise and fall of skate and surf brands as those sports fall out of fashion. It’s also important not to be overexposed.

Who is Weird Fish’s core customer?

Men between 35 and 65 who want quality product that’s still fashionable. They won’t buy young fashion brands like Superdry but want something more exciting than Next. We’re getting better known for womenswear now too - we’ve doubled the number of options in the past four seasons.

Which other businesses do you admire?

Gant has had some great product development recently, particularly in swimwear and leisurewear, and the design of its new London Regent Street store is very strong. Seasalt is also doing well and I love its light, airy stores.

What brands do you buy?

Boss Orange has great quality product and attention to detail. It’s identified who its customer is and has really focused on that, and I respect any brand that manages to keep that integrity.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in fashion?

Probably working on a market stall somewhere. I’m a trader by instinct and place a huge importance on good sales people. I’m also a sports nut so if I had the money to waste I’d be the director of a football club.

 

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