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The Drapers Interview: Hugo Fenwick talks expansion plans

Lexicon Bracknell will be Fenwick’s first new store for 14 years. It will be, says Hugo Fenwick, ‘the Berkshire department store’

Hugo Fenwick

Hugo Fenwick talks to Drapers about the iconic department store’s plans to open a new flagship at the Lexicon Bracknell.

An audience with a Fenwick is a rare occurrence. Since John James Fenwick set himself up as a mantle maker and furrier in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1882, the family has remained private and publicity shy.

It is the last of the great British department store dynasties, controlled by a complex network of Fenwick cousins – all male – who run most of the 11 stores as separate businesses, eschewing the centralised buying that every other store group embraced decades ago.

Fenwick’s critics say it should perform better, despite sales of about £434m and profits of £35m in the year to January 2014. They point to its (by modern standards) lack of a group-wide live stock system and its resulting lack of a coherent online offer.

Its transactional website was suspended last year pending a comprehensive overhaul.

Yet Fenwick is an intriguing family group. Founder John James was succeeded as the head by his son, Fred, and grandsons Trevor and then John.

The fourth-generation chairman, also John James, is now life president, having been succeeded as chairman more than 20 years ago by his nephew, the incumbent Mark. John James’ sons, Adam and Hugo, are group managing director and group trading director, respectively.

Property interests

Despite its low profile, the group is a powerful force in UK retailing with a strong interest in property. In 1976, it was a co-anchor (with John Lewis) at Brent Cross, the UK’s first modern shopping centre. In recent years, Fenwick has been in the news for acquiring other family-owned stores.

Williams & Griffin in Colchester was the most recent prize, purchased in 2008. It is now being expanded from 65,000 sq ft to 90,000 sq ft as part of a £30m redevelopment that will see it rebranded as a Fenwick store.

In 2003, the Ricemans department store in Canterbury, which had been acquired in 1986, was demolished and replaced by a Fenwick-badged store as part of the cathedral city’s Whitefriars development.

Eleven years on, Hugo Fenwick is ready to reveal some of the details of the group’s latest addition, a Fenwick store that will be at the heart of the new £240m Lexicon Bracknell retail and leisure destination, which is scheduled to open in spring 2017.

This new build will replace the existing Fenwick-owned unit in the town, the Bentalls store that was part of the acquisition of that family-owned group in 2001.

“Bracknell is an attractive place to live, work and play, but sadly the 1960s architecture environment of Bracknell town centre has completely precluded it ever being a shopping destination.”

At the group’s head office on the fourth floor of its Bond Street flagship, which is undergoing a £20m revamp by design studio BradyWilliams, group trading director Hugo Fenwick, a fifth-generation member of the dynasty, reveals some of the thinking behind this development.

Every inch the English gent, Fenwick was born and brought up in the Fenwick heartland of Northumberland. He trained as an accountant at Ernst & Young before joining the business in the early 1990s as a buyer at the Newcastle store that still occupies the original site (and more besides). In 2003, he oversaw the creation of the Canterbury store and he still lives in with his wife Kate and four children in what was an 11th century court house in Egerton in Kent.   

While friendly and personable, he retains the Fenwick trait of not revealing too much. He explains: “We took a lot of time to discuss it and mull over the opportunity with Bracknell Regeneration Partnership and the council. We have been increasingly reassured by their work that this scheme has huge potential.

New retail destination

“Bracknell is an attractive place to live, work and play. There are great sporting facilities and you are right on the fringe of Windsor Great Park and Swinley Forrest, and you can get onto the M3 and M4 very quickly, so it is very accessible. But sadly the 1960s architecture environment of Bracknell town centre has completely precluded it ever being a shopping destination.”

Led by BRP, a 50/50 joint venture between Legal & General Capital and Schroder UK Real Estate Fund together with Bracknell Forest Council, the initiative will see a complete redevelopment of the town centre across 1 million sq ft.

The existing 80,000 sq ft Bentalls store will be demolished to make way for a three-floor Fenwick flagship of the same size to anchor the scheme, with the staff transferring over and being added to. Other major tenants will  include a two-storey 80,000 sq ft Marks & Spencer, a two-level 48,000 sq ft Primark, a 26,000 sq ft H&M, and a 20,000 sq ft Arcadia unit, which will house its Topman, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Burton brands.

Lexicon Bracknell

Lexicon Bracknell

Bracknell is the first post-war new town to be comprehensively redeveloped. Some 580,000sq ft of construction will involve the refurbishment of existing retail facades and public areas, and the connection of the new scheme to the southern town centre, including Princess Square Shopping Centre. Contractors have been on site since March; 55% of the space is pre-let.

Fenwick is enthusiastic: “It is so perfectly located that it is the ideal opportunity – one of the very best of the Southeast – for regeneration and it has been very fortuitous that Schroder and Legal & General have joined forces for really a very major redevelopment.

“It is most unusual to have what can often only be achieved out-of-town to be achieved in town. We are naturally very excited by the opportunity and because it is surrounded by a very affluent customer base. All the area between the M3 and the M4 over-indexes hugely on most demographic reports and is very akin to our shopper.”

Indeed, household income and expenditure in Bracknell outstrips the national average by 28% and 21% respectively. Just 30 miles from London, it is part of the prosperous Thames Valley economy. Fenwick sees the unit as being “the Berkshire department store” at the heart of the county. It has a 25-year lease but he declines to divulge further financial details.

Although guarded about the look of the store, Fenwick reveals “it will be much more fashion focused”. Fashion will sit on the ground and first floors, with kidswear and a home department on the second.

Exciting shell

London-based RFK Architects is designing the double-skin exterior of the building.

“We very much look at this as being an architectural statement and not just a box. Too often in large retail spaces there has been relatively little interest taken in the exterior of the building and we have made great efforts to make an exciting shell to the store. We will also have a café [on the ground floor] which will spill out onto the neighbouring park area, and a restaurant on the second floor which will have a terrace.”

Inside will feature a central atrium, to help avoid the somewhat stale feeling created by a lack of natural light in many traditional department stores. For the interior, Fenwick is using London-based design studio HMKM.

On its decentralised buying strategy, Fenwick admits: “We’re the complete antithesis of a homogenous department store chain and we feel it means customers come to discover brands.”

The brands in Bracknell will be “broadly around in our portfolio”, though this is an opportunity to “look afresh”. New brands, from “affordable to luxury”, are likely to be confirmed during the next 18 months.

The company is known to be behind the market on a wider multichannel strategy, but changes can be expected soon as at Bracknell it will “certainly be looking to do click-and-collect”, says Fenwick.“It’s true we are still looking at options on ecommerce. We’ve got quite a few opportunities coming up,” he reveals.

With media screens within the beauty area and the iPads at other locations, “subtly, it will be a much more digitally-led store than we have opened in the past.”

“We’re the complete antithesis of a homogenous department store chain and we feel it means customers come to discover brands.”

In Fenwick’s last reported results for the 53 weeks ended January 31, 2014, the company revealed that there had been a “continuing squeeze on disposable income” for its customers.

However, Fenwick says current trading is good, declaring that it “has certainly been a very good this spring season. The seasons were with us in that we had an early spring weather, so it has been an encouraging 2015 and there has been a good trade since the election.”

As well as autumn 15 trading, Fenwick and his colleagues are now preparing for the partial opening of Fenwick Colchester this autumn and its full launch next summer, to be followed in 2017 by the opening at Lexicon Bracknell.

He concludes: “Increasingly successful shopping destinations are the ones that offer a critical mass of all that people look for, whether it is coming to shop or eat, or both. So with the tenant mix we are looking to, it is a very exciting prospect.”


1846 John James Fenwick is born in Richmond, North Yorkshire

1882 JJ Fenwick, Mantle Maker and Furrier, opens at 5 Northumberland Street, Newcastle

1885 37/38 Northumberland Street is purchased

1890 JJ Fenwick’s son, Fred, joins the business and 40 Northumberland Street is acquired. Having trained in Paris and inspired by department store Le Bon Marché, which sold goods in clearly defined departments – as opposed to the specialist merchants found in the UK – the business model was changed thereafter.  

1891 Fenwick of Bond Street opens at 63 New Bond Street in London

1962 Leicester family business Joseph Johnson is acquired

1976 Brent Cross Shopping Centre is opened, the first of its kind in the UK, with Fenwick as one department store anchor

1980 Fenwick Windsor is opened; Bond Street is doubled in size

1984 Fenwick York opens

1986 Canterbury department store Ricemans is acquired

1992 Fenwick Tunbridge Wells opens

2001 Fenwick acquires the Bentalls group and retains the branches in Kingston-upon-Thames and Bracknell

2003 Ricemans is demolished and replaced by Fenwick Canterbury

2008 Fenwick acquires Williams & Griffin in Colchester

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