Jack Wills founder(left) and CEO Peter Williams
Jack Wills founder and CEO Peter Williams (left) in one of his 90 stores in Carnaby Street in London Jack Wills founder and CEO Peter Williams

The founder of preppy fashion brand Jack Wills is 18 months into his second stint at the business and vows that he has returned for the long-haul.

Peter Williams, 42, was at the launch of the brand's first men's sportswear range last week, following the introduction of a women's sportswear line in January. The Edgbaston-born entrepreneur plans to keep the brand's momentum moving, adding to IBTimes.co.uk "we will open around 11 or 12 stores this year".

Williams launched Jack Wills when he was 23 in 1999 with university friend, Robert Shaw, from a single store in the seaside town of Salcombe, Devon.

"There was no special reason we picked that town," says the upbeat Williams. "I went there once with a girlfriend on holiday, and the sun shone every day. That seemed as good a place as any."

The group now runs around 90 stores worldwide, including operations in the Middle East, the US, Hong Kong, as well as the UK where it has more than 60 shops.

The business, named after William's grandfather, also ships classic products such as hoodies for £60 and £200 blazers, to 126 countries via its website.

"I am back here for the long-haul," says Williams. "I am not going anywhere. We have resolved the problems we had, and the business is trading well."

Stock shortages at Christmas

Following serious stock shortages at the business, Williams joined forces with the private equity owner of London's Liberty department store, Bluegem Capital Partners in October. They bought out Inflexion Private Equity, who at that time held a 27% stake, and had backed the business since 2007.

Bluegem also bought out Shaw, who was granted a 25% stake when the business was launched, and all remaining smaller shareholders. This just left just the buyout firm and Williams, who holds "a significant" stake in the business, as owners of the retailer.

Jack Wills Carnaby Street store in London
Jack Wills Carnaby Street store in London Jack Wills

Williams was forced to return to group as chief executive in September 2015 after three years away, following the departure of Wendy Becker after two years in the post.

The retailer was reeling from massive stock problems caused by a change to an outside distributor in September 2014.

The move affected its stock control over 2015 into the crucial Christmas period. Williams says the effect over the festive period was that the business could not get the right goods on the right shelves across the group's stores, with the group suffering problems into the first six months of the following year.

"For a retail business that's a killer," says Williams. "It was a challenging period. I am laughing about it now, but I can assure you I wasn't laughing three years ago."

The business brought back distribution in-house in January last year and says it is now "running smoothly", but the costs of outsourcing the division, lost sales, and taking back control of the unit is still having an effect on the group.

From Notting Hill to the Cotswolds

The business reported its accounts to January 2016 last November, which saw revenues lift 3.8% to £125.7m, but posted pre-tax losses that almost doubled to £11.5m. But the group added under Williams' renewed leadership like-for-like sales were up 3.9% in the second half of the year, compared to a fall of 3.9% in the first six-month period.

During his time away from the business Williams moved from Notting Hill, west London, to a country pile in the Cotswolds. A married man, he helped raise his two boys and a girl, and played about on a red Massey Ferguson tractor, on the land he owns. Williams considers the vehicle, made by US Agriculture group AGCO, to be a design classic.

"I took some time off, but you soon get bored of that," says Williams. He had considered helping start smaller businesses, but the call to come back to Jack Wills and protect his investment, got in the way.

Jack Wills founder and CEO Peter Williams
Jack Wills founder and CEO Peter Williams (centre) in his Carnaby Street store in London Jack Wills

"The reason I left the business, was partly because I was tired. I had spent 13 years building it up. I also thought that as it was becoming bigger, maybe someone with a greater range of managerial experience was better suited to run it.

"But after the distribution problem. I concluded that perhaps I do know what I am doing after all."

The idea for Jack Wills came to Williams when he was a management consultant for a London-based group called Coba, where he moved to soon after completing an economics degree at the University College London.

Savings from a Great Aunt

Williams stayed at the consultancy for just under two years while he recruited his friend Shaw and got together £40,000, including an inheritance from a great aunt, to start the new business.

"I had always admired how Ralph Lauren sold an idea of Englishness around the world," he says. "I thought there was room for a more authentically British version of that, something less polished than from the Upper East Side of Manhattan."

After three years of weak sales and sleeping in bunk beds underneath Shaw above the Salcombe shop, it was with the opening of their third outlet that their designs and the experience they had picked up began show results. At the end of their second year they had turned over just £59,000, but 12 months later they racked up £259,000 in sales. The pair knew they were heading in the right direction.

Williams closely follows the current fashion trend towards fast turnaround, cheaper, fashion online brands such as ASOS or Boohoo.

He said: "These days people are more likely to mix Prada with Primark, rather than wear one or the other exclusively. That makes judging trends more complex. But going down the fast fashion route is a zero sum game. We work with a lot of quality suppliers, so the products we sell will always be at the quality end of the market."

Williams not only plans to be at the helm of Jack Wills for some time, he has no intention of being knocked off course by the rising tide of fast fashion brands.