Fashion brand Joules has shot from a one-store minnow to a thriving multichannel business in just seven years. Tom Joule tells Lisa Berwin why the downturn isn’t denting his success

Not many can say their success in retail was sparked by the foot and mouth crisis. But for lifestyle fashion brand Joules Clothing, it kick-started the brand as a serious retail force.

Tom Joule was running his fashion business, founded by his father, mainly through mail order and at horse shows, where they had an established “county set” following. However, their route to market was cut when, in 2001, most equestrian events were cancelled because of the foot and mouth crisis.

“It made me think of bricks and mortar seriously. Although I had one shop I had taken over from my father at the time, did I run it commercially? Perhaps not,” muses Joule. So he entered into joint ventures with franchise partners to run three Joules stores, which he eventually bought back.

From 2003, business began to rocket, leaping from£1.5 million turnover the year before to £22.2 million in the year to January 31 this year. Joules now has 10 shops, two outlets, three concessions, a mail order catalogue, a transactional web site and a growing wholesale business, and last month was named Emerging Retailer of the Year at the Retail Week Awards. “In the coming weeks, we are opening two further stores, with four more to come before the end of the year in the UK, and are testing a web site in the US,” says Joule, adding that he also plans to open a store in France.

The pace of growth has been remarkable, but he admits there were some teething problems. The most upsetting, he recalls, was occasionally letting customers down. “We were finding that we didn’t have enough people or systems in place to accommodate the number of customers we were driving to the business,” he says.

However, he adds: “I think it’s better to have those problems when you are small than when you become double the size.” Last autumn, the retailer moved into a new£2 million head office in Leicestershire and has poured resources into bolstering its team.

Before last year, Joule had broadly employed people he knew from Market Harborough, the retailer’s Leicestershire birthplace. “Everyone knows everyone, which has helped with the dynamic of being in the business for the greater good, but it doesn’t always help when it comes to finding specialist people,” he admits.

However, as the company’s stature has grown, this has become less of an issue because the business’s profile has grown. Paul Clements is one recent addition, joining from footwear and apparel brand Merrell this month as business development director. Joules has also brought in Eve Davies as commercial director, who has previous experience at New Balance and Speedo, and brand merchandising manager Kellie Hubbard, who used to work for Next.

What consumer slowdown?

In an increasingly gloomy retail climate, Joules’s bold and colourful offer is a breath of fresh country air and Joule says it has yet to feel the effects of a consumer spending slowdown. He explains: “We are not seeing an impact; quite the opposite. I am not saying we are recession-proof, no. But are women going to stop buying clothes? That is a long way off, I think.”

The brand’s core customers are those women who buy not only for themselves, but also their families. Because of this, Joules offers a men’s range and a full childrenswear line, which launched in 2006. “Everyone told us that we were mad to go into kidswear, but we didn’t find it difficult. At a childrenswear show recently, a security guard had to physically push people off our stand,” he says.

The relaunch of Joules’s web site in February was further testament to the quirky face of the brand. It features a “Joules Village”, which has news on local events, as well as a “Joules Jamboree” and “Guide to the British Summer”. Its shops also hold in-store marketing events such as tea and cake afternoons. In fact, marketing takes up more than 10 per cent of the retailer’s budgeted turnover, which Joule says is money well spent in terms of attracting new customers.

However big the business grows, Joule is adamant it will keep the brand values of the family business. “We make sure every thing we do starts with the brand. This keeps us niche and keeps it working,” he says.

With the rise of trendy country living and more people pursuing outdoor activities, Joules’s fun but practical offering seems to have hit the market at the right time. In Joule’s words: “We were a reaction against wax jackets and tweed.”

Country living
Age: 40
Hobbies: skiing, horse racing and golf

CAREER HISTORY
2005: began exporting outside the UK
2003: launched Joules online
2001: launched Joules catalogue and opened three stores through franchise partnerships
1999: started own-brand
1994: merged with father’s business
1990: started selling clothes at shows and events