Three years after taking charge of House of Fraser, Tim Danaher asks how far John King has come in his mission to update the business

“You’re the chief executive of House of Fraser in this town,” is what John King tells managers of his 62 stores. “How are you going to make me some money?”

It’s a style that is a big change for the formerly traditionally run 150-year-old business, which King took charge of three years ago, following the November 2006 takeover by Highland Acquisitions. A senior colleague describes King as impatient, and admirers and detractors alike would agree that the only thing that has been constant over that period has been the pace of change.

Ahead of the update published this week King declined to be interviewed. He said he wasn’t interested in his personal profile because he sees the job at House of Fraser as being about the team rather than him.

It’s perhaps symbolic of his focus on dismantling a structure that he considered hierarchical and delegating to the 6,500 staff, a move King considered crucial to transforming the business into a house of brands. Sources say that his strategy has gone down well internally. “You never hear his team say a bad word about him or the business,” says one major supplier to the retailer.

Other more tangible steps of the desire to change the culture and perception of the business were the move from the old headquarters behind the Army & Navy store in London’s Victoria to a new open-plan Store Support Centre on Baker Street and the abandonment of the long-standing stag emblem in favour of a more modern, corporate identity in keeping with its new focus on brands.

Rugby-mad King – from London but intensely proud of his Irish roots – is as easy-going as chief executives get socially. But there’s no doubt that he can be tough when he wants to be. The early days of his reign were marked by tensions with suppliers and concessionaires as the new management sought to impose what it considered industry standard terms on House of Fraser’s suppliers, while trying to reposition it so that its best stores were taking on the branded fashion giants such as Selfridges.

Sources close to the company claim such friction is firmly in the past and the relationship now is more one of partnership. Suppliers back that view up. “The management were tough on suppliers when they first came in but they have done a lot with the business and they talk about working with suppliers,” says one. “The stores look a lot better and there is now some really exciting product in there.”

King’s background means he should be well-equipped to understand the issues his suppliers face. Having started his career at Sainsbury’s, he moved to Marks & Spencer. Later he moved to the US to work for Delta Galil, one of its big lingerie suppliers. It was in the US where he met his American wife, and the country retains a strong pull for him.

He returned to the UK as chief executive of Matalan, leaving when John Hargreaves took the company private to replace John Coleman at House of Fraser. Stylistically, the down-to-earth King couldn’t be more different but, while changes have been rapid, more remains to be done.

House of Fraser has belatedly moved online, but it still needs to build on its multichannel strategy. The stores too remain a motley crew, ranging from flagships in London and Bluewater to  small-town stores. And while an outlet model has been developed for some lower-profile stores, communicating what the new House of Fraser stands for remains something the company will have to continue to work on – particularly given the diversity of its stores and customer base.

What isn’t in doubt, though, is that after three years of transformation, House of Fraser is in better shape to tackle the challenges it faces in what is a hugely competitive department store market.

House of Fraser in numbers

  • Founded in 1849 in Glasgow
  • 62 stores in the UK and Ireland
  • 5 million sq ft selling space