The high energy COO has more than made his mark at New Look and remains confident of its future despite a recent drop in like-for-likes.
Will Kernan always knew he wanted to be in retail. He chose the industry before he went to university, and can’t imagine doing anything else. Having started his career at the Burton Group, one of the most well regarded training grounds for young retailers, he stuck with fashion, eventually moving to New Look in 1999 and in September was appointed chief operating officer.
“Most people fall into retail, but I knew I wanted to go into it,” he says.
“I was interested in the micro-economics of retail, how it has a huge impact on individual lives. The model really fascinated me.”
Kernan has almost come full circle in his career, having started at Burton Menswear in buying, merchandising and finance, and now taken control of buying and merchandising as part of his responsibilities as chief operating officer of New Look, which revealed trading figures last week.
He says: “It’s fun being back in design and merchandising, and what I’m able to do is bring more framework as the business becomes more complex.” However, he stresses that he is “not a designer or buyer. I look at processes and how to improve the structure”. He jokes: “If you asked me to design something, it really wouldn’t work.”
At New Look, Kernan has continually widened his responsibilities. Some believe he’s being groomed for the top job by building his experience through a wide range of roles, including group finance, IT director, managing director of UK and Ireland, and managing director of the group.
Singer Capital Markets analyst Matthew McEachran says Kernan has “progressed well through the ranks”. He adds: “He’s personable, balanced and hard working, and fair but focused.”
McEachran points to his work in the international departments of New Look as one key achievement. “One of Kernan’s challenges was to join up the commercial side of the international and UK businesses and as a result there is much better synergy, which has been a key achievement,” he says.
For Kernan, New Look has given him plenty of highlights, including moving from finance to retail operations, improving service levels, and the turnaround of its French business Mim.
Kernan has more to do though. New Look last week reported a like-for-like sales fall in its first half as it was up against tough comparatives. However, the value fashion retailer remains confident and did not rule out a renewed attempt to go public, after pulling its proposed IPO at the start of this year.
Kernan, who has three young children, is known for his high energy and fast pace. One source says: “He’s known to be demanding and drives his team hard. He is bursting with energy, outlining the strategic goals while his team fill in the details.”
This high energy clearly spills into his personal life too. In 2007 the thrill seeker took part in the Gumball Rally, driving a Porsche 911 from London to France, Belgium and Germany, before taking a plane to Turkey, through to Greece and finishing in Albania.
He says friends describe him as “toad of toad hall” as he has a raft of hobbies including driving, cycling and “my current hobby is getting back to The Good Life, with the pigs and chickens having arrived in the last few weeks”.
As Kernan gets back to the good life at home, New Look will also be hoping to get back to the good times. While the climate remains challenging and costs are rising for retailers, this may be some way off yet. But Kernan will be racing to get there as fast as he can.
Education Studied economics at Exeter University
Family Married with three children aged 8, 10 and 12
New Look Joined New Look in 1999, appointed chief operating officer in September 2010. Held a series of roles including managing director of the group, group finance and IT director, and managing director of the UK and Ireland
Early career Started at Burton Group in 1991, and has held roles in Debenhams, Principles and Sears