New Look’s founder is once again in charge of the fast-fashion retailer, and in the face of stiff competition it needs his product expertise now more than ever.
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Hours after taking operational control of fashion group New Look last week, founder Tom Singh was stamping his authority on the business.
Out went buying director Julian Kilmartin, who had barely come in the door as one of the biggest appointments of Carl McPhail - himself ousted as new Look chief executive last week. Back came Roger Wightman, a Singh protégé with 21 years’ experience at New Look.
It was a sign that Singh is focusing on what he knows best. And so successful has the Singh approach been that it’s made him a fortune of £515m.
He will only run New Look until a new chief executive is found, but the retailer’s backers, including private equity houses Apax and Permira, will be glad to see action is being taken fast to get the retailer in shape for the financial catwalk of an eventual sale or float.
His arrival came after dreadful peak trading, when like-for-likes fell 9.1%. It’s a far cry from a year ago, when the retailer was touring the City to drum up support for an IPO - an idea abandoned in turbulent market conditions and, it is understood, reluctance on the part of potential investors to buy in.
Hirings and firings within hours of taking the reins might suggest a particularly hard-nosed, abrasive character. But while Singh has had to be tough to build a business from nothing, it would be wrong to see him as the aggressive type.
Modest sometimes to the point of shyness, softly spoken and reluctant to step into the limelight, Singh is a quiet type who would not attract a second glance walking down the high street.
But now, as New Look regroups in difficult circumstances, a bit of charisma may be called for. Singh, who has not led the retailer day-to-day since even before its flotation in 1998, may find that problematic.
One senior retailer who has worked with the tycoon says: “He’s quiet, and therefore him leading a group of people will be unusual and quite difficult.”
Singh is acknowledged as a shrewd product man. He built New Look on his ability to spot what people were likely to buy and skilful development of a network of overseas suppliers that allowed him to stock his stores with the sort of fashion that would shift fast and offer consumers keen value.
“He likes product, he understands it and he’s good at thinking about what’s coming next,” says the retailer.
New Look timeline
2011 Singh returns as interim executive chairman following ousting of chief executive Carl McPhail
2010 Proposed IPO pulled
2004 Singh takes New Look private with Apax and Permira
1998 New Look floats
1995 Singh sells 75% of business to BZW Private Equity and Prudential Ventures
1988 Opens first shop in France
1982 Singh merges his shops with his parents’ to create a 40-store chain 1969 Singh founds New Look
But since those days the extent of competition has changed. The worlds of value apparel and fast fashion have converged and grown. Retailers such as Primark have expanded in the intervening years to dominate the high street, alongside international groups such as Inditex that few in the UK would ever have heard of when Singh was building New Look.
“It’s a different business from when he was last in charge,” says one observer. “It’s much more complex.”
Singh’s former colleague says: “Times have changed and the retail scene has changed. He was unique then, he’s not unique now.”
But Singh has retail in his blood. As a youngster, before launching New Look, he cut his teeth with his grandfather selling wellies and pinnies to West Country farmers. His parents were in retail too. They lent him the £5,000 that got New Look off the ground and later he merged his shops with theirs.
Singh may only be back in the boss’s seat at New Look until a permanent replacement for McPhail is found. But while he’s minding the till, it appears on the evidence so far that he has lost little of the hands-on entrepreneurial drive that helped him make New Look a retail trailblazer.