At first glance they are not the most likely people to become successful entrepreneurs, but when two skiers decided to sell T-shirts at a ski resort to finance their lifestyle, they laid the foundations of a very successful clothing empire. That was in 1988. Today, Jules Leaver and Tim Slade have just opened their 50th Fat Face shop, selling outdoor clothes and leisurewear. The company is estimated to turnover in the region of £25 million this year and is recognised as one of the fastest growing companies in Britain in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100.
After completing a business degree at 21, Leaver decided to indulge his love of skiing by becoming a "self-confessed" ski bum in Meribel, France. But rising early to get the best skiing and working late in a bar to earn enough to live on was not a viable lifestyle for a long period of time. Together with fellow bar worker, former policeman and friend, Tim Slade, Leaver decided to exploit the gap in the market for 'been there done that' T-shirts to sell to holidaymakers.
The pair chose to manufacture their own T-shirts to enhance appeal, rather than buying them off the shelf, and found a company in Leicester that did short runs at a reasonable price. The T-shirts were then printed up with the 'Meribel 88' back prints at a company in East London. While Leaver stayed in Meribel to sell the merchandise behind the bar, Slade travelled back and forth transporting the goods.
"We began by getting small batches of 100 or 200 T-shirts printed, based on the minimal capital we had to invest," said Leaver. "They sold well because no-one else was doing anything similar, and we gradually increased the quantity to 400 then 800 and so on." Their bold approach paid off and when they left Meribel to travel the world they continued to sell T-shirts, and later fleeces, at different ports of call.
"It wasn't until we got back to the UK in 1993 that we realised what a good business idea it was," explained Leaver. "So I sold my VW Combi van and Tim cashed in some shares, and with £12k we opened our first shop in Fulham."
Leaver and Slade knew that by appealing predominantly to the skiing and snowboarding market they would only be in business for half of every year - not a viable option. So the pair built on the success of their T-shirts and fleeces by developing a range based on another interest of theirs - sailing and windsurfing. It proved to be a successful formula. "Having a mixture of High Street and activity-based portfolio has worked very well for us, yet it isn't something that would fit most brands," said Leaver.
The nature of its target audience also carried with it inherent benefits. "The average age is early 30's, with an even split between men and women. Because people at this sort of age are often into a profession, coupled with the fact that watersports and snowsports and generally enjoyed by people with more disposable income, it has kept us in good stead. We are reasonably recession-proof because of that. When the cards start to fall it takes a while to get to us."
But while Leaver makes it sound like a fairly seamless rags to riches transition, there have been problems along the way. "It's been a rollercoaster ride and the hardest part is probably the first few years when you don't have any track record. You have ultimate belief in both yourself and the business concept and you know you can make it. But you are the only person on the planet that does.
"Banks want guarantees on your house or your father's house, every supplier believes you won't pay them and every landlord tells you they also want a personal guarantee - there's no way round it. In fact, I still have one that is a hangover from those early days."
Face the facts
The gamble paid off for Leaver and Slade, but how have they managed to sustain the appeal of their brand to a relatively fashion-conscious audience over a decade of change? "By continuing to understand your customer," believes Leaver. "At the beginning you are very close to what you do, but as you grow it is easy to lose touch. We gather feedback from customers by email, panels, face-to-face or whatever and the info comes straight to the design team and myself. We discuss it as soon as it comes in - we don't believe in waiting for monthly meetings - and reflect it in our product. By being disciplined about this we have built up a reputation as an approachable company that listens. Tim and I still take direct calls too - it's amazing what you learn."
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