Peter Williams is synonymous with UK fast fashion. At online giant Asos, he was senior independent director from 2006 to 2013, a period of huge expansion, and he has just stepped down from chairing rival Boohoo.com after five years, a period in which it listed and then quickly grew into a £2bn company.
From his early career at department store group Selfridges where he was finance director and then CEO, to chairing Blacks Leisure and Jaeger, Williams has played a big part in UK retail.
In that time he has witnessed wholesale changes in how businesses are run, and especially in the crucial interplay between directors and the board’s relationship with internal and external parties.
One observation he makes is how many companies fail to continue in the direction of travel they set out on. “I think that some businesses lose sight of their strategic aim. In some of the turnaround situations I’ve been involved with, one of the first things I’ve tried to get to grips with is why was this business founded in the first place? What was the raison d’etre?”
“The second question is when was it at its most successful, what was it doing then? Why was that? I then try and interpret the answer in terms of what’s happening now,” he says.
“I try to define the strategic intent and then seek to communicate that remorselessly to internal people, because you want everyone fired up and supporting you. I then also want to communicate that message externally to shareholders, and most importantly of all to customers,” he says.
Williams draws on his finance director experience when he says that finance leaders can now no longer limit themselves to thinking just about the finance function. “If you want to be respected finance people, you have to engage with the business, that means involvement and communication with operating and trading parts of the group.
“You can’t do that sat behind a desk, it doesn’t work. If you’ve got an issue, it’s the things you can’t see on the pieces of paper that you often need to change. Therefore face to face communication, that personal interaction, when you can look people in the eye, is so important,” he says.
Williams says that in retail, which he acknowledges is a very competitive market, delivering stellar performance can be very difficult to achieve. “Success doesn’t necessarily come about just by throwing money at it,” he argues.
The example of Marks & Spencer is mentioned: “Millions of pounds have been thrown at it over decades and decades, but if you ask the average consumer, they’re a bit lost, a bit confused, it doesn’t have the resonance it once had. So efforts to put in the communication and the strategic intent is really fundamental,” he says.
Given that Williams is most associated with the phenomenal online rise of Asos, and then Boohoo, he naturally has strong views on social media that can impact hugely on the business model of any company.
“In retail everything was pretty contained in terms of the interaction with the customer with what went on within a store between the hours of 10am and 6pm. Now the stores are open all sorts of hours, so there’s now a conversation that takes place by phone, email or on social media, 24 hours a day,” he says.
“I’m not complaining about that because it’s the nature of those relationships that technology has brought rightly or wrongly, but it means you’ve got to manage it, you’re not going to be able to please everybody, and there are some people who are unreasonable.
“But for the vast majority of people who get into a situation with a retailer where they have a really fierce complaint, it’s usually for a reason. Somebody along the line has screwed up, the customer is usually right- somewhere in the process they’ve usually been treated badly.
“You see it in all sorts of places, including entertainment and media,” says Williams, who has also been a director of a number of entertainment companies including EMI, Silverstone and Cineworld.
Williams, who is still chairman of regeneration developer U+I Group and is the SID of online property group Rightmove, is insistent that it’s sometimes necessary to take risks in order to thrive in an increasingly competitive environment. Drawing on his recent experiences, he says: “In fashion people are always interested in what is new, so if you’re not on the ball in terms of what is of the moment, then you are going to get beaten by someone else who is out there, doing something new.
“You do have to take risks, and you have to accept some failures. If you fail all the time it’s obviously not good, but I don’t think the organisation should pillory someone if they’ve tried something, and for whatever reason it didn’t work,” he adds.
Williams says that at least in the retail space, online has created scope for innovation with limited downside. “With physical stores when you change something, you build the shop to fit, requiring a reasonable amount of capital investment. If it doesn’t work you’ve lost your money. On the internet you can try one or two things. If it doesn’t work you can change it. It’s quite easy in digital to do, and you haven’t cost yourself a lot of cash,” he says.
A lot of early learning for Williams came at one of his first big jobs, as financial controller of hi-fi company Aiwa. “I think there were a number of mistakes I made there, but that was simply because I was too young, in my 20s,” he says.
“I think I made some mistakes in the managing of people and I didn’t delegate well enough, I took on too much and tried to do it all myself, which wasn’t the best use of my time. I learned that in a quite painful way,” he adds.
Peter Williams will be making the closing keynote speech: ‘Why is communication so important?’ at this year’s CFO Agenda.
“For Finance, 2019 marks the start of a new world where the proactive leaders will be at the helm, navigating their businesses safely through the changes. Join us at this year’s CFO Agenda on 7th May in London to network with 200+ CFOs, FDs, and Heads of Finance to drive growth and meet the future with confidence and certainty. To learn more and register, please, visit: https://www.thecfoagenda.com/“