5 Minutes With Mike France, Co-Founder, Christopher Ward

Christopher Ward is a British premium watch brand and online retailer that, since its founding in 2004, has grown to trade in over 120 countries around the world – from Greenland and Iraq to Brunei and Botswana. The Retail Gazette caught up with co-founder Mike France to learn how and where he learned his secrets for success.

Mike France CEO Christopher Ward

Tell me about the Christopher Ward story.

In 2004 I was sailing along the Thames with my business partner Peter Ellis, who I had shared a very productive career in retail with for many years, and our friend Chris Ward.

We all shared a mutual love for horology, but were aghast at the cost of premium watches that were being priced at umpteen times the cost of production. I had wanted to start my own business, and at the time the online retail world was starting to take off. We therefore decided the premium watch industry was ready for its first online-only retailer.

With the launch of Christopher Ward, we started with the one simple aim we still have, which is to make premium quality watches accessible to more people. We do this now as we did then: through a direct-to-consumer online business model that links the makers to the customers without a retailer as middleman, and without expensive marketing hype – which is something we have become known for.

What’s in store for Christopher Ward in 2018? 

Our focus in 2018 will be continued growth across all our international markets, which now number over 120.

This month, we launched our exciting new communications programme, which involves several new adverts and will also see us extend our advertising into other arenas – such as out-of-home and possibly television during the course of the year.

More pureplay etailers are emerging as “clicks-to-bricks”-style retailers. Is this something CW has considered?

Yes, this is something we have considered. However at the moment, we are solely focused on being an online-only retailer.

The world is a pretty big place, and we haven’t even touched the sides of most markets yet. The opportunity for growth solely online is huge, so we don’t need to divert our attention, focus, energy and capital into bricks and mortar – just yet, at least.

Luxury retail in general has been doing quite well since the sterling’s value plummeted. What impact will this have on UK retail in the long term?

Over the course of 40 years in retail I have seen the sterling’s value range from almost parity with the US dollar, to being nearly two and half times the value of the US dollar. And surprisingly, the world hasn’t ended – and UK retail has continued to perform and grow. I expect nothing will be different this time around.

How is CW addressing some of the challenges facing the retail industry in the luxury and accessories sectors?

We just keep on doing what we do. We continue to focus on the product – making sure that we have quality products at the right price and at the right time. As long as this remains our approach, we are confident we will be okay whatever the retail industry throws at us.

What would you say is the biggest risk for the retail sector as a whole, given the current climate?

Putting market conditions aside, submitting to dullness is one of the greatest risks for any retail company.

My advice would be: don’t do anything mediocre and push the envelope. If you’re in the price sector, get the price down. If you’re in the quality sector, get the quality up. Make sure everything you do is interesting, and don’t lose focus on the customer.

The competition is so intense that anything dull and below par doesn’t succeed. Mediocrity is not an option.

Describe your role and responsibilities as co-founder of CW.

I’m the genius behind everything. As well as that, I attend on a day-to-day basis to most matters at the front end of the pantomime horse – primarily focusing on product and marketing, although my fingers are in most pies across the company.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before CW.

My background is predominately in retail. I started my career at Littlewoods, before moving onto Burton Group (today the Arcadia Group), where I worked on the buying and supply chain side of operations. I later joined BHS, becoming a member of their board at 32.

In the 1990s I moved into private equity, before becoming head of the Early Learning Centre, which at the time was losing £10 million a year. We turned the operation around before selling it for £62 million in 2004.

It was after the Early Learning Centre that I co-founded Christopher Ward.

The competition is so intense that anything dull and below par doesn’t succeed.”

What got you into retail in the first place? Why do you enjoy it?

Desperation really. And there is an amusing story behind how I started out.

When applying for my first job, the first people to make me an offer was the retailer Littlewoods.

After two weeks of joining the management training scheme, I travelled home to Liverpool for the weekend. My father picked me up at Liverpool Lime Street train station, and as we were driving home in his car, I told him that retail isn’t for me. I was ready to quit. He very wisely said that I might give it slightly longer than two weeks, which I agreed to do.

A week later, I was serving customers on the cheese counter in the food hall. I found I was not only able to sell more cheese by proactively interacting and having a good time with the customers, but that it was also such a joy to be engaging with people who were buying things from you.

I realised then that retail had more than a small amount of theatre involved in it. That experience, on the Littlewoods cheese counter, that was the turning point.

How has your previous experience aided your current job?

When you’ve been in retail as long as I have, you can do most things without too much thought – which allows you to focus on the more important issues at hand.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Finding the right people. Once you’ve got the right people in place, everything works much more easily.

And the most rewarding?

Seeing those people grow.

What advice would you give someone who is considering embarking on a career in retail?

Spend some time working in a physical store, no matter what sector it is. Even if it’s a temporary job, just go and spend some time on the shop floor.

It doesn’t matter if you want to end up working for an online company. The key to all retail is the interface between the retailer and the customer. By having that experience on the shop floor, you’ll find out very quickly – like I did on the cheese counter – if this is the right career for you.

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