Big Interview: Marc Dench, CFO, Joules

Joules' chief financial officer Marc Dench tells Retail Gazette about the retailer’s focused strategy, which has evolved since the past five years but “remains the same at its core".

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Joules CFO Marc Dench Walgreens Boots Alliance
Joules CFO Marc Dench tells Retail Gazette about the company’s "really focused strategy"

Joules has certainly borne fruit in recent times, which chief financial officer Marc Dench attributes to the retailer’s “really focused strategy for the last four or five years”.

But before he was appointed to his role in October 2015, his last job involved working for Walgreens Boots Alliance, where he spent six years working in group finance function.

“I also worked as divisional chief financial officer for three years, overseeing brands like No 7 and Liz Earle, so we had quite a few premium and luxury beauty brands,” Dench told Retail Gazette.

“We were trying to grow that business so it wasn’t just in the UK, it was growing in the US, Korea and the Middle East as well.”

Dench prides himself on being one of the people from the small team that worked on the merger between Alliance Boots and US-based company Walgreens.

“That’s been transformational for the industry,” he recalled.

“The creation of this brands division within Boots and really unleashing the power of brands, like No 7 and Liz Earle, to more of the global market is fantastic.”

Dench can still remember the decision he had to make between moving to Chicago to continue work for the Walgreens business, or taking the opportunity to work for Joules – a “slightly smaller business”.

“Soon after the full merger with Walgreens happened, I actually took the opportunity to do something that had more of a closer connection with the customer, where you could get involved in more aspects of it and really make an impact on its performance and development,” he recounted.

“So I started looking and the opportunity with Joules came up.”

Dench said the “big transition” was precisely what he was searching for.

“You go from a giant who’s kind of multinational corporation where you’ve got teams of people, so anything you want can get done you don’t really do it yourself, you can ask other people to help you,” he said.

“But also, things can take an incredibly long time, so even brilliant ideas really depend on the passion of the individual.

“The first thing about Joules was getting used to that different size, but also realising that you can make things happen really quickly.”

Dench said he had his eye on Joules well before he even took up the finance chief role.

“At the time I had fairly young children, and most people with children know the Joules brand because often they’ll have decent childrenswear where you’re impressed by the quality,” he said.

“I knew the brand and respected it quite well, but I also knew it was quite a small brand. It was quite an easy decision to leave the giant of Walgreens.”

Joules CFO Marc Dench Walgreens Boots Alliance
“A lot of retailers will say this, but we focus on the customer.” – Joules CFO Marc Dench

Since 2015, Dench’s daily work routine remains changes all the time, “for good and bad”.

“Some days I come in and there’s a massive opportunity and I have to get on it and get the teams on it to get around it,” he explained.

“Other days I come in and a big challenge happens or an issue where you’ve got to drop everything and focus on that.

“I spend about 20 per cent of my time working on external communications with investors, I also spend quite a bit of time on IT and finance team development.

“I spend the rest of the time working with my peers and operating board on projects.”

However, Dench emphasises that Joules’ focused strategy, which has evolved in the past five years, “remains the same at its core – which is the most important thing”.

“So even when times are a bit tougher, we never do anything that might damage that brand and we always sort of invest to keep it strong and true to what it stands for,” he boasted.

In early June, Joules reported that group revenue for the year increased 17.2 per cent to £218 million, something Dench attributes to the retailer’s consistency.

“A lot of retailers will say this, but we focus on the customer,” he said.

“It really is true that everything we do is thinking about whether this makes sense for the Joules customer. Consistency is key.

“We’ve then taken our robust and complete model and we’ve very successfully put it into place internationally, our fastest growing market is the US, and Germany comes next.

“We’re not trying to everything in every market. We’re being cautious, and the growth is big regardless.”

He added: “We are a brand that’s always invested for the long term, so we’ve got great infrastructure, great teams, we’ve got over 40 people in our design and creative team.

“It’s our 30th birthday this year. Every year has seen really robust revenue growth so we intend to keep that going.”

While Dench highlighted Joules’ digital sales, he said they were not necessarily “crucial” for a retailer’s success.

Despite this, the Joules website offers a 10 per cent discount off a customer’s first order.

“New customers who encounter the brand in a store for the first time won’t usually see many promotional offers there, but with online, there’s often a hook for someone who’s browsing to come back for a second time,” Dench said.

“The ideal situation is, our customers have tried it for the first time, they receive the product, they like the quality, price and experience, and will ultimately come back and buy from us for many years.

“The reality is that now customers can shop from their armchair, on the tube, or even from the back of a taxi, so you have to be offering a companion online. The online shopping process has to be really easy for the customer otherwise they won’t complete the order.”

Despite Brexit looming, Dench said Joules didn’t show any signs of slowing down, seemingly bucking the wave of panic that sweeping through the industry.

“I’m not sure that [Brexit] would affect our sales, but there has been a significant amount of distraction,” he said.

“In times when it’s quite tough for the retail sector anyway with the shift to online, and increasing rates, as well as declining footfall in many retail locations, it’s an extra thing that’s taking up a lot of time for management teams and supply chain teams, that people could’ve really done without.

“Different people will be impacted in different ways, depending on where they source from and where they sell to.”

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