Fat Face Ltd.

Unit 1-3 Ridgway
Havant, PO9 1QJ
England
Telephone: (+44 2392) 441-100
Fax: (+44 2392) 441-101
Web site: https://www.fatface.com

Private Company
Incorporated:
1988
Employees: 2,089
Sales: £226 million ($293.25 million) (2017)
NAICS: 448140 Family Clothing Stores; 339920 Sporting and Athletic Goods Manufacturing; 315240 Women's, Girls', and Infants' Cut and Sew Apparel Manufacturing

Fat Face Ltd. is a multichannel retailer in the United Kingdom. The company operates a network of more than 200 retail stores, as well as e-commerce sites for both the United Kingdom and the United States. Beyond the U.K. market, Fat Face (often stylized as Fat Face) has expanded internationally. During the latter half of the second decade of the 21st century the company was piloting a handful of retail stores on the East Coast of the United States, which had weather patterns similar to those of the United Kingdom.

SKI BUMS

Like many of their peers in England, Jules Leaver and Tim Slade were avid skiers who went to work in the French Alps to finance their passion for the sport.

Leaver had graduated from Plymouth University with a degree in business, then took off for France in the late 1980s. There, in 1988, he met Slade, who had completed a three-year stint as a police officer before hitting the slopes himself.

While tending bar in Méribel, France, Slade and Leaver discovered that they shared the same predicament. Both had been trying to earn enough money to support their skiing activities and both found their schedule of waking early to ski and tending bar late in the night too exhausting. They began discussing ways of earning a living on the slopes and hit on the idea of selling T-shirts and other clothing.

Rather than sell existing T-shirt designs, the pair decided to create their own so-called Been There Done That apparel, which featured messages regarding specific sports or resort locations. The pair found a manufacturer in Leicester, England, willing to produce short runs of T-shirts according to their design and another company to print the slogan “Meribel 88” on the back.

Slade and Leaver literally began hawking their shirts on the slopes at Méribel and quickly sold out of their initial order. The money they earned enabled them to place larger and larger orders. Before long, Leaver became the pair's salesman, remaining in Méribel and selling the shirts from a backpack behind the bar where he continued working. Slade meanwhile went back and forth between England and France to retrieve and deliver new orders for their merchandise. Demand eventually outpaced supply, and the partners realized they had a winning business idea.

COMPANY PERSPECTIVES

We have a clear product formula that combines trusted quality with considered style to offer our customers great value.

Still in their early 20s, Leaver and Slade seized on the opportunity for travel that their new business afforded them. At the end of the 1988 ski season, the pair decided to travel around the world rather than return to England. Sales of their T-shirt and sweatshirt designs, adapted to each new location, provided funding for Leaver and Slade's travel and sports interests for some five years. By 1993 Leaver and Slade had begun to look more seriously at their business. The partners developed a good understanding of their target market, which consisted mainly of aspirational, affluent individuals.

FOUNDING A RETAIL BUSINESS

Returning to England, Leaver and Slade decided to open a retail shop for their ski apparel designs and founded Fat Face Ltd. Named after the La Face ski slope in France's Val d'Isère, the company was financed with £12,000 raised by the sale of Leaver's Volkswagen van and several stock shares held by Slade. The partners quickly recognized that if they limited their inventory to the ski market, they would be in business only six months per year. Instead, Fat Face soon added a line of clothing targeting the summer-oriented surf and windsailing markets.

The company's first store opened on London's Fulham Road in 1993. Before long, Fat Face developed into a concept embracing a wider variety of active lifestyle and outdoor sports apparel. Its offerings appealed to a specific clientele, working women and men in their early 30s with good disposable income.

Another important factor in Fat Face's rising sales was the enthusiasm Leaver and Slade shared with their customers for the active, outdoor lifestyle. Recognizing this, Fat Face adapted its hiring policies to recruit sports enthusiasts to staff their stores. As Leaver pointed out to the Sunday Times in a November 18, 2001, article, “When you buy a Fat Face product, you're not just buying the fleece, you're buying the chat in the shop about the quality of the snow in Val d'Isere or the surf in Cornwall. We can't afford to compromise customer service with growth.”

Fat Face began expanding its retail network, adding stores close to the United Kingdom's ski resorts and surfing areas. Leaver and Slade, however, remained highly accessible to their customers, often taking phone calls and suggestions. The partners also recognized the importance of maintaining their brand's integrity as they steered the company's growth through the mid-1990s. Fat Face rejected wholesale expansion, at least for the short term, refusing to make distribution deals to place their brand in the larger national and international retail market.

Instead, the company chose to roll over its steadily growing profits and cash flow into expanding its own retail store network. By 1995 sales had already risen to £750,000 pounds. Over the next three years, the company posted an impressive average annual growth of 85 percent, reaching £4.8 million in annual sales. The launch of a mail-order business and the company's e-commerce website provided a new boost to its growth, and by 1999 the company's revenues had topped £9 million. By then, its store network stood at 31, including 3 stores in the Alps.

EXPANDING LIFESTYLE BRAND

Fat Face now began preparations to expand. The company remained committed to its policy of avoiding wholesale distribution deals, emphasizing Fat Face as a lifestyle brand, as opposed to a fashion brand. As Leaver pointed out to Sarah Gracie for an article in the February 27, 2000, Sunday Times, “If you make the connection with lifestyle, not fashion, there is no reason why you can't sell for life, from toddler to grandpa.”

Fat Face took a step toward that goal, launching a new line of children's clothing under the name Brat Face in 2000. The company then turned to outside investors to fuel the next phase of its expansion effort. Subsequently, it sold a 40 percent stake to Friends Ivory & Sime Private Equity (later Isis) in exchange for £5 million in expansion capital.

The new funds enabled Fat Face to step up its store opening schedule. By the end of 2002 the group operated nearly 50 stores. The company's sales grew accordingly, and by the end of 2003, as the company's retail network topped 70 stores, Fat Face posted annual revenues of more than £30 million.

PROFESSIONAL MANAGEMENT STRUCTURE

KEY DATES
1988:
Tim Slade and Jules Leaver begin selling T-shirts to fund their skiing season at Méribel, France.
1993:
Slade and Leaver open the first Fat Face store, in London.
1999:
The company's retail network tops 30 stores.
2000:
Slade and Leaver sell 40 percent of the company to Friends Ivory & Sime Private Equity.
2003:
Louise Barnes is appointed CEO.
2005:
Fat Face is acquired by Advent International.
2007:
Fat Face is acquired by Bridgepoint.
2012:
The company opens its 200th location.
2018:
Fat Face celebrates 30 years of operations.

Under Barnes, Fat Face launched a more aggressive store expansion drive, with plans to top 100 stores by the end of 2004 and expectations of reaching 150 stores soon after. Barnes also led the development of a larger store format. The company had also taken its first steps toward developing a global position, registering its trademark in several foreign markets, including North America, Australia, and New Zealand. By the end of 2003 the company's sales had topped £45 million.

New stores continued opening throughout the decade, reaching 100 locations by 2005. That year Isis sold its stake in Fat Face to the private equity group Advent International. To connect with customers in innovative ways and bolster its database, the company introduced a multiplayer online mountain biking game called Down Hill Duel in 2006. In October of that year, the company named former HMV Group CEO Alan Giles as its new nonexecutive chairman.

ACQUISITION BY BRIDGEPOINT

A major development occurred in 2007 when Fat Face was acquired by the international private equity firm Bridgepoint in a £360 million deal with Advent International. Barnes remained at the helm following the acquisition. By this time, the company's network of stores had grown to 128 locations, including four international sites. Of these, one franchised store operated in Dubai and another in Iceland. Looking ahead, Fat Face set its sights on expansion in markets such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Middle East. Growth continued toward the end of the decade, with 142 stores in operation by 2008.

As the new decade neared, Fat Face was leveraging social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to build relationships with its customers. In 2010 a dedicated Twitter page was established for customer service issues. After bringing its 200th location online in 2012, along with a new store concept and expanded e-commerce offerings, another leadership change occurred in 2013 when former Marks & Spencer CEO Stuart Rose was named as Fat Face's new chairman.

In 2015 Fat Face opened its largest retail store, in Exeter. Located in the Princesshay shopping center, the flagship location spanned 10,000 square feet. That year, an e-commerce site specifically for customers in the United States was introduced, followed by Fat Face's first U.S. retail stores in 2016. The company occupied a new 80,000-square-foot distribution center in Havant in 2017, with a 15-year lease, and established wholesale deals with both Amazon and Next. That year, the company's cosmetics line received certification from the nongovernmental organization Cruelty Free International.

Fat Face celebrated 30 years of operations in 2018. In addition to the new distribution center, the company set its sights on establishing 10 locations throughout the United States. Domestically, the company opened a new 4,800-square-foot location at intu Metrocentre's Platinum Mall, which ranked as Europe's largest covered shopping center. Fat Face had achieved remarkable growth during its first three decades of existence and appeared to be positioned for continued success in the coming years.

M. L. Cohen
Updated, Paul R. Greenland

PRINCIPAL COMPETITORS

Billabong International Limited; Boardriders, Inc.; Patagonia, Inc.

FURTHER READING

“Cult Firm Stays in Touch with Followers.” Sunday Times (London), November 18, 2001.

Ellson, Andrew. “Retailer That Started from a Rucksack.” Times (London), August 31, 2004.

“Fat Face to Handle Customer Service through Twitter.” New Media Age, April 8, 2009, 9.

Gracie, Sarah. “Leisurewear Firm Tailors Its Ambitions Globally.” Sunday Times (London), February 27, 2000.

Man, Pui-Guan. “Fat Face Grows Up: Inside the New Distribution Centre.” Drapers, December 8, 2017.

Rolt, Amber. “Exeter's Princesshay Welcomes Smiggle and the UK's Largest Fat Face Store.” Estates Gazette, September 5, 2015.