Page last updated at 07:10 GMT, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Changing view of clothing chain

By Andy Gourlay
BBC Wales@Work

Peacocks
New stores planned include shops in Moscow

How do you turn a shop known primarily for selling big knickers into a multi-million pound business?

That was the challenge facing Richard Kirk the new boss of Peacocks when he took over more than a decade ago.

The south Wales-based retail chain has just opened its flagship store at the new St David's shopping centre in Cardiff.

And with more than 550 shops across the UK and 30 overseas - from Moscow to Malta - things are very different to when the straight-talking chief executive took over the business in 1996.

Sharing some of the secrets of his success with the BBC Radio Wales business programme Wales@Work, the Chesterfield-born businessman said he was horrified hearing what people thought of the store.

They included gems like "my mum used to say to me if I wasn't good she'd get me something from Peacocks" and "that's that fat old ladies knicker shop in south Wales".

The change from fish fingers to fashion was a big change
Richard Kirk, who used to work for frozen food chain Iceland

"That was what we were up against," said Mr Kirk.

"That was the perception of the brand and had been for years, so there was a lot to do to change it."

He created working parties of senior managers to come up with ways of improving the stores.

They changed the look and dropped the prices, soon the business was turning a profit - £12m in 1999.

'Tough trading'

They bought the Bonmarche chain and floated on the stock exchange.

But the rise of cheap clothing from supermarkets forced Peacocks to change again - this time to become more fashionable - but still undercutting High Street rivals.

"The customer is king and they want value," said Mr Kirk.

"People want to use their money to do other things. They want to spend it on leisure, they don't want to spend it on clothes."

It isn't the first time Mr Kirk had built up a Welsh retail empire. He was one of the men behind the rise of frozen food giant Iceland in the 1980s.

Mr Kirk knew Iceland founders Malcolm Walker and Peter Hinchcliffe from their days as trainee Woolworth managers.

But the first time they asked him to join them he turned them down.

Shoes on sale at Peacocks
Richard Kirk says he still visits 15 stores a week

"I'd become a regional manager for Woolworth earning what I thought was lots of money and these guys were struggling along with a few lock up shops," he said.

"I bumped into them again in the late 1970s. I remember Malcolm was driving an E-type Jag and Peter had some other flash car and I thought 'ah, wrong decision there'."

He spent 17 years at Iceland describing it as an "amazing time" and little wonder - by the time he left, the business had 750 stores, a turnover of £1.4bn and profits of £74m.

But by the mid 1990s he was looking for a fresh challenge and was asked if he wanted to take over Peacocks.

"The change from fish fingers to fashion was a big change," he said. But he credits his staff with helping turn the business around.

And he still visits 15 stores a week to make sure things are going the way he wants.

"You don't really need market research," he said.

"The only way you'll know what's going on is being out there talking to the customers."

Despite continuing to open shops here and abroad - 10 more are planned for Moscow alone over the next year - Mr Kirk thinks retailers still face difficult times ahead.

"We'll have another 18 months of tough trading and tough conditions," he said.

And the secret of his success - communication, especially with staff.

"There are only three things people want to know," he said.

"How am I doing? How do I get on? And how do I make some more money?

"If you can honestly answer all those three things you're onto a winner".

You can hear the full interview with Peacock's chief executive Richard Kirk on BBC Radio Wales's Wales@Work programme on Tuesday 1830 or listen again via the website



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