There’s just a glimmer of hesitation in Julian Dunkerton that suggests he can barely believe it himself. A boardroom coup at the fashion retailer Superdry has plunged him back into the hot seat at the company after a rash of board resignations on Tuesday afternoon.
You might have thought a multi-millionaire many times over, worth an estimated £440 million, would have been happy to watch someone else do all the work.
Has he got more than he bargained for? ‘The speed of the process, of course, was much quicker than I thought. Then me becoming interim CEO immediately…’ he says, pausing when asked how he felt to be so suddenly back in charge of the £900 million business after four years.
In fashion again: Julian Dunkerton is back at the helm of clothes brand Superdry
It doesn’t take long before his natural instincts resurface. He has the supreme confidence you might expect from someone who has not only built the business from scratch, since 2003 with co-founder James Holder, but also possesses the self-belief to take on the board he accused of ignoring his advice.
In a brief conversation with The Mail on Sunday immediately following the vote, he insisted he needed ‘a couple of days’ to re-acquaint himself with the business. Now, fully composed and heading off to visit one of Superdry’s stores early on Friday morning, it seems he’s found his stride already.
‘It was a huge benefit [to be put back in charge so quickly]. It means I can get straight to work. Sort out the issues straight away and point this business in the right direction again. But the honest truth is I very much expected to win because I’m a firm believer that common sense does prevail in the end – and it did,’ he says.
‘Already the enthusiasm among the vast majority of people is huge. I had a very, very warm welcome, which is wonderful.’ He won the right to take a seat back on the board by a whisker – and the help of his own sizeable shareholding. That was swiftly followed by the resignation of chairman Peter Bamford, chief executive Euan Sutherland, chief financial officer Ed Barker, and chairman of the remuneration committee Penny Hughes.
Some investors still need convincing. The breakneck chain of events saw Superdry’s stock price drop 18 per cent as some shareholders quickly cashed in their investment, apparently startled by the turmoil.
The board insisted it had the right strategy despite a share price that has dropped by two thirds in the past year. He insists he can talk other investors round.
‘The reality is, I’ve seen glaring mistakes and I’m in the process of rectifying them already,’ he explains.
‘Do the chairman and the ex-CEO have a lot to answer for personally?’ he asks rhetorically.
‘They are personally responsible for this situation. This didn’t have to be this way. I’ve been attempting to point them in the right direction for a long time and what we’re talking about probably is – I’m not quite sure what the word would be – vanity?
‘In life you have to look to yourself. And if you’ve made a mistake, you’ve got to admit it. How much of a man you are is when you admit it and move on. If you are not capable of that, you’re probably in the wrong profession.
‘Sadly, what we’ve dealt with here is one man’s vaulted ego,’ he adds, without being drawn on exactly who he’s describing.’
He has already tried to meet many of the shareholders and has spent months drawing attention to what he perceives as management failings. Dunkerton, who stepped down in March last year, had demanded Superdry ‘return to its design-led roots’ after a strategy adopted in 2017 sent the business into an alarming decline.
In turn the company slammed Dunkerton who it said had ‘prime responsibility’ for its poorly performing Autumn range and ‘an over-reliance on graphic legacy–style sweats and jackets’.
It told shareholders his arrival back in the business as a director would be ‘extremely damaging to the Company and its prospects’.
Dunkerton even set up a website as part of his campaign to lobby for a position on the board after relations between him and Sutherland broke down last year.
But he clearly has more work to do. He explains: ‘Most of the [shareholders] that didn’t back us didn’t meet me. I’m very happy to talk them through why this is a fantastic opportunity.
‘Let’s face it, this is a global brand that has taken a stumble. Now the founder is going to point it back in the right direction. That has to be a positive moment to think about a long-term investment.’
Despite his confidence, he is also evidently aware he needs to tread a careful path. He declines to give a full assessment of the situation just yet – pointing out he’s still speaking to ‘the whole team, getting them on board, finding out their issues, making sure we’re all pointing in the right direction’.
But he says the board has spent too long ‘focusing internally on systems’ while, in his assessment, ‘the retail experience is half what it was a year ago’.
‘If you put too many sizes of product out, it doesn’t look like a premium product. The whole retail experience is diminished,’ he says.
He also wants to tap more squarely into the teenage market for whom he says the product remains ‘aspirational’.
‘That’s obviously the core target market for this business. Re-engaging with that market is an absolute priority to me.’
He insists that won’t diminish the popularity of the brand with older shoppers.
‘Superdry is a very sophisticated brand, so there are lots of products for different demographics, both social and age demographics. So within the brand there are products that are specifically designed for a younger consumer and there are other products that are designed to get everybody in – a navy jumper with small branding can be worn by a teenager but it could also be worn by me.
‘I’ll use what tools I have at whatever time. Perfection will take a little while but you’ll see progress within a few months,’ he continues.
The search for a permanent chief executive begins ‘immediately’ he says, acknowledging it will take months to get someone on board.
‘It’s had one year of going wrong but it will go right again and it won’t take so long to turn it around. This is a kind of Renaissance moment.’