Fashion chains struggle to shake off spectre of ousted founders

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Observer business agenda Retail industry Fashion chains struggle to shake off spectre of ousted founders Simon Goodley Ray Kelvin won’t be showing his face at Ted Baker, but Julian Dunkerton looks set on revisiting old Superdry haunts

One of Ted Baker found Ray Kelvin’s quirks was to appear in publicity shots with his face part-obscured. Photograph: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

“After four-and-a-half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family,” Andrew Mason wrote to employees as he left the online voucher firm in 2013. “Just kidding – I was fired today.”

That’s quite a good joke when you consider that Mason was not just the chief exec of the company, but also its founder. He learned the hard way that being able to deliver a decent punchline – as well as building a multibillion-dollar company from scratch – is no defence against an 80% fall in your share price and being named worst CEO of the year (2012) by CNBC.

“Mason’s goofball antics, which can come off more like a big kid than a company leader, almost make a mockery of corporate leadership – especially for a company with a market value of more than $3bn,” his CNBC citation harrumphed. “It would be excusable, even endearing, if the company was doing well … It’s not.”

Mason is unusual in that he appears to have taken his corporate defenestration in pretty peppy spirits, which is hardly the default setting for most entrepreneurs when they discover their visionary powers did not quite stretch to foreseeing their impending shafting.

Steve Jobs was brutally dispatched from Apple by John Sculley in 1985 (before delivering his retribution by returning more than a decade later and saving the company). Sir Martin Sorrell resigned from his advertising group, WPP, last year, promising “revenge”, while Jack Dorsey left Twitter in 2008 after his co-founder, Evan Williams, reportedly told him: “You can either be a dressmaker or the CEO of Twitter, but you can’t be both.” Dorsey to return the favour three years later by replacing Williams as boss.

There are loads more examples of these spats, and though they differ in detail they do tend to have one big theme in common: outsiders think they’re amusing, but rarely seemly. Which brings us to this week, when the spectre of the ousted founder takes centre stage again.

First, the fashion brand Ted Baker will announce its annual results, just two weeks after its founder Ray Kelvin resigned over allegations that he’d invaded more personal space than a US tech firm (he denies any inappropriate behaviour). Kelvin built a hugely successful business, a feat that may have persuaded some to indulge his oddball behaviour, such as refusing to reveal his full face in publicity snaps. Still, at least Ted Baker directors now seem to agree with that idea, and Kelvin shouldn’t be showing his face in public for the foreseeable.

Second, the battle for control continues at rival Superdry, where ousted founder Julian Dunkerton is trying to stage a comeback after being eased out of the group a year ago.

Dunkerton’s plan seems to amount to: “I have made this company’s clobber trendy before and I will do it again.” But this looks unlikely to persuade a sceptical City, which appears to be backing new boss Euan Sutherland, who arrived in October 2014 when Superdry’s shares were about 50% higher and whose previous posting – as Co-op Group boss – ended with him moaning that the organisation was “ungovernable” (by him, it was).

All of which rather shows that it’s tricky to emerge with much short-term credit from this kind of battle –and that the sager strategy might be to use the Mason playbook.

On his departure, he also told Groupon staff: “This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits … don’t waste the opportunity!”

That’s quite mature for a goofball.

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