Growth Chair Circle | Featuring Peter Williams, Chairman, Superdry, U+I, DP Eurasia, Mister Spex and Sophia Webster

15th June 2020

In the latest in our series on chairing growth companies, seasoned chair Peter Williams shares his insights on selecting a growth business that’s likely to succeed, supporting founders and CEOs in this crisis, and adapting to leading investor-led boards.

Peter is Chairman of three FTSE listed companies – retailer Superdry, property regeneration company U+I Group and DP Eurasia, the owner of the Domino’s Pizza franchise in Turkey and Russia. In the private arena he chairs Mister Spex, the Berlin-based eyewear retailer, and the fashion accessories brand, Sophia Webster. He was Senior Independent Director of ASOS for eight years and Chairman of Boohoo for five years, during hyper growth for both companies.

In his executive career, Peter was the CEO of Selfridges and Alpha Airports Group.

What motivates you to chair growth businesses?

In a way it’s opportunistic. I look for brand, identity and purpose. I always ask myself: does it have differentiation? Are the founders committed to it? And importantly, do I think it will be fun? At this point in my career, I don’t want to do something boring.

What advice would you give to those thinking of chairing a start-up for the first time?

Working with a founder CEO is obviously very different to a CEO in a large established corporate. On the whole, personal relationships in a growth business are much closer and tighter. It’s typically more informal, so if you’re used to more formal relationships I’d encourage you to adapt your style rather than pushing them to change theirs.

Growth businesses don’t suit everybody. Some individuals are naturally big company people and in certain cases, they should stay there. The infrastructure is not the same or as developed in a start-up. If the incoming chair is used to having a team to support them, they should be aware that the infrastructure in start-ups is very different. It’s often not advisable to transfer the same style from a big company to a smaller one, you have to be sensitive. You can’t come in with big feet imposing things, you have to help the CEO and the leadership team get there with you, to ensure they have ownership.

What advice would you give to chairs to support their CEOs and leadership teams in the Coronavirus crisis?

This is not a time to be over-critical. You can have the post-mortem in three months’ time or whenever this is all over. Now you need to be collaborative and supportive. There are ways through: if the business has a reason to exist investors can inject fresh money and you can run the organisation on a leaner team.

The Government is making the right advances in terms of support to business, but will that be enough? Obviously there are payments you can delay but a number of businesses will unfortunately run out of cash, if the capital structure isn’t properly addressed.

Whilst the situation is urgent, there’s also a need to keep calm and focused. This is a moment when people need to stand tall and when teams prove themselves. If people start panicking, it will not lead to a positive outcome. All of the companies I chair are taking this crisis very seriously, but the effect of it is different for each one.

What advice would you give on running a growth company board well?

On the board of a fast-growing private company, you’ll often have more investors than independent non-executives, so there’s a different dynamic to a listed public board. People may come into the board meeting with divergent views on strategy. If investors disagree on how to approach an issue, as chair you have to let that play out. However, you also have to be firm with them all, as you have to arrive at a consensus at the end of the day.

How do you chair a board differently during a crisis?

I sit on a number of retail boards and it’s going to be a tough time: retailers are going to be hard hit by Coronavirus.

Keep everyone calm. The focus should be on rational debate, and for the board it’s about giving the right level of input, while letting the management team get on with dealing with the problem. As far as boards go, it’s important for the chair to remember that the CEO runs the business and the chair runs the board.

Be sensible with your predictions. Whilst we are in the middle of the crisis right now we don’t really know what it is going to be like in six to nine months’ time? In a public company there’s an obligation on the board to keep the market informed as best we can, which is very difficult when we can only make an educated guess at what the future will look like.

Focus on cash, liquidity and staying alive. Our boards are still having three hour meetings but the emphasis on the agenda has changed to focus on what’s important right now. At certain moments there may be a need for the board to be more promptly informed, with additional board calls.

I find that it helps that I sit on a number of boards as I have exposure to different companies and sectors. This is a moment when you should be sharing experiences with your competitors not trying to outdo them.

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