King of Shaves is one of the UK's most successful UK export brands. Founder Will King tells Josh Sims how he's conquering the globe.
Will King is late for his flight to Japan. But then he likes a close shave. The founder of the King of Shaves male grooming brand - which he established in 1993 with a £15,000 loan, turning it into a company with an estimated value of some £45m - is off on tour of the Far East. After Japan comes Singapore, then Korea and China... "The only way to build exports is to get on a plane and eyeball people," he enthuses. "It's about seeing if you like each other."
He is referring not to fellow passengers - though he has a sharp eye for skin tone and the latest facial topiary - but to business partners. If exports are, he says, "99 per cent essential to the future of the company - as they are to Proctor & Gamble of Ohio, USA, which has a big home market but still has to look abroad", then the only way to find them is to shake manicured hands with someone who knows the local market.
It is a lesson learnt through experience. King of Shaves launched in the US a decade ago when US retail giant Target approached the company to stock its products. "We thought that was our way in to the US," says King. "But no other retailers had any interest whatsoever. As in many markets, big American companies like dealing with other big American companies." So that is what King found, striking a deal with Remington to launch the first King of Shaves grooming gadgets this year. "The fact is, as compelling and enthusiastic as I can be, the general reaction is 'like, whatever'," he says. "To build exports you need the right partners - you need people on the ground locally. Otherwise you're just this small British brand."
Small but not insignificant, with a gross profit of £5.88m recorded on sales of £11.88m for the 17 months to May, King of Shaves has established itself as effectively the UK's male grooming market's number three player. The bad news is that one and two are the giants Gillette - owned by P&G and with a market capitalisation estimated to be some £57bn - and Schick-Wilkinson Sword. Yet King remains confident that the export market provides huge potential for even his minnow. Most of this he sees coming from the Asia-Pacific and Indian markets - where he plans to launch by 2014 - where a rising middle-class is now (to some extent) seeking to emulate western lifestyles; and that includes daily wet shaving and a bit of self-pampering.
"There is a strong trend in developing markets as people earn more money to want to look more groomed, a trend we need to capitalise on," says King. "But that's not something we can do by ourselves. Local markets will, of course, want to create their own brands so there will be competition there and we need to understand how they will work. Ventures overseas are very costly if you get it wrong. And the issues to getting it right are myriad and very complex."
Not least are local customs. King has gone as far as taking special tutelage in Japanese business custom, for example - and now can read the inner meanings hidden in the length of a meeting, its degree of formality, in who attends and how long they stay for. It pays off - the Japanese razor company Kai, King of Shaves'partner there, has invested in King of Shaves and recently increased its stake to 21 per cent, with rumours of desires to buy the whole lot (King now holds 30 per cent). That, as King points out, has only taken eight long years of pressing the flesh to bring about. "And then those customs are completely different in Korea, in China," he says. "The fact is that you need to know the country you're exporting to - knowledge is king if you want to make it overseas."
But what is likely to make King of Shaves any more successful in new export markets than its much bigger rivals? King believes that price is one factor: "'The best a man can get'?," he says, quoting Gillette's famous ad line. "More like 'the most expensive a man can get'." King of Shaves, he argues, simply offers the same or better for less, which is important to any company seeking to make a splash in any country where disposable wealth for many is still a new idea. Value too will be key: he cites the high percentage of aloe in King of Shaves's shaving gel - five per cent against competitors' claiming the same benefits with only 0.05 per cent.
"And the name King helps too," he says, "although that came courtesy of my parents - it translates well and has an attractive meaning in the grooming market. Cool, of course, only works if you have the quality product behind it. And what cool is can be very hard to define from market to market. I, for example, think I'm cool. But my son thinks very differently on that question."
This article was featured in Raconteur's Going Global report published in The Times newspaper. To read the full report see: http://np.netpublicator.com/netpublication/n78647746
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