Master exporting, master the market, says the blades ‘n oil tycoon
The King of Shaves? Almost. It might be more accurate to call Will King the crown prince. With 8.5% of the razor market, he sees himself as the man to knock Gillette off the throne.
With its massive 70% of the razor market, Gillette is the undisputed #1. And Wilkinson Sword with 20% is a solid #2.
I meet the ambitious Mr King at Home House, a posh private members’ club in Marylebone. Home House is rock and roll; a drum set hangs from the ceiling, the walls are splashed with sequined butterflies and, of course, there is the quintessential grand staircase.
Dressed in a crisp black shirt and black trousers, King sits on a black sofa and explains how he plans to take on his arch nemesis:
“I might have a toehold compared to Gillette’s foothold, but I’m going to export my way to the top and give Gillette a good fight,” he boasts.
And he seems to be on track. King of Shaves’ shaving oils and razors are made here and currently exported to seven countries, including the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, Brazil and Turkey.
But while King may be a celebrated businessman with a mantelpiece full of awards, his initial tryst with business was accidental.
“We should get someone more young and dynamic than Vince Cable to boost business”
In 1993, and newly redundant from a job in marketing, he had a light-bulb moment when he used his girlfriend’s bath oil to shave and for once wasn’t left with a rash. Inspired, he took a £15,000 loan to set up a company called KMI and launched King of Shaves’ shaving oil as its first product.
The same year he cut a deal with Harrods, but selling was difficult. Figures for the first year totalled a pitiful £300 and the company made a £30,000 loss. But King used his marketing nous to crack a deal with Boots a year later.
Six years on, with King of Shaves finally performing well, King decided to let it fly solo and demerged the brand from KMI in a £4m deal. His business partner, Herbie Dayal, took over the parent company.
King’s marketing background has been put to good use at King of Shaves. He knows how to make headlines. In a genius bout of ambush marketing he shaved 1,000 tennis balls and distributed them at Wimbledon. In 2011 he made a spoof of The King’s Speech to take a dig at Gillette.
There’s something Bransonesque about King. He’s seems wired into the DNA of his brand – like Branson is to Virgin – and throws cheesy marketing one-liners at you: “King of Shaves is the iPhone of razors.” and “When I’m not shaving people’s lives, I like sailing”.
He owns 30% of the business and says he gets approached for acquisitions “every now and then”. In 2010, Japanese technology company Kai Industries took a 21% stake in the business.
The company made a pre-tax loss of £1.2m over the 17 months to 31 May 2012 and is expecting to turnover £10.2m this year.
But King isn’t worried. “We’ve spent £2m to £3m a year in research and development, patents and IP to launch a cracking product next year and we’ll be alright when the new product comes out.”
King of Shaves was founded at the tail end of the nineties recession. That didn’t stop King from exporting however.
“Beards generally grow the same around the world. So, I thought why not get out there and sell a high-quality British brand internationally? The journey’s been bumpy and smooth, but King of Shaves’ products are now on store shelves of more than seven countries.”
“‘Just do it. Impossible is nothing” is what he believes in and that’s what’s helped King of Shaves to grow into a cool brand.
King’s first stop for exporting was the USA. After getting a cold shoulder from American retailers for a few years, in 2000 he successfully launched his range in Target, a general merchandise store. Today, the brands are available in American retailers including Remington, CVS, Albertsons and Walgreens.
“The big US of A is the dream isn’t it? Us Britons assume that everyone speaks English in the States so it’ll be the easiest market to sell in. But what they don’t realise it that it’s probably the world’s most developed market with gigantic players. Buying media real estate for advertising there means spending millions of dollars per minute.
“It took a really long time to build relationships with buyers in the store chains. But then again, it’s rare that you’ll see success straight away so we’re gradually growing our position in the country.”
He cracked New Zealand in 1998, Australia in 2003, South Africa in 2009, Brazil in 2010 and Turkey this year.
King tells me that it wasn’t exactly “eeny, meeny, miney, mo” to pick and choose the countries he wants to export to. It’s about “finding the right partner to deal with in the country.”
“Take Brazil and Turkey for example, retailers there were very keen to take a cool and stylish British brand as they see the UK as a manufacturing place of excellence. There is a language barrier but we deal with it through shelf stickers or, in some cases, packs done in foreign languages like Portuguese in Brazil.”
Being the marketing maverick that he is, publicity and promotion for these products in foreign countries isn’t an ordeal for King. He knows that Facebook pages and YouTube accounts aren’t enough to get his brand going, so he launched KingOfGames.co.uk, an “advergames” website that hosts theme-based games.
“One of the games featured a famous footballer and has been played over 110 million times among which 10 million plays are from Turkey and six million from Brazil. So a bit of innovation and clever marketing and the brand reaches out to people.”
Ask him about future markets and he speaks of only those he’s not interested in.“I’ve been looking at India strategically. But you know most Indians don’t have a lot of money while very few per cent do have a lot of money.
“To attract them means competing with brands like Gillette who have a big foothold there.”
What does the UK need to do to boost exports?
We’ve all heard David Cameron banging on about exporting being the golden ticket for the UK’s way out of recession. He’s beckoned Britain to a challenge of doubling exports to £1 trillion and increasing the number of firms exporting by 100,000 by 2020.
Companies like King of Shaves are taking their brands to the world, but what will encourage other companies to follow suit?
King thinks that after the Olympics, British companies should unabashedly shout their skills from rooftops.
“What the UK now needs to do is say, ‘We’ve done great in Britain and we can do this in your country’. Also, we need to lobby the government to stop making delays on infrastructure plans. There should be an airport in the Thames Estuary and an HS2 link up to the north to help Britons manufacture and attract foreign trade.”
He wants a manufacturing and exporting hub, much like London’s Silicon Roundabout, to encourage “next gen entrepreneurs with clever ideas to make everything from robots to the next Facebook.”
Does he think business secretary Vince Cable is doing a good job to boost exports?
“You see, politicians aren’t business people, they are politicians. They will of course want to get re-elected, whether it’s the Tories, Labour Party or the Lib Dems.
“Maybe we should have someone younger and more dynamic than Vince Cable. – Someone
who understands where the world economies are heading. We need a good leader to help us export out of recession.
But can the UK really export its way out of recession? Isn’t that a tad bit too ambitious?
“Look, the world has a six billion people,” he replies. “Of those six billion, let’s say 5.5 billion don’t have money because of the downturn. But half a billion do, that’s still a huge proportion – so why can’t you sell to them? We shouldn’t sit and mope over the doom and gloom, we should go, get out there and get our brands to other countries.”
Ask King about his future plans and product launches and he gives the classic “If I told you I’d have to kill you” answer.
However, one thing’s for sure, he’s going to continue to keep the pot boiling to beat Gillette. But will he ever succeed?
“Maybe not in my lifetime,” he admits. “Look, King of Shaves is 19-years-old, Gillette is over 119 years old. We shave about one million people in the UK, Gillette shaves around 16 million people in the UK.
“We’re a fraction of Gillette’s size. But then again, Apple was once a fraction of Nokia’s size in mobile phones…”.
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