Fashion entrepreneurs move on, making room for the next generation

My Week

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The Independent Online

Two fashion websites, two departures of founders this week. While Natalie Massenet chose the merger of Net-A-Porter with its Italian rival Yoox as the right point to slip away, Nick Robertson announced he was standing down as chief executive of Asos.

The coincidences go back further. Both websites were set up in 2000, at the fag-end of the first dotcom boom: one high-end fashion, one far more high street. Both surfed the shift from shop to cyber, despite cynicism that their strategy was flawed. Whoever thought we would buy clothes without trying them on?

For the former journalist Massenet, it is understandable that she did not relish a role at a listed business with all the corporate responsibilities that entails. But it is also true that the merged company looked to have a top-heavy management structure that would need streamlining at some juncture.

Robertson, meanwhile, will remain a  non-executive director at Asos but will have to try hard not to be a back-seat driver. Its shares have been on the wane after an annus horribilis in which he split from his wife and the company suffered a costly fire at its warehouse in Barnsley. But the scale of what Robertson has achieved should not be underestimated. The stock market value of Asos is still nearly three times that of Debenhams.

The point is not the manner of their departure but what happens next. Aside from their obvious wealth – Massenet carries off £100m, Robertson’s stake is close to £200m – both have the expertise to coach the next generation. It is the virtuous circle so commonly seen in America and appearing more and more in the UK. We must ensure that entrepreneurialism never goes out of fashion.

Generation figures don’t stack up

I am indebted to Peter Atherton at the investment bank Jefferies for a piece of worrying reading. Following news that the Eggborough power station in North Yorkshire will close next March, he crunched the numbers on the UK’s dispatchable generation assets – those that can be switched on or off to meet demand.

While the closure of the coal fleet is a necessary step for the greening of the economy, it must be replaced with generating power that can keep the lights on. Unlike coal, some renewable sources remain impossible to power up at short notice because they are dependent on the wind blowing or the sun shining.

Atherton found that between 2010 and 2016, the UK will have built 6,000MW of new dispatchable generation but, including gas-fired and nuclear plants which have closed, will have lost 21,400MW. It means that we go into next winter with not enough dispatchable generation to meet peak demand, increasing the chances of blackouts.

Consider that Eggborough might have been converted to biomass – a more reliable alternative source than wind or solar – but the subsidy was not there. And that the Hinkley Point nuclear plant in Somerset will not start generating power in 2023 as was planned.

The Government insists: “Our top priority is making sure UK families and businesses have secure, affordable energy supplies.” So that’s alright then.

Today’s big thing: finding the next big thing

I spent part of Thursday judging entries to William Hill’s technology accelerator programme – although most of the hard work had been done when I got there. On offer to eight start-ups in London and Tel Aviv was £25,000 of up-front investment plus 12 weeks of mentoring and free office space.

The pitching for WHLabs took place in the offices of WeWork, a Regus for the digital generation, where the music pumps and so does the free lager. It was about as far from the traditional betting shop as you could get.

There were start-ups specialising in voice recognition, payments and data sifting. Most of the applications envisaged a life way beyond the betting world. The key was how they interlinked with Apple or Twitter, or planned to simply outsmart them.

Conscious that the future is digital, big corporates are straining every sinew to bring in new ideas. William Hill already has a “digital innovation hub” in East London. It is not the only blue-chip loosening its tie in this way.

The itch to pitch is rife too. Everyone from John Lewis to the energy company Engie is running programmes to develop the next big thing. Long may it continue.

The ABN that could have been

Congratulations to Barclays, which landed a role on the upcoming flotation of the Dutch bank ABN Amro. ABN was created from the remains of Fortis, the Belgian and Dutch lender that collapsed during the financial crisis. Fortis was one of the three Musketeers that carved up the old ABN in a deal trumpeted as offering “superior value for ABN Amro shareholders – significant benefits for customers and employees” when it was unveiled in 2007.

The other two Musketeers were Royal Bank of Scotland and Santander, the only one to escape collapse when it flipped ABN’s Italian arm to make a speedy profit.

There might have been a very different outcome. If Fred Goodwin and partners hadn’t gatecrashed the party with a higher offer, Barclays was all set to merge with ABN. I was in The Hague for ABN’s annual meeting eight years ago, listening to the rationale for the Barclays merger. Back in London, the then-chief executive, John Varley, was telling shareholders of his ambition to “build one of the best banks in the world”.

Barclays’ investors have had little to cheer over the past few years. They should be grateful for small mercies.

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