It’s not uncommon for a founder to leave their enterprise. But returning? That’s a different story. After all, they left for a reason, right? So how much say should they have in their old company once they’ve quit?
When it comes to the topic of a founder leaving the business to return at a later date, there’s a real standout example: Steve Jobs. The Apple co-founder was famously ousted by the board – or quit, depending on whose version of events you believe – only to find himself back in the business as CEO several years later and we all know how successful the company became on the back of that rehire. And now, the UK has now witnessed some high-profile boardroom dramatics of its own.
In a real turn of events, Superdry co-founder Julian Dunkerton, who left the business in 2018, has returned to helm the ailing fashion retailer – but not without resistance. Having appointed former Co-op boss Euan Sutherland to take over from him as CEO in 2014, Dunkerton’s focus was on branding before he departed. But, still in possession of 18% of shares, the founder has been discontent with Superdry’s decline in his 12-month absence which is why he's fought to reenter the company.
Seemingly it was quite the battle. Dunkerton reportedly declared “enough is enough” following dismal financials at the end of last year. He appeared to have stern words for his successor too, as he said at the time: “If you believe you are a brand, you have to think like a brand. If you want to think like a supermarket, go and work in a supermarket.”
Although there was reluctance from board members and Sutherland to reinstate Dunkerton, a shareholder vote was taken at the start of April 2019 and the founder was finally given the green light to return as interim CEO. “We look forward to rebuilding the Superdry brand and the business,” said Dunkerton in a statement. It wasn’t a smooth process but it raises the question, just how much say should a founder have once they’ve left the business?
Mark Fry, head of BTG Advisory
When a founder of a business moves on to pastures new, they’ll often keep an eye on “their” business as they’ve put so much stock into its success. It isn’t often a previous founder will return but leadership is always under scrutiny to perform in companies controlled by shareholders. If that hasn’t happened then any change, including returning to the leadership which established success in the first place, is always possible. However, in a changing space such as retail it doesn’t mean the same formula will turn around fortunes.
Rita Trehan, CEO of Dare Worldwide
Does the upside potential in bringing back someone with historical knowledge and a deep understanding of the brand outweigh the risk of clinging on to a past view and time that may be out of sync with the changing world of retail? The question remains to be answered. A lot of work needs to be done to salvage the brand but Dunkerton’s knowledge of the market, Superdry’s business processes and connections within fashion and manufacturing will be critical to answering the question that bringing back the founder was the right call.
Carl Reader, chairman of d&t
A founder of a company has no divine right to step into the business at any point in its future. That’s the main premise of my argument. Whilst the founder might believe that their way is the best way, businesses grow and evolve. The way that they evolve does not necessarily fit – or indeed need to fit – in with the way that the founder would see it. So, sometimes the founder may be able to add something, sometimes they can’t. Fundamentally though, the founder doesn’t have the power or the right to step back in.
David Farquharson, co-founder and partner at Ignition Law
There must be mutual understanding in the interests of all parties. Often the acquirer wants to nail down client and supplier relationships as quickly as possible to stamp their own mark on things. However, this can overlook the fact that an important part of the company’s success has been its historic culture, which the founder is likely to have had a significant role in developing and maintaining. Failure to appreciate this and to appropriately incentivise a founder to remain close – but not too close – can prove to be an expensive mistake.
Rob Moore, host of the Disruptive Entrepreneur podcast
Julian has the experience of traveling the world over decades to build a deep intuition about fashion, retail and trends. He built various retail businesses from the ground up over more than three decades. It would be very unlikely that anyone would know as much about how to take Superdry into the future. He has a deep passion for the brand, a love for general business and a heart to lead and serve great business in Britain. He has flair and passion but also grounding and a cost-saving eye.