Still standing

The year 2013 will mark King of Shaves’ 20th birthday. The past two decades haven't been smooth sailing, but with founder Will King’s firm hand on the tiller, the business has survived and thrived – becoming one of the UK’s favourite home-grown brands

Still standing

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or so the old adage goes. Having founded King of Shaves in a recession, and survived another, it’s fair to say entrepreneur Will King has grit and determination in spades. He also has staying power. Whereas many of his contemporaries starting out in the early 90s have either sold up or gone bust, King is still at the helm of the company he founded. And his enthusiasm shows no sign of waning, as his business – now two separate companies – is all grown up with a combined revenue of £22m. 

As a child himself, King wasn’t quite so cool. Born to teacher parents, King was the eldest of three boys. He attended Kirkley High in Lowestoft – where his father was the head of the sports department. “I didn’t have much fun as a teacher’s child,” confides King. “I was bullied a bit.”

Then, when he was in his mid-teens, he discovered more of a sense of purpose after his father introduced him to sailing. King went on to become a instructor and won a national sailing title in 1983 in a laser – an Olympic-class dinghy. 

Having fluffed his A-levels, King attended Portsmouth Polytechnic (now Portsmouth University) to study mechanical engineering. “It was hard work,” he recalls. “We had 39-hour weeks and half a day off on Wednesday when I went sailing.” It wasn’t an easy transition for him. “In the first year, I hated it. I tried to run away on Simon Le Bon’s around-the-world yacht that my mates were building in Cowes in 1984.”

He missed the boat on that occasion – a crew had already been selected – so he returned to university until his graduation in 1987. At this point, his parents were eager for him to get a job: “They said, ‘Get off our payroll’,” he recalls. “I knew I wouldn’t be an engineer because my maths wasn’t good enough and I didn’t really have a passion for it. And there weren’t many career options around sailing, unless you were good enough to compete professionally.”

King’s parents gave him their Media section of the Guardian newspaper where there was a listing for a job selling advertising space on Marketing magazine, a Haymarket publication. So he moved from Lowestoft to Tooting Broadway in south London, travelling to work in west London every day.

“This was the late 1980s, so there was nothing like Google or social media. All you had was a rollerdex and a phone,” he recalls. The learnings from his first sales job were invaluable, he says. “It taught me how to speak to people over the phone. That stood me in good stead for when I came to found King of Shaves and needed to pick up the phone to then-Harrods owner Mr Al Fayed.”

After seven months selling advertising on Marketing for £409 a month, King was headhunted to work for a small conference and event production company. He stayed there for a year, learning the ropes, before he was poached again in 1989 to work for a larger company operating in the same field.

This meant bigger events, bigger clients – and a bigger paycheck. King had gone from earning £7,000 a year in his first role, to £23,000 at Hedges Wright Creative. “I had a Peugeot 205 GTi and a big wage for my age. I bought myself a flat in Streatham. Things were good.”

But the good times can only last so long. The recession of the early 1990s began to bite as companies scaled back conferences and glitzy product launches. “The company I worked for employed 120 people, had a lot of company cars and a lot of overheads – and suddenly the work dried up.”

King ended up being the last man standing at the company, and was handed the reins to make decisions with people’s futures – a level of responsibility the 26-year old felt uncomfortable with. “I ended up being the de facto managing director and had to make people twice my age redundant who had kids at private school.” Eventually, the management consultants came in and closed the business down altogether.

As the lights went off at Hedges Wright Creative, King was already thinking about how running his own business could offer more security. He decided his future wasn’t going to be in advertising or marketing and began considering product ideas. “I decided to be the master of my own destiny, but also to make things because it felt to me the tangibility of creating something was a little surer, a little more secure.”

He came up with two ideas. His first business was to be called Animal Republic Survival Gear, which sold T-shirts screen-printed with an animal skin via a process out of LA. The idea failed when the supplier proved to be too flaky. The second idea was to create a shaving oil to be applied underneath traditional foam. This was to become King of Shaves’ first product. 

Having designed the oil and hand-filled the bottles, King was all but decided on the product name ‘Sunrise’ – the rationale being that men usually shave in the mornings. But as he played cards with his father one afternoon, King senior devised a far superior name. “He turned over the king of spades and suggested that perhaps I should call it King of Shaves instead,” recalls King. “So it’s really my dad I’ve got to thank.” 

The product grew in popularity, slowly but surely. It was launched into upmarket department stores Harrods and Bentalls in 1993, Boots in 1994, Tesco in 1995, Sainsbury’s in 1996 and Asda at 1998. “It gradually grew at a time when men’s grooming was really a very hot topic,” says King. 

It was when dealing with large retailers that his confidence in speaking to senior decision-makers paid dividends. “I knew the value of persistence and that you just had to get on and do it.” His doggedness paid off: with just his fox terriers to keep him company, he grew his men’s grooming business from a spare bedroom. 

As his business grew, so too did his family. He married his long-term partner in 1997, and two years later they welcomed son Cameron into the fold. By this point, the business was looking fairly solid: the year of the nuptials King of Shaves turned over £1.25m. “By the time Cameron was born, the business was doing really well – we were able to take regular holidays and enjoy our time together,” he says. “I was lucky enough to be offered some land in Grenada in the Caribbean, so I built a villa there.”

Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t grow as solidly as the business and the couple were divorced in 2008. King went on to meet advertising mogul Tiger Savage (co-creator of the Lynx effect, no less) and they married in the spring of this year. 

The business too has gone through a few substantial structural changes since its induction. Aside from the King of Shaves range, parent group KMI also designed and launched other brands. Its first was launching Ted Baker fragrances in 1998. And it didn’t limit itself to fragrances either – in 2001 it launched a haircare range called Fish and in 1993 bought bodycare brand Naked. 

But as the two arms of the company grew and grew, it was decided to separate the businesses entirely, with King heading up the King of Shaves business and partner (and early investor) Herbie Dayal taking the reins at KMI. With King of Shaves accounting for £10.2m revenue and KMI more than £11m, “it was about a £22m business when we demerged King of Shaves”, says King. No small feat for a company that started out just flogging shaving oil.

But although the company began with just oil, it soon diversified into other shaving ‘software’ in 1996 with a skincare range and shaving gel. In 2001, a women’s range was launched and in 2008 the real landmark moment came with the release of its Azor: a razor featuring what King calls ‘bendology technology’, or ‘car suspension for a razor’. 

This was another way for King to take on what he refers to as the shaving ‘duopoly’ – the stranglehold that Gillette and Wilkinson Sword have on the shaving market. He has been very keen over the years to express his disapproval of the mark-ups by the grooming behemoths. He once even appeared in a YouTube video standing on a soapbox at Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, delivering a tongue-in-cheek pun-laden speech about “stealth shaving taxes”. 

“If you’re making a refill cartridge for 10p and then the consumer is being asked to pay £3.50 for it in Sainsbury’s, even taking into account VAT and the retailer margin, there is an extraordinary profit being made,” King explains. “In 1993, we launched our shaving oil at £2.99. It’s still at £2.99.” He compares this with his competitor’s elevation of prices. “In 1992, Gillette sold a Sensor Excel cartridge for 49p. It’s now £3.50. That’s very margin rich but it’s also extraordinarily costly for consumers.”

It’s safe to say that King of Shaves has always been the underdog of the shaving market – and is likely to continue to be so for the foreseeable future. But this means that King and his team have to be increasingly innovative around their marketing and branding strategies. Just last year, the company posted a video of King in a parody of the King’s Speech. While some could describe it as cringeworthy, it certainly stays true to the company’s values and certain brand of humour.

“Of course I’m poking fun at myself a bit. It’s quite self-deprecating,” acknowledges King. “But hopefully it does allow me to get the brand across to consumers in a way that my competitors can’t,” he explains. “Besides, I think humour has never been needed more than now, what with everything the world is going through.”

King is searingly frank about the impact of the global recession on his business and consumer markets. The company is growing well, but unlike many business leaders, who wax lyrical about their ‘optimism’, King is refreshingly honest about the impact of the recession. “The retailers are incredibly tough to deal with at the moment,” he admits. The market has changed irrevocably as a result of the limp economic climate of the past few years, he argues. “Just look at the discounts that are being offered to consumers in fashion, or the pre-Christmas sales – we never used to have those.”

And while the customer may think they’ve struck gold with these mega-sales and deals, they take their toll on the suppliers, King says. “If you see a 50% off deal, or a buy one get one free offer, that costs suppliers a lot of money,” he explains. “You’ve got to play games, or you won’t be on the shelf. That just doesn’t do much for the profitability of the business at this moment in time.”

One advantage that King of Shaves has is that it is a business born in the recession of the early 1990s. It was set up on a shoestring. King knows what it means to bootstrap and to hunker down and tough it out. “So many businesses I’ve seen set up since the mid- or late-1990s and 2006 have gone to the wall because they only ever saw the good times. And that’s not reality.”

But he’s also looking to the future with the next stage in the company’s development – the launch of the business’s second razor early next year. King is tight-lipped about what exactly it’ll look like, but he is comparing its release to “what the iPhone did to phones with buttons”. Watch this space indeed.

When not standing on soapboxes philosophising about about shaving or coming up with new products, King spends a significant portion of his life helping young entrepreneurs realise their ambitions. One of his current mentees is Stuart Jolley, founder of face and body wipe maker Wingman. “I’m young at heart and I enjoy hanging out with young people and seeing what they’re getting up to,” he says. 

Business and mentoring aside, King’s social life is also getting a bit of boost since he moved back to the Big Smoke after 20 years in the countryside. “I’m just enjoying life with my gorgeous wife,” he says, happily. “We go to lots of events together in London and have lots of fun together. Just enjoying life, really.” 

Hannah Prevett
Hannah Prevett

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