Nick Beighton is one of the most successful people in British retail, the man credited with transforming Asos from a mid-level clothing website to a £3.8bn, international fashion behemoth. But sometimes, it can be difficult to grasp exactly what – if anything – he is saying.
“If you don’t get something wrong regularly, you’ll never actually learn,” he opines, and: “You don’t always see the clarity of the future.” Every response could be a line from a Ted talk, or one of Mark Zuckerberg’s letters to the world.
“I’m nothing like Mark Zuckerberg,” he retorts, flatly. “I grew up in the East Midlands.”
Like Zuckerberg, however, he grew a Noughties brand into something that defined how millions of people used the internet. And like Facebook, Asos has been criticised for its effects on the wider world.
As one of the world’s biggest “fast fashion” websites, Asos grew rapidly on globalised supply chains. But the labour practices and environmental damage elsewhere in these chains has caused consumers to reconsider the true cost of cheap clothes, and rising prices have squeezed retailers’ margins. Missguided fell into administration at the end of May; Asos’s shares have tanked by 83 per cent in a year. Love Island, which has since 2015 been backed by fast-fashion brands, is now sponsored by eBay to promote second-hand style. Is fast fashion dying? “You sometimes don’t judge the quality of the brand by the scoreboard” is Beighton’s enigmatic response.
But surely he must feel some personal responsibility for fast fashion’s impact on the environment? “You’re looking at the lens the wrong way,” he told me. “Many people have said, do you ever regret encouraging people to buy more clothes? And I’m like, no, I don’t.”
An accountant by training, Beighton spent almost a decade at KPMG; he only moved into fashion when he joined Matalan in 1998. But then, in 2009, he joined Asos as its chief financial officer. At the time, the company was nine years old, had fewer than 200 employees and group revenues were just £223m.
In 2015 he was appointed chief executive, taking over from the company’s founder, Nick Robertson; by the time Beighton left in October last year, Asos had ballooned, with websites in 12 markets, more than 3,000 employees and group revenues of £3.9bn – a “journey” that, Beighton enthuses, “was something I never really focused on. It was just like, every month, we reset and went again, I didn’t know what was behind us.”
Nine months after his departure from Asos, Beighton has now started a new role as chairman at Secret Sales, a sort of online outlet village where high-end brands sell excess stock at cut prices, and where he plans to pursue a similarly aggressive strategy of international expansion.
This time, however, he will be doing it without the scrutiny of running a public company. He admits that is a relief. “I don’t mind scrutiny because scrutiny is also good,” he observes.
When he talks about e-commerce, his tone shifts from Zuckerberg to Jeff Bezos: “The core purpose of Asos was to great create amazing customer experience, create amazing products and fashion, deliver it in a seamless manner, and that’s the only thing I really got out of bed to do… And I’m looking forward to helping Secret Sales stay on that journey.”
Beighton took the reins at Asos during a rocky period for the brand. During his time as chief executive, its share price fluctuated, rising above £75 in 2018 before dipping back down to £24 as the company faced troubles with new warehouses in Germany and the US, and rising competition in the form of Boohoo, Missguided and PrettyLittleThing.
The pandemic changed its fortunes again: shares leaped above £57 in April 2021 as lockdown fuelled a surge in online shopping, and bored teenagers, stuck in their bedrooms, took to TikTok and Instagram to post their “hauls”. Then came the other effect of the pandemic: the supply chain crisis, which pushed up the price of production and caused shipping costs to soar. It had a torrid effect on the company, which offered free returns and free next-day delivery to those paying a £10-a-year premier subscription.
At the same time as Beighton announced his intention to step down in October, Asos issued a profit warning, saying pre-tax profits in 2022 would be “substantially lower” than a year earlier. Ian Dyson, who had only just been appointed chair, said Beighton was stepping down because he “felt that he had to commit to another six years or so for our next strategy and that wasn’t something he could commit to”. Beighton didn’t feel his “heart was in it”, he added. You might say he had had enough of the “journey”.
Beighton’s departure has clearly been a loss to Asos: the company has taken eight months to replace him, only hiring a new chief executive, the current chief commercial officer José Antonio Ramos Calamonte, this month. When we spoke, Ramos Calamonte had not yet been named – but Beighton said the “internal candidate” who had been the subject of “the latest chatter in the media” was a “wise choice for the brand” – “he’s a smart, charismatic, yet humble leader”. We can only speculate that it was Ramos Calamonte he was describing in such generous terms: later, when I asked his press representative to confirm whether Ramos Calamonte was indeed the person Beighton was talking about, I was told that “Nick would rather his answer was just kept with: ‘I am aware of an internal candidate who would be an excellent fit for the role’”.
Beighton’s biggest success was perhaps getting into the heads of his Gen-Z employees and customers. That led to policies like miscarriage leave, parental leave for both men and women, and menopause leave, which earned the company praise in the press and on social media. (“All of those things were like, guys, we’ve got to help you in moments in your life,” he trills. “It was the cultural vibe that was really important.”)
He also claims to have been “early doors with fashion integrity”, although Asos’s free returns policy has been criticised for encouraging waste.
But then, perhaps it is exactly this ability to make such airy claims – to talk like a 20-something fashionista rather than a 50-something accountant – that is the key to his success. He prefers to attribute it to his colleagues, sort of: “You stand in the shoes of the people that are creating the product, and you encourage them, and you empower them to fly.”