An audience with a King

Posted on 12 Aug 2010 by The Manufacturer

Will King is punctual, laid back and dressed-down. There has been a lot of press coverage lately about the man behind the King of Shaves shaving brand, but I had not read much of it and was expecting to meet a ‘typical’ successful businessman in a sharp suit. Will King is not a typical anything. Having been made redundant in 1991 he started his own business marketing American clothing in the UK.

He quickly became interested in developing a new shaving medium, a shaving oil. Maverick and unconventional, despite misgivings from some quarters who thought he was mad, he launched a small business during the previous recession that dared to take on the undisputed might of the twin global shaving colossi Gillette and Schick-Wilkinson Sword. Fast-forward 16 years and today King of Shaves (KoS) is an international company with a multi-million pound turnover, second only to Gillette in the UK shaving preparation market and has — with the new Azor razor — what King expects to be a 10% market share of the highly valuable system razor market in the UK by the end of 2009. But it could all have been so different.

Scanning the opening chapters of Will King’s new book, How to Build a Great Business in Tough Times, what strikes you is that here is a guy from a pretty unremarkable background, with unspectacular academic results, who was bullied at school, who could have led a pretty ordinary life. Two things changed all that: sailing and shaving. Sailing made the young King realise he was good at something, and that he could love ‘the satisfaction of success’, as he sailed competitively and won events. Shaving, perhaps more by accident than design, became his focus and raison d’etre. He figured oil would be a good medium as a shaving lubricant — “oil lubricates machinery, so why not skin?”. The initial motivation was not to get rich but to perfect something. Indeed, in his book he says “few entrepreneurs set out to make loads of cash at any cost.. the most successful entrepreneurs view cash generation as simply a by-product of doing something extremely well.” While some entrepreneurs might disagree, King does not strike you as someone motivated purely by success and money. Discussing the rationale for a shaving oil, and the unique selling points of the Azor razor, it is clear he is a deep thinker, motivated by the desire to carry out his ideas for the sake of proving them right or wrong.

The book’s first chapters paint the picture of a very modest man with a somewhat troubled school life.

How did he become the King of Shaves?

The Eureka moment

Being made redundant galvanised King’s resolve to pursue something closer to his heart than selling advertising. He has sensitive skin and had always suffered from shaving rash. Shaving foam was the dominant male grooming product, which “was fit for purpose but certainly not great,” King says. Essentials oils were just getting a foothold with brands like Tisserand and Body Shop. Knowing a bit about the lubricious qualities of oils from his engineering studies, he summised that oil would relieve the pain of shaving.

And so it proved. “Foam is an aerated mass of surfactant, most of which is not in contact with the skin and does not lubricate. Oil is great because it spreads out over the skin surface and lubricates.” With time on his hands, he started to mix up shaving oil formulas, which trashed his bathroom and tested his girlfriend’s patience for several months. The trick was to perfect the oil formula to function as a good lubricant while not gunging-up the razor so it would rinse under a running tap. He hand bottled the first 10,000 bottles himself owing to cash-flow constraints (i.e none).

The marketing strategy was short penetration, long reputation — he targeted Harrods as the first stockist.

King knew the volume would come from a retailer like Boots and went specifically after them.

Building a brand

For further marketing, King relied mainly on word of mouth. This was pre-internet and there was no advertising budget. If you used the product and didn’t get razor burn, he says: “Men are funny creatures, when they come across something that’s great or horrific, often they feel the need to share that experience with their mates. And that’s exactly what happened.” The King of Shaves shaving oil brand, which was simply one product for the first two years on a Boots and Harrods shelf, grew by word of mouth. The internet arrived in 1995 and it grew by ‘word of mouse’ — one of numerous ‘Willisms’ King has coined, several of which are wry takes on established business management jargon. Other big retailers like Tesco and Sainsbury came on board. At this point Knowledge Merchants International (KMI), the company he cofounded with business partner Herbie Dayal, realised their KoS product was becoming a brand and introduced a second shaving oil, also made in the UK by contract manufacturers, which had added aloe and vitamin E and therefore better for the skin. In 1996 KMI introduced a low foam shaving gel based on aloe, with oil held in microcapsules, designed to apply a thin coating of aloe-rich foam on the face with oil mixed in, so “you don’t have to look like Santa Claus.”

Buoyed by the success of the shaving oil, further innovations and products followed. In 1996 KMI released its AlphaGel — which has won about 20 consumer awards since then — and a skincare range, by which time KMI had a “critical mass” of eight products on the shelves of Boots. In 1998 the company signed a fragrance deal with design brand Ted Baker, which while largely made in the UK, had a specific manufacturing requirement that made KMI source the glass bottles from a French company.

“The minimum quantities on those are 25,000-50,000 units and you simply can’t get them made in the UK, whereas you can in northern France because of the wine bottle industry,” says King.

Probably the biggest event for King’s company in recent years, in June 2008 KMI launched the Azor razor — the first system razor to be designed, developed and majority manufactured in the UK for 100 years. As a manufacturing proposition this was a quantum leap from making software like oils and consumed five years of King’s life. “People expected it to be called King of Blades, as we owned that trademark as well. Ninety per cent of the manufacture of the razor and packaging is done in the UK, some components like the blades need to be imported, again because the manufacture simply doesn’t exist in the UK,” says King. The Azor is being sold in Australia, Japan, the US, Spain and elsewhere, and will be launched in South Africa in October. King expects it to occupy 10% of the UK system razor (razors with replaceable heads) market by the end of the year, a remarkable achievement given its nascence in a market so dominated by Gillette and Schick-Wilkinson Sword, companies with a combined market capitalisation of $62bn (at April 2009).

Manufacturing learning curve

KMI Ltd — which demerged to form King of Shaves Ltd earlier this year — is what Will calls a ‘virtually integrated business’. “We own everything; the trade marks, the patents, the design ideas, the marketing, the command and control part of the business. But then we own nothing; we don’t have a factory, we work with partner companies who are able to fill up their lines with our products and we don’t have to worry about having our own factory, stocking our inventory and running down lines 24/7 — which is what manufacturing is all about.” The virtually integrated model allows King of Shaves to be very flat, with 20 employees, while making millions of units of products (see box on UPL).

Making the Azor system razor put King into completely new territory. Shaving hardware had become increasingly technical and innovative, with vibrating heads, trimmers and up to six blades to offer an even closer shave than the 5-blade precursor. But was the shaving performance really improving, commensurate with the price? (Gillette’s 4-blade Fusion used to retail for nearly twice the cost of a 3-blade Mach 3 but was never as successful). With the shaving software business, King was well-placed to investigate the razor market, but this feature-versus-value conundrum appealed to his inquisitive as well as his business mind. The ability to ask why, and to question the accepted wisdom is a strong character trait that pops up throughout his book. But getting into this market would not be easy — global system razor technology is ringfenced by about 20,000 patents, he says. In the end, Azor was such a challenge King stepped back from his day-to-day job as CEO of KMI to focus on it. The investment was very high, partly because of the tooling needed. “It’s got to be a 32-up tool or a 64-up tool to make the handle and plastic components. I basically spent five years learning how to design and make this product,” he says. He set up a project team, Project Tomahawk, which sucked in the best engineering knowledge they could find from around the world. He appointed a project director who came from software company Oracle, a managing director Andy Hill, a chairman (Dayal) and “immersed myself in the nuances of developing a razor that would shave people as close, and last longer and cost less, than the competition. And it just took a lot of time — and a lot of faith from the shareholders and belief from the team that it would launch.”

The contract manufacturer

King of Shaves does not manufacture inhouse but contract manufactures. As orders for KoS products grew, King and partner Herbie Dayal needed a reliable and innovative manufacturer to make new product lines.

Through Peter Wallis, a consultant who had worked on the shaving oil production, in 1995 they were introduced to Mike Peters, owner of a leading contract manufacturer Universal Products Manufacturing (Lytham) Ltd (UPL), in Lytham, Lancs.

Peters agreed to help the pair develop and produce their AlphaGel and new skincare range. In his book King says that, fourteen years on, he is “delighted that Mike and UPL continues to be one of our key partners today, always willing to go the extra mile to develop new products and ideas, even if they don’t hit the shelves or sell what we expect of them.” Today UPL makes about 90% of KoS software, i.e.

shaving oils and gels. Peters values the relationship highly. “We have a long-standing relationship based on mutual respect and honesty. If something becomes an issue, it will be put on the table and it is discussed honestly on both sides. There’s a level of integrity from both sides that I find unusual in business these days,” he says.

Nevertheless, working with King is not always straightforward, and Peters laughs at the timing of one request. About 10 years ago, having spent a fortune on a special vacuum tank to remove unwanted air from creams and gels, King asks UPL to develop a shaving gel… with bubbles in it. They developed the gel for KoS. “It’s a pleasure to do business with Will, but it can be hard work,” says Peters. “A conversation with him about, for example bubbles in gel, can change direction 10 times before we return to the actual gel. He has a massive flow of energy and creativity but frankly it can be exhausting! To sum Will King up in three words: energy, integrity and charisma.”

The Shaving bond

King of Shaves is not a publically listed company but it does have shareholders, or rather bondholders. Earlier this year, King wanted to raise about £5m for marketing without taking equity out of the company or drawing debt finance. The solution was the innovative shaving bond. This is a three year, fixed interest rate, nontransferable, non-convertible savings bond, paying 6% per annum. It was open to the public, issued in 2008 and subscription is now closed. Individuals could apply for up to £5,000 worth of Shaving Bonds in multiples of £1,000. Bond investors received a limited edition Shaving Bond certificate, as well as exclusive, free King of Shaves products for the duration of the Bond.

The Bond proceeds will be used entirely on marketing the King of Shaves shaving brand. It was a novel and imaginative way to raise capital without involving a bank — a broker helped run the book, and King of Shaves underwrites the money. King subscribes to the view that people naturally mistrust the novel and the different, he says that is why some quarters of the media and financial press criticized the mini-bond as a gimmick. Without knowing the whole story, the Bond is fully subscribed so it can’t have been a total flop.

Shaving overseas

The easiest thing to say at this point, if you’re still reading and are interested in the King of Shaves story, is “read Will King’s book”. It’s a page-turner and there is value, humour and humanity on every page. It is a guide for budding entrepreneurs to try the Will King take on life and business, and the chapter on the development of the Azor alone is a worthwhile guide on getting radical (in terms of ambition) product from conception to market. Looking ahead, King has high expectations for KoS oil, gel, skincare and Azor products in the US. In November, he is off to launch the Azor in South Africa and there are several auxiliary projects ticking over which is occupying his time and imagination. Will King is a man who came from humble roots, got stung, and devoted his time and labour to soothing that sting, building one or two international brands along the way.

He is a one-time loner, maverick, marketeer, designer, manufacturer, dog lover and yachtsman rolled into one — someone who questions the natural order who was confident and/or belligerent enough to try out a fresh angle on a product group widely accepted as untouchable. He is also a Suffolk boy, so he can’t be too bad. Happy sailing, Will.