Peter Cowgill: the force behind a fashion phenomenon

Peter Cowgill became the accountant for a small sports shop in the Pennines in the early 1980s. Now, JD Sports is one of the most formidable forces on the high street. Jane Lewis reports

Peter Cowgill
(Image credit: © JD Sports)

When two youthful entrepreneurs, John Wardle and David Makin, opened their first sports shop in the Pennine village of Mossley in 1981, they aimed to sell what they wore on the terraces of Manchester City’s old Maine Road ground. John David Sports, as it was then known, “was never a typical sports shop”, the company’s long-standing PR man told the Financial Times. “It was terrace wear: Sergio Tacchini, Lacoste, Fred Perry.” And therein lay the seeds of the “athleisure” movement that has since swept through retail.

Another early JD Sports associate was Peter Cowgill, a then 30-something accountant whose firm, Cowgill Holloway, was hired to do the books. Cowgill, now 67, is still a senior partner of the accounting firm. But the straight-talking Lancastrian has become better known as the transformative force behind JD Sports’ quiet rise to become one of the most formidable forces on the British high street. Taken on as finance director to help float the company in 1996, he became its “all-powerful executive chairman” in 2004, says The Sunday Times. Since then, JD Sports’ shares have soared by 7,000%, making the group worth around £8.2bn. “That’s £5.8bn more than Frasers”, the parent group of Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct.

Besting Mike Ashley

Ashley is reputed to have pledged “to destroy JD Sports”. If so, he isn’t making a very good job of it. While his Sports Direct initially “bulldozed rivals with its pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap strategy”, Cowgill’s strategy of making JD stores “smart destinations” for quality brands, particularly Nike and Adidas, is the one that has paid dividends. Growth in athleisure has outpaced the wider apparel market in recent years, according to Euromonitor. And sports footwear – “the crack cocaine of athleisure” and JD’s stock in trade – has grown even faster. As Cowgill once observed: “If there’s one person running past the pub in trainers, there will be ten wearing them inside”.

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Not much is known about Cowgill’s early life beyond the fact that he was educated at Manchester’s De La Salle Grammar School and then the University of Hull (unlike Ashley’s copious Wikipedia entry, his is just a “stub”). Indeed, in a sector dominated by “big personalities and even bigger feuds”, Cowgill is sometimes “overshadowed”, observed Retail Week in 2009. “He is more cerebral than other characters. He is very canny,” noted one industry watcher back then. But, in private at least, “I don’t think you can accuse him of being quiet”. On the contrary, says The Sunday Times, Cowgill is “a bluff, gruff” character who says his hobbies are “blondes and Barbados” and has the throaty laugh of a man who “eats Benson & Hedges for breakfast”.

The un-accountant accountant

Described by one associate as “the most un-accountant-like accountant I know”, Cowgill is “a one-off”: capable of going “through all the receipts” one minute, and then pulling off a big takeover the next, says the FT. Of late, he’s been focusing this deal-making nous on international markets. JD Sports now has more stores outside the UK – in France, Spain, the Netherlands and Australia – than in it. In 2018 the acquisition of the American chain Finish Line marked the start of a crack at the US market – traditionally a graveyard for UK retailers, says The Independent. “Cowgill might just be the magician to pull it off.”

Certainly, for the moment, the trend is his friend. One US fashion historian recently described the lockdown vogue for athleisure brands as the “great-grandchild” of the way the English upper classes wore tweed sporting suits as “status signifiers”, says The Times. If so, JD Sports has the equivalent of the royal warrant.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.