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

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”. 

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. 

Recommended

Bitcoin is down more than 50% since its all-time high. What is going on?
Bitcoin & crypto

Bitcoin is down more than 50% since its all-time high. What is going on?

Bitcoin, the world's most popular cryptocurrency, is trading more than 50% below its all-time high in November. Saloni Sardana explains why the digita…
24 Jan 2022
Which assets will benefit as the “jam tomorrow” bubble pops?
Investment strategy

Which assets will benefit as the “jam tomorrow” bubble pops?

With tech stocks, cryptocurrencies and many other “long duration” investments crashing hard, the “jam tomorrow” bubble looks to be bursting. John Step…
24 Jan 2022
Shareholder capitalism: why we must return power to listed companies’ ultimate owners
Investment strategy

Shareholder capitalism: why we must return power to listed companies’ ultimate owners

Under our system of shareholder capitalism it's not fund managers, it‘s the individual investors – the company's ultimate owners – who should be telli…
24 Jan 2022
Guillaume Pousaz of Checkout.com: the surfer dude catching the fintech wave
People

Guillaume Pousaz of Checkout.com: the surfer dude catching the fintech wave

Guillaume Pousaz moved to California to pursue his love of surfing, and landed in Silicon Valley. He then rode the fintech gold rush to a multi-billio…
23 Jan 2022

Most Popular

Shareholder capitalism: why we must return power to listed companies’ ultimate owners
Investment strategy

Shareholder capitalism: why we must return power to listed companies’ ultimate owners

Under our system of shareholder capitalism it's not fund managers, it‘s the individual investors – the company's ultimate owners – who should be telli…
24 Jan 2022
Ask for a pay rise – everyone else is
Inflation

Ask for a pay rise – everyone else is

As inflation bites and the labour market remains tight, many of the nation's employees are asking for a pay rise. Merryn Somerset Webb explains why yo…
17 Jan 2022
Three innovative Asian stocks to buy now
Share tips

Three innovative Asian stocks to buy now

Professional investor Fay Ren of the Cerno Pacific Fund highlights three of her favourite Asian stocks to buy now
24 Jan 2022