Waterstones: values, culture and Amazon

27th March 2019

James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones – which he joined in 2011 to lead its turnaround from losses of £12m to ebitda of £42m in 2018 – speaks at our Top Track 250 alumni dinner for founders and senior directors in London. The dinner was co-hosted by James Brown, partner and Head of Growth, mid-corporate at Grant Thornton, and Fast Track’s founder Hamish Stevenson.  

James emphasised the importance of addressing the values and culture in the bookselling business, as well as its cost base, when he joined in 2011. “Values and culture matter as we are trying to sell a commodity product,” he said. “We had to empower our booksellers, give them autonomy to sell books at the price they want, win back customers and have stores that are vibrant places that people want to visit.”

He explained to our camera how Waterstones has prospered in the face of competition from Amazon and the popularity of ebook readers such as the Kindle by focusing on the calibre of its stores and the expertise of its staff.



James praised the ownership of Russian businessman Alexander Mamut, who bought the company from HMV in 2011 and had the vision to see it could be revived. Last year, Mamut sold a majority stake to US investment firm Elliott Advisors for an undisclosed sum, and James revealed that ebitda profits had continued to rise from £36.9m, on sales of £388m in 2017, to £42m in 2018.

However, he was deeply concerned by the negative impact of Brexit on the UK, both economically and culturally. “In these times, our responsibility as business leaders is to keep employing people, keep on driving our businesses forward, because it is companies like those in the room tonight that will hopefully take this country through what I fear will be some very, very troubling times,” he said.

Guest insights

James shared his insights with 45 founders and directors from 33 Top Track 250 alumni companies, including Cath Kidston, Caffe Nero, Charles Tyrwhitt and Princess Yachts.

Rowena Bird is co-founder and product inventor at the ethical cosmetics company Lush, which recorded sales of £498m in 2017, with £300m generated overseas. Rowena spoke to us about the company’s latest venture in Liverpool, a four-storey store which has been hailed by influential beauty blogger Caroline Hirons as a model for other retailers to imitate.



Rupa Patel is executive director at Day Lewis, a family-owned pharmacy group which has grown to more than 315 outlets across England and sales of £397m in 2018. Rupa spoke to us about the importance of – and challenges to – maintaining a distinct culture in a family-owned business as it grows.



A word from our sponsor



Guests enjoyed networking dinner and drinks with representatives from Grant Thornton. James Brown, partner and Head of Growth, mid-corporate, welcomed guests and highlighted their ability to take advantage of the current uncertain trading conditions. “Your advantage is your nimbleness. You can deploy capital and talent quickly. It gives you a great advantage at times of change,” he said.


More information on the Top Track 250


For more information about the league table and events programme, see: https://www.fasttrack.co.uk/league-tables/top-track-250/

For opportunities to meet and build relationships with the founders and directors of these mid-market growth companies, see: https://www.fasttrack.co.uk/league-tables/top-track-250/sponsorship/




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