“I remember from 8 or 9 years old that I always wanted to be in retail,” Nigel Austin says. “I looked up to and respected my father.” The elder Austin ran a clothing wholesale and import business in Australia, and Nigel spent school holidays working at the firm. After a brief stint attending college, he dropped out to start his own company.
“Good news and bad news,” he told his father. “The good news is that this retail thing is going really well. The bad news is college isn’t for me.”
Thirty years later, Austin’s Cotton On Group boasts 1,214 locations across Australia, New Zealand and Asia, and $1.5 billion in annual sales. (Austin, 47, owns 90 percent of the firm, a stake worth $1.3 billion.) The company is in America, too, with 143 of its fast-fashion stores.
Austin’s family connections in the garment trade gave him a leg up in the early days, says James Stewart, a retail expert at Ferrier Hodgson, an industry consulting firm: “The Austin family has a deep history in direct sourcing. They got first-mover advantage.” Cotton On entered the US in 2009 as ecommerce began to hurt brick-and-mortar retailers. “We are taking it slower than we normally would because we’re reading what’s going on,” says chief executive Peter Johnson.