THE RETAIL SECTOR, TRADITIONALLY RELIANT ON FOOTFALL INTO STORES, CONTINUES TO EMBRACE THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES OF THE WEB. THE PLIGHT OF SOME IN THE SECTOR IS MANIFEST, YET DESPITE THEIR PHYSICALLY BOARDED UP SHOPFRONTS, OTHER RETAILERS HAVE FOUND THE DRAW OF THE WEB COMPELLING AND HAVE EMBRACED IT TO DEVELOP OMNICHANNEL RETAIL BUSINESSES. DURING THE PANDEMIC, STORES LIKE B&Q HEROICALLY KEPT TRADING AND, THROUGH NECESSITY AND AGILITY, ACCELERATED THE WAY IN WHICH STORES AND THE WEB CAN COEXIST IN THE DIGITAL FUTURE.
PEOPLE DIRECTOR , B&Q
“INSTEAD OF EXPECTING PEOPLE TO FIT IN, THE APPROACH WE WANT TO TAKE IS UNDERSTANDING HOW PEOPLE CAN ADD TO OUR CULTURE”
I spent my childhood in Hampshire as my parents had moved out of London to the South Coast to start a new adventure. Like many of my generation, doing a paper round was a formative experience for me and my Dad instilled in me the importance of having a good work ethic and not letting anyone down. School came fairly easily, but my academic achievements were disappointing through a combination of taking what talent I had for granted, not applying myself well enough and not having a clear enough idea of what I really wanted to do. I wasn’t confident or independent enough at that age to set my own path and when all my friends headed off to University, I followed suit, even though it wasn’t my ideal course or University. I think this early setback taught me a number of important life lessons that have shaped who I’ve become and to be more ambitious and creative with the goals I set myself, to follow my own path and that there is no substitute for hard work when it comes to fulfilling your potential. I graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a degree in Accountancy & Finance and 24 hours after sitting my final exam, I was on a plane to Vancouver where I spent nine months working in a hotel in the middle of the Canadian Rockies. This was my first taste of travel, exploration and adventure and just six months later, I was taking part in a Raleigh International Expedition to Chile in South America, where I helped build a school in a remote fishing community and climbed in the mountains. I then went on to travel independently through Chile, Bolivia and Peru for several months.
Eventually it was time to return to the UK to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. My first job was as a Sports Administrator in a local university sports centre and I had a terrific boss, who supported me to do things I’m not sure many university administrators were doing – like becoming a qualified sailing instructor – in return for helping at the university’s sailing centre. Eventually however, two things became clear, firstly that many of my friends seemed to be developing more serious skills, knowledge and experience than I was and taking on more responsibility and secondly, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed the financial side of my role, much more than I had done studying it academically. So, I took a deep breath and applied for a management accountancy training contract with Norwich Union. I knew studying for my CIMA accountancy qualification was going to be a significant challenge, so I really knuckled down. Eventually qualifying triggered what turned out to be a life changing move for me and in 2001, I joined B&Q in their newly created strategy team as an analyst.
When I joined, I clearly remember B&Q being in double digit LFL growth, significantly outperforming its smaller competitors through the introduction of its category killing warehouse format. It was around this time that home improvement TV programmes like Changing Rooms were incredibly popular. Also, a few things started to happen around this time – the strong margins in the sector began to attract new competitors, specialists and discounters – and the grocers started to expand into non-food categories – plus the economy itself was becoming a bit tougher. One of my proudest work achievements came at this time, when I was given responsibility for our long-term planning model, which I rebuilt from scratch having booked myself on an advanced financial modelling course in London. So, I’m probably fairly unique as a People Director in having built a fully integrated P&L, balance sheet and cash flow financial model for a multi-billion pound business. I also rolled this out to Castorama France on an international assignment, where I conspicuously failed to learn any French whatsoever! My next move was into commercial finance, where I led a small team and started to learn how to manage and lead teams and people. This is when I developed the fundamental belief that I hold today – any business, sports team or organisation’s success is down to the quality of its leadership – and that eventually saw me move to HR. I saw senior leaders that weren’t operating as a team and without a joined-up vision for the customer. I thought too many of them were more interested in their own success than B&Q’s and I started to ask myself questions like, “who makes these leadership decisions and who holds them to account”? Although I didn’t really know where to start in HR, I thought I might be a useful addition to the reward team and identified that as my possible route in.
True! I tracked down the Reward Manager at B&Q and arranged to have a coffee and it was a lucky break, as he was about to be promoted and suggested I apply for his job. I’d love to say he spotted my early potential, but with hindsight, it was quite a bold move by him and the HR function at that time. I found my boss’s style of leadership inspirational and courageous and he didn’t avoid the difficult conversations which I’d seen many others do. I think my background and less conventional HR way of thinking appealed to him and he gave me lots of opportunities to be involved in interesting projects, like objective setting, re-designing our appraisal system alongside the more usual responsibilities of managing pay and bonuses. I also admired the way he led our own function – he was big on feedback and coaching – along with personal responsibility and often turned questions I asked him back to me. Over the next few years, I moved from reward into an HR generalist role partnering functions and I began to progress to become Director of Organisational Development before, securing a role as Director for Retail HR. This is where I learnt about multi-site leadership and I also worked for Liz Bell – HR Director at Screwfix now – whose experience, guidance, support and encouragement have been so important over the years.
I’d always worked locally and I wanted to test myself outside of B&Q. So, when I took a call one day from a search firm recruiting for Wagamama, which was a brand and restaurant chain I loved, it was too intriguing an opportunity to pass on. The prospect of a new sector – working in a much smaller business, private equity ownership, head quartered in Soho, the creative heart of London – was all really appealing, so I took the leap. Wagamama could not have been more different to the larger corporate experience at B&Q. I loved the immediacy of a smaller business full of people who had grown with the company from its very beginnings, still brimming with passion and excitement for the next stages of its growth. Everyone had a real connection with the brand and a passion for great food and service, which was profoundly compelling and inspiring to work alongside, because they cared so much. The hospitality industry had been growing at an incredible rate, with lots of new brands and concepts emerging, hoping to become the next big thing. Wagamama was one of a small number of restaurant brands with the potential to become pretty big, but there needed to be a significant investment in developing the HR team and that was what I was hired to deliver. It was a very small team that worked from the centre, rather than being out in the business alongside leaders. The employer brand was amazing – still the best I’ve ever come across – with the motto: “Be You. Be Wagamama”. It immediately captivated me, as it was at the heart of embracing individuality and diversity which as a customer, you always noticed.
Over the next few years, working really closely with a great operations team, we introduced succession planning, plus career path and capability development, so that we could be more confident of growing future talent. We introduced ‘centres of brilliance’ which meant every region had its own training restaurant that would set the standard for chefs and restaurants managers. We also developed the HR team to become genuine business partners, while also growing the L&D team to focus on building capability. At this time, Wagamama completely transformed its customer proposition. It was still based around a core of an amazing fresh Asian inspired menu, but with new restaurant design, uniforms, crockery and service. The results were incredibly impressive, moving from negative LFL to double digit LFL growth in the space of a year. I would say those first two years at Wagamama were some of the most exciting and rewarding of my career, but unfortunately all good things come to an end. I had another massive learning experience around culture and leadership, when the dynamic around the senior leadership team started to change, with many leaving the business. It was at this time that I took a call from my old boss and mentor Liz Bell, who was now at Screwfix and they were looking for a Director of HR. Screwfix is a fantastic digital business and was growing incredibly quickly so, rather than recommend someone, I persuaded Liz that I’d head out Southwest and come and do the role myself! It was a step back at the time, but as it turned out, it was exactly what I needed to step forward again
Quite simply, a phenomenal business with double digit, like-for-like growth and a unique culture and operating model. It had originally been a catalogue business and Kingfisher asked B&Q’s ex Supply Chain Director, Steve Willett, to see what he could do to make it work better. This is where the physical store format that you see today came from – essentially, a convenience proposition targeted very specifically at tradespeople – underpinned with an incredibly slick logistics and supply network. The head office is based in Somerset, which meant I swapped a daily train commute to London for a daily car commute out Southwest. After two and a half years at Screwfix, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I had the opportunity to rejoin B&Q as their Main Board HR Director in 2018.
B&Q is a much-loved British brand, but after those halcyon years in the early 2000’s, trading had become tougher and B&Q hadn’t really evolved or adapted. It lacked new product categories and services and had an under-developed digital strategy. My personal belief is that B&Q had suffered from a revolving door of senior talent, which meant that no team had been around long enough to really make a difference. By contrast, what I had seen at Screwfix was a senior leadership team that was personally hugely committed to its success. Through being together for seven or so years, they had developed a deep understanding of the business, its customers and a responsibility for its colleagues. B&Q needed the same and that is something Graham Bell really believed in when he moved from Screwfix to become B&Q CEO and I moved with him. One of our first priorities was to rebuild confidence in the teams and we talked about B&Q “getting its mojo back.” We were still number one in the market and needed to return to leading the sector. We’d just started this work and returned to growth when we started to hear rumours of COVID-19 and then, of course, everything changed.
It called for the ability to appear calm and in control, whilst feeling anything but this! I can vividly recall being in a room with our Health & Safety manager, listening to the Prime Minister’s briefings and trying to make sense of how we could make sure our colleagues and customers would be kept safe. We switched to virtual meetings almost overnight and we ran a test for everyone to work from home for a day and it turned out we could, with a few systems adjustments in place. The last week before the business closed was massively busy as customers rushed to our shops and the busier it was, the less safe our colleagues felt. We held Board meetings twice a day and were monitoring colleague sentiment three times a day via Yammer. Sentiment was split between colleagues who wanted us to stay open – as they were worried about their jobs – and those who wanted to close because they were understandably concerned about the risks of contracting COVID. I’ve honestly never known pressure like it, as the enormity and seriousness of this unprecedented global pandemic dawned on us all. We had to work out how we could protect the long-term future of the business, support our customers and keep our colleagues safe. After the first couple of weeks, when the Board were probably working 20-hour days, we came to the point when we made the difficult decision to temporarily close our shops and to operate a web-only business, with home delivery and click-and-collect from our car parks.
It was psychologically extremely difficult to comprehend. Like many, this was a business about customers and footfall and even after a difficult period of recalibrating and consolidating the business, this unprecedented event simply would not allow any leeway and there certainly wasn’t a blueprint or previous experience to follow. But despite the shock, there was an amazing sense of everybody in B&Q coming together and playing their part, to ensure we all came through this. We were deemed to be an essential retailer, which meant we could re-open when we felt we were ready. We’d furloughed nearly 15,000 store colleagues and two-thirds of our head office team and then three weeks later, we brought the vast majority of our front-line teams back to serve our customers as we re-opened. I’m incredibly proud of the way our colleagues carried on under such adversity and we were able to start trading in a way that managers and their staff felt safe. As we re-opened stores, we empowered our store managers to decide when their teams were ready and what was a safe number of customers to be in their shop. Throughout all the stages of the pandemic, we knew that communication and listening to our colleagues and leaders was critical. We needed to know how everyone felt and to work with them on solutions. We did this through weekly virtual calls between the Board and our National People’s Forum. Our Retail Director posted a business update on Yammer daily for all colleagues and we participated in all the conversations that took place on there. Being present was so important and it really highlighted the very best in great leadership, HR and people management. We’ve recognised this by subsequently creating our B&Q Leadership signature, based on four things we did tremendously well during COVID. These were; a deep understanding of what our customers needed, agility, care – for yourself, your team and B&Q – and inclusivity. We talk about “success leaving clues” and we are now working hard to lock in this learning and promote, develop and hire leaders who are brilliant at these four things. You will see this in all our recruitment and development material now and I’m especially proud of some of the decisions we took at the time which says such a lot about our culture at B&Q. For example, even before the Government had introduced the furlough scheme, we took the decision to send our vulnerable colleagues that were aged 70 years and over, home on full-pay.
No organisation that wants to remain competitive, relevant and attractive to the next generation has a choice. We all have to make work on this agenda one of our critical priorities. At our leadership conference in 2018, as part of the Q&A session with the Board, our leaders made it clear to me that they were uncomfortable with the lack of diversity at senior levels in B&Q and it’s become one of my most important missions in this job to change that. We want to be representative of the communities we serve at all levels. Back in 2019, we started working with GreenPark on an independent Culture Audit. Even with the pandemic in full swing, we persevered with the review, resulting in two percent of our colleagues giving their view on what it really felt like to work at B&Q. Some of what was shared in the resulting 136-page report of findings and recommendations was quite hard to read, but it was incredibly insightful and raised an important level of expectation on us as a Board, to be fully accountable for Diversity Equity & Inclusion. It was an important first step, opening ourselves up to scrutiny and being transparent with where we are and what we’re going to do. We’re now in our third year of significant work on DEI and I’m proud to say we have over 280 more women in management positions than we did in 2018, an increase of seven percent. We have a visible DEI strategy, five inclusion networks and every one of our top 500 leaders has inclusion training every year. We also run reverse mentoring schemes for all our senior leaders. Our online D&I training module is for all colleagues and over 20,000 have completed it. Following a full end-to-end review of all our talent and attraction processes, we advertise all of our internal vacancies openly and this year we are running our first ethnic minority development programme. Our Power of you campaign, launched last year, encourages colleagues to share personal information about themselves, helping us to understand more about who we are and what more we can do to support. Our level of cultural intelligence is growing all the time, but it’s fair to say DEI can be a delicate area to work in. It’s challenging to find balance between being dissatisfied with the current state and having the patience to stick tenaciously to your plan and commitments – when not everyone may agree with the pace of change – it’s too fast for some, too slow for others. We’re having conversations in B&Q that we’ve never had before and while some of the work in this area is the hardest I’ve ever done, it’s also by far the most rewarding. We are evolving our culture in quite a dramatic way and I’m convinced that not only is this the right thing to do morally, it’s also critical to our continued commercial success.
We’re in a really exciting phase and if we can continue to build on the decency that’s always been here in the business, keep improving and keep learning, we will become an even more special place to work and shop. A real penny-drop moment for me was some time back when leaders talked about the importance of attracting recruits that ‘fit into our culture’. Instead of expecting people to fit in, the approach we want to take is understanding how people can add to our culture. We have introduced our Horizon Project, which is our next three-year plan and it sets out the areas we need to address, not to just change, but to transform ourselves. Alongside our drive on diversity and inclusion, this is about a fundamental change in operation, to become a genuine multi-channel business with over 25 percent of our sales coming from our website. We need to make it as easy as possible for customers to shop with us, however they want to – whether that’s coming into store to physically look at or buy our product, click & collect – or home delivery. There’s no doubt that these are challenging times, but I truly believe we have an exciting opportunity to bring real change for B&Q. We have a genuinely loved brand and fantastic purpose and we’re working hard to modernise every single aspect of our business. One thing is clear, meaningful change is not easy, we’re a big business and there are numerous priorities to attend to at once. For example, we are determined to be the most sustainable home improvement company, in fact, it’s in our DNA. We were a founding member of the FSC and haven’t publicised it – it’s like the opposite of greenwashing – we were also first at removing environmentally damaging chemicals from many of our products and we stopped selling patio heaters many years ago. We have an amazing scheme on community reuse and have recently set up the B&Q Foundation, as well as continuing our partnership with Shelter. There’s so much great work going on, but not enough people know. Now, as we add these initiatives to our agenda, we are telling colleagues and customers about it and I’m positive that this will be a fundamental reason why customers choose to shop with one brand over another. It’s interesting, we’re becoming a younger organisation all the time. In the last period, 65 percent of our joiners were under 25 and this generation are more aware and determined to work with the environment and not against it. We can be a place where colleagues can work knowing that we’re a responsible business.
The truth is that most people don’t grow up wanting to be in retail, they stumble into it because it provides convenience and flexibility. It has long been a transient sector, but I love the heritage of retail and many people also find a love for customer service, they love the team element and the customer proximity and they stay. That’s why we are determined to give everyone the opportunity of a great career in a rich and vibrant workplace. That takes us back to DEI and although we are making progress, there is still much to do. The success of this relies upon leaders and decision makers and unquestionably, the drive for diverse leadership is a critical work-in-progress. To consider the full range of talent that is there, we have to look harder inside as well as outside.
Yes, I think the future of work is being fundamentally challenged at the moment and that’s a good thing. I’m finding the various approaches to evolving hybrid working fascinating. There is a dynamic playing out around trust and productivity and how you find the right balance. My view is that colleagues want to feel trusted to decide how they can best balance those things and those companies that have chosen to mandate how many days their colleagues come into the office are misreading the moment and the opportunity. The purpose of coming into the office has changed and now it makes sense to do that in a very intentional way – based around learning, collaborating, community, creativity and support – it’s certainly not about presentism. Hybrid is also an opportunity to significantly widen talent pools. We now have people in our digital team who only come to the office once a month, which dramatically changes the quality and size of the digital talent pool we can fish in. I also think areas like performance are changing and I believe that bringing the best out of people, is about showing genuine care for them in every aspect of their life. This isn’t a nine-to-five transactional relationship anymore. If you combine that belief around care and performance with flexibility, people can experience a very different way to balance work and life, which is compelling and liberating. They no longer have to make some of the choices and trade-offs they might have felt they needed to in the past. This is an incredibly exciting time to be in HR, when the nature of work and how people live their lives is changing. I’m loving the opportunity we have as HR professionals, to shape and influence this alongside many other important societal shifts around DEI, wellbeing, leadership and performance. I’m extremely excited by the work that’s happening in the inclusion space and from a personal point of view, it’s where I feel most proud so far in my career. As HR Directors, we have a real platform to drive change in our organisations and that’s a huge responsibility and opportunity for us to make a meaningful difference.
FOR FURTHER INFO WWW.DIY.COM