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Leadership after COVID…

by Keerat

Allan Leighton

Article & Interview by Ninder Johal

 

The man who coined the phrase ‘going plural’ and a diary full of commitments to match was a hard man to pin down for an interview. With a list as long as your arm of high-profile roles (past and present) including CEO of Asda, Chair of the Royal Mail, Chair of Last Minute.com, Pizza Express, Canal and River Trust, the Co-op, ex Chair of Wagamama, NED (Non-Executive Director) roles at BskyB, and Dyson and now chair of BrewDog – he is known in the City as the ultimate ‘blue chip man’.

At sixteen, his interests lay in sport and a quest to be a professional footballer, but a serious injury put paid to that ambition. He came across Mars (the confectionary giant) and enlisted on their management programme. He stayed there for eighteen years and argues that they were the most instrumental years in his career for learning.

 

Is it essential to be a good salesman to be an effective executive or entrepreneur?

‘At Mars – I worked in every department where the emphasis was on producing excellent managers.
We were taught that there two things to concentrate on: people and products – in that order. Be good with people and get your products right and the rest will sort it out. It’s about experiences and not experience. It really is about the skills you have and not the skills that you don’t have. It really is that simple.’

Allan felt that this type of management training was quite rare for an organisation 40 years ago and in many ways UK plc was ‘miles behind’ at the time. ‘They also concentrated on the concept of brain count not head count – it’s all about amassing the best brains. Let’s not forget 50% of the population are females and brains have no colour or gender discrimination – are we maximising on this opportunity?’

 

So why take on the challenge of turning around a ‘basket case’ like Asda?

‘I was enjoying my time at Mars such that I never thought I would be leave but I like challenges particularly when they are considered impossible by everyone.’

 

 

So, what did he do to turn it around?

‘Go back to basics – somebody had the bright idea to set up Asda – they clearly got it right in the first to have been able to expand to the place they had got to – we just needed to resurrect that and make it work again. The roots of Asda were value – so we worked on getting that right.

And we had to have look at people – this was an issue. Asda were in so much trouble that nobody in the industry wanted to make the move – so we went outside and recruited from outside the industry which in the long term was a blessing as we were able to create change very quickly.’
It took 4 years to get it where it needed to be and don’t forget we created the biggest clothing brand to – George.’

 

So, where the connection with Walmart?

We used to copy the best retailers in the world – Walmart were the best. What was amusing was that Sam Walton would say that the things we copied – we did even better than them.

We got into doing a deal with Kingfisher and we were almost there, but my gut feeling was that something was not right. I reached out to Walmart and within 8 days we did the deal – most of it based on mutual trust and the rest is history.’

 

So how does he feel about the latest acquisition buy the ISSA brothers funded by Private Equity?

‘In some respects, it is good that ASDA is now in the hands of entrepreneurs, and it will now independently owned with Stuart Rose as Chair. They will now give it the focus and strategic direction that it requires. It’s not just about the numbers and the returns – it’s the whole strategic fit around forecourts and local convenience. We could find that 50% of the biggest supermarkets could be owned by Private equity.’

And where do the German discounters fit in; I ask.

‘These German discounters you refer to – are international operators – they are seriously good players with a global footprint – and they have been doing this for decades.’

 

And the role of Amazon and their attack on the grocery industry?

‘Amazon is the biggest retailers in the UK. They started as booksellers and look at them now. They are brilliant at everything they do – you cannot discount anything that they say or do – they are a highly professional outfit. They bring convenience into everything they do’.

 

 

So how did you end up with multiple roles as a NED?

‘Once we sold out to Walmart – I was offered a great role within the new enlarged group, but I felt I needed to do something else – something fresh – hence the non-Executive route – but I wanted to do it full time. I did look at the NHS but plumped for the Royal Mail.

 

 

So, from one basket case (ASDA) to another – how did you cope with trying to turn around this monopoly which was known for its with strikes and battles with trade unions?

‘It was a monopoly with 98% market share but losing £1 million a day – it was unbelievable. We worked back to basics again – people and products. It was hard work, but we started with the people at the sharp end – the ‘Posties’ – once you go this right – we were on our way. We formed a good relationship with the Unions and succeeded in floating the business with a booming business through increased sales with parcel deliveries – so a good result all round.’

 

In your book about leadership – entitled ‘Practical wisdom from the people who know’ – you speak about innovation and the fact that every business should have an element of chaos. Can you explain this?

‘Out of chaos comes innovation. This forces new ways of thinking because during periods of stability – there is little incentive to change – little reason to improve. And when chaos does exist – listen to new ideas – out of 10 ideas generally two will work. These two ideas will be ideas that you never thought off.

If you think of start up’s – what makes them so disruptive is the chaos involved in their makeup – its only later when they settle down and mature does that chaos start to evaporate.

 

 

Finally, what did you learn about leadership through COVID?

‘New leaders should now have in their toolkit – humility, vulnerability and kindness. Now is the best time to employ women in key leadership roles as they have these traits in abundance. These elements have never been on the job specification, but they will be now. With flexible working now firmly on the agenda – female leaders can understand this’.

 

And any other final lessons learnt from COVID?

Lots more but one overriding observation was that you were either lucky or unlucky. Highly successful businesses found themselves in trouble through no fault of their own – and this is where cash became important – warning – always conserve cash as you never want to run out of cash (and some excellent businesses did) and finally don’t forget it’s all about the people.

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