Neil Clifford, CEO of high street footwear chain Kurt Geiger, explains why he has taken the decision to suspend his salary until stores reopen and how the business is supporting NHS workers fighting the virus on the frontline.
The impact of coronavirus has been devastating – completely devastating. Eight weeks ago, we closed the year with record sales and record profits. It was all looking fantastic and everyone was working extremely hard to build the business. Weeks later, and it is now about the struggle to survive.
Profits are out of the window for 2020. We’re focusing on survival and showing as much kindness as we can to our staff, to our customers and to the NHS.
People feel helpless and we want to do whatever we can do to bring some joy to people for the next three or six or eight weeks that this crisis continues. It is about humanity.
In a way, coronavirus has been like pressing “control, alt, delete”. The world is going to be a different place when we emerge from this. It will be a kinder place and we want to be on the right side of that.
The decision for Kurt Geiger to donate 55 £100 giftcards to city hospitals across the UK and Ireland was sparked by a conversation with my niece, Kerry Morrison, who is a specialist nurse. I was talking to her about what it was really like to work in a hospital at the moment and what Kurt Geiger could potentially do to help.
As an aside, she joked that a free pair of shoes would be lovely. Well, we have two million pairs of shoes sitting in our warehouses at the moment. Quite frankly, what else are we going to do with them? If you’ve worked a 15-hour day in extremely difficult circumstances and buying a new pair of shoes or a handbag can bring you some small joy than that’s something – although I’m not overplaying the impact that can have in these terrible circumstances.
We’re finding ways that we can deliver the giftcards safely, because obviously we don’t want to be pushing up against the restrictions of the lockdown. We’ll be switching from hand deliveries of the giftcards to digital deliveries.
It was a natural decision for me to suspend my salary until stores reopen. I’m very lucky that I can afford it for a bit, and it felt like the only real thing I could do as it may protect some of our people.
Survival for retail businesses is a real word at the moment, because I don’t think everyone will. We want to protect employees first and foremost.
As a business, we’ll need to emerge leaner from a cost perspective, we’ll need better stock management and to turn our inventory quicker. This has been a global shock to the system. Everybody has realised how fragile things are and that means rethinking everything.
We’re fortunate to have a supportive shareholder, [private equity firm] Cinven. They’ve urged us to navigate through this and then think about how we can get beyond it and think about how we can be more agile, more global, more appropriate for the new times ahead. Their support has meant we can support employees [who are being paid through the store closures] and run our giveback NHS scheme.
We’ve said to our employees that we’ll continue to pay them at full pay for as long as we can and said to them, we want you to do everything you can – whilst being safe – to support their local communities.
People want to help. People are thinking ‘bloody hell, this is awful. What can I do to make a difference?’ They want to help however they can and that’s the British spirit.
The way to get through this is together.