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Drapers Next Generation: ‘Be the best at the job you do’

Debenhams’ chief executive talked about the lessons he’s learnt during his rise to the top - and his global ambitions.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

A footballer. I had no real idea what I wanted to do and actually had trials for Manchester City. I was also working part-time in a local delicatessen and Selfridges opened across the road. It offered a corporate training course so I signed up. That was my first door into retail.

Have you had any mentors along the way?

I’ve worked with a number of people over the years and they’ve all had an influence on who I am today. John Hoerner [former Burton and Tesco clothing boss], Steve Longdon [former Topshop boss] and Paul Marchant [chief executive, Primark] are all names that spring to mind.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

I’m very ambitious. When I was young, I was very, very ambitious. I think it can become blinding, constantly looking at what’s next, and the best advice someone gave me was to be the best at the job you currently do. By nature you will then succeed to the next role.

Would you change anything?

No, it’s pointless. There are a whole raft of things I think I should have done differently, but it’s history and there’s no point going back. I think you should always learn from your experiences rather than try to change things that are out of your control.

What does your average day look like?

I don’t have an average day, I have to plan a 12-month timetable in advance. A quarter of my time is now focused on City duties, so that only leaves 75% for everything else. I’m in competitors’ stores at least once a day.

What inspires you?

In our business it has to be the people. I find it really inspiring how motivating and committed people are. You learn by listening to them.

What is the skillset required to work at Debenhams?

Everybody’s bright. Everybody’s talented. What it boils down to is fit. You always need to look at whether the individual will fit within your business culture. When it comes to the buying team at Debenhams we require people to buy by brand, not by category, so our buyers have to have a broad skillset at buying across [all] categories.

Designers at Debenhams has been an extremely successful concept. How did it first come about?

There are many people who have tried to claim credit for this but it was actually [former Tesco clothing boss] Terry Green who started and developed the concept. Designers are known to be “huge on vanity, short on sanity”. Debenhams gives them the sanity. We work with them on diffusion lines to give the customer affordable luxury. Today it’s a £550m business with more than 20 designers on board, and 70% of our customers say they shop at Debenhams for these ranges.

What do you think about the shift to a more digital world?

It fundamentally changes everything. Multichannel is a race to capture market share and you need scale to become efficient. Online sales can be less profitable than store [sales] because the margins are not as strong due to fulfilment challenges.

And international expansion?

The UK is a pond. The rest of the world is an ocean. Which one do you want to fish in? Long-term growth has to come from international markets. Debenhams is trying to grow its franchise stores globally - we currently have 70 in 26 countries. Retailers should be looking to the Middle East - that’s where the growth is.

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