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Retail leaders' routes to the top

Drapers speaks to four industry heavyweights to learn how they rose through the ranks, and get their advice for those just getting started in the fashion industry

Jo Jenkins, White Stuff

Jo Jenkins, CEO, White Stuff

How did you get to your current position?

I didn’t go to university, and entered retail through the Marks & Spencer management trainee scheme in 1987. I specialised in finance, but although I had a brain for it, I was missing something creatively, so I retrained to be a buyer, and went into the head office as a range selector.

I was then headhunted to join Next in 1998. Going there to be a buyer was a wake-up call as I was able to marry good finance and creative skills.

I spent more than a decade at Next: as a buyer, running a proportion of Next’s UK sourcing business and subsequently as womenswear director after CEO [Lord] Simon Wolfson asked me to take up the role.

Going to Next was probably the best thing I ever did. I learnt how to be a real buyer, understanding costing and negotiations in supply chains, and was in a leadership role under the eye of Simon, who leads the business with an immense amount of detail. I sadly left Next for progression, as it’s a business that retains staff very well, not leaving much room to move up.

M&S asked me to go back to run lingerie and beauty in 2013. It was a fantastic experience and we improved our bra market share by four points. Two years into it I was given responsibility for all of womenswear by CEO Steve Rowe.

I was on the operational committee of M&S, which gave me exposure to and the opportunity to drive profit and loss. When White Stuff came along in 2018 and asked if I would be CEO, it was perfect timing.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry over your career?

The shift in channels is significant and customer behaviour is changing rapidly. Loyalty is not what it was. Knowing customers today and being able to anticipate their behaviour is harder than ever before.

Online allows great small brands to thrive and grow very quickly. The competition is much wider, and you have to keep an eye on the small players as much as the big boys.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities when building a career in this industry?

It’s a great time of opportunity for people entering our field. The rapidly changing retail environment and multi-faceted channels for consumers means that rather than having one specific skill set, and having to specialise early on, you can have a varied background.

It means there are so many more opportunities. As CEOs we encourage people to come from wide [professional] backgrounds because it adds diversity. I don’t need specific core skills – I need people to be good at reading data, understanding it and taking action.

Hugo Adams, Frugi

Hugo Adams, CEO, Frugi

How did you get to your current position?

On leaving university, I signed up with a temping agency. I was lucky enough to be placed with The Body Shop in 1996, to support the buyers with their sample administration. Four years later, I’d held three roles in buying and merchandising.

I had a growing interest in marketing, but Anita’s [Roddick, founder of The Body Shop] preference was to only focus on PR and word of mouth, so I moved to Kraft Foods in 2000 to gain strong brand and marketing experience.

However, I missed the entrepreneurial founder-led culture of The Body Shop, which drove a move to Dyson in 2003. I started as head of global marketing before deciding to broaden my commercial experience by leading its distributor businesses and new market expansion. I thoroughly enjoyed this and started considering other businesses where I could help international growth.

Marks & Spencer had a goal to increase the percentage of its business that was international, so I approached them to help shape this plan. I was taken on as head of international business development in 2008, which later expanded to include leading the franchise businesses in Europe and the Middle East. The new CEO, Marc Bolland, asked me to be his executive assistant in 2011, a role that I did for nearly three years, exposing me to the full breadth of the business.

From there I became the property director of M&S with the brief to bring a business development focus to the property department. I then joined the executive board of Superdry and from there I became CEO of kidswear brand Frugi a year ago.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry over your career?

Clearly there has been a huge change in the way technology has developed. With the availability of consumer metrics and data, there are now so many more ways to talk directly to your customers in a way that is personalised, relevant and timely, which makes retail both more interesting and challenging.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities when building a career in this industry?

It’s important to build networks. Learn something new from every conversation and use it to drive change in your business.

Your career is in your hands. I approached both M&S and Superdry because I wanted to work for them. Neither business was actively recruiting for the role that I was hired for. Decide what you want to do and which business you want to work for and go after it.

Fiona Lambert, Harpenne

Fiona Lambert, managing director, Harpenne

How did you get to your current position?

I studied fashion at Nottingham Trent University, and my first job was as a designer and pattern cutter at Next in 1985. It was when it was still quite small, and I formed a close working relationship with George Davies, who founded Next. He was passionate about the customer and product, and I learned a lot from him.

When George left Next and started George at Asda, he asked me to join him as a partner in 1989. It was an amazing opportunity to be a part of the founding team. Working there with him gave me the appetite to do something similar myself in the future.

After 10 years having a very close hand in all of the product ranges, I left George to go back to Next as womenswear director in 1999. I remained at Next for seven years, overseeing all the buying, design and merchandise quality before getting the opportunity to go back to George.

I went back as brand director in 2007 with the remit to reinvent the brand, and because of my success was given the opportunity to take Asda’s limited home range and create a George home range and make them winning categories.

I did that until 2016 before spending two years at [home furnishing retailer] Dunelm as product director.

I then got given this opportunity by River Island Holdings, with a very grand title of managing director of new business development in 2018. It’s a dream role for me as it is about looking for gaps in the market, being innovative and brave and starting new brands. The first, womenswear brand Harpenne, launched on 8 August and it is really a lifetime dream come true.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry over your career?

I was involved in one of the biggest changes, which was starting George. At that time there were no supermarkets selling fashion, and it was an incredible change to the industry. Supermarkets now have a very big role to play in the sector and have a big market share in both volume and value.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities when building a career in this industry?

The pace of change is so fast now in the industry, thanks to the growth of online, technology and social media. Established brands need to keep reinventing themselves and be agile.

The customer has so much choice now that brands must have an absolute focus on what the customer needs. It hangs on their USP, and niche brands are chipping away at the big players.

Fergus Patterson, Gant

Fergus Patterson, managing director for northern Europe, Gant

How did you get to your current position?

I started as a salesman at a traditional men’s tailors, Willerby the Tailor in Falkirk, part of the Great Universal Stores group in 1977. When the shop changed into a jeans shop, I was offered the role of manager, aged 18.

I worked hard to learn to lead and manage others and got my first area manager role at the age of 22 working for Falmer Jeans. Then I moved to Sears in 1986, then the Burton Group in 1989, in similar but increasingly larger roles.

My best move was in 1995 to a business I grew to love, WH Smith. I spent eight years there, culminating in the role of retail operations director for WH Smith Travel, and found myself part of the strategic decision-making process as well as ensuring it was implemented in store. 

I worked for a few excellent role model leaders, including Robin Dickie who was my retail operations and then managing director – he was clear thinking and collaborative, and always engendered a spirit of healthy competition to deliver results. 

In 2003, I joined Barclays as a retail bank director. However, it wasn’t for me and I wasn’t for them. I was restructured out of a job in 2004 and, I don’t mind admitting it, it felt like failure.

The opportunity to be part of a management buyout team at British discount department store TJ Hughes came along, which was followed by the role of managing director at French fashion brand Morgan de Toi in 2007.

I then joined British menswear brand Wolsey in 2009 as managing director of its UK wholesale, retail and online business and its international licence business. We went through a major repositioning, and I felt we were heading in a positive direction. The owners, however, had a different vision from me, so after three years I found myself out of a job.

I was recruited by Gant soon after leaving, initially as managing director of the UK and Ireland and, since April 2019, for northern Europe. I still have tremendous energy for this brand and feel privileged to lead such a strong team and brand.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry over your career?

Online shopping. Almost everyone has a mobile device and therefore has a huge selection at their fingertips. This challenge has put the traditional high street under tremendous pressure. I believe that people want experiences that go beyond transactional, but creating experiential retailing is still a challenge for most brands.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities when building a career in this industry?

My biggest learnings are: do what you enjoy, work with people you can learn from and that want to develop you. Be prepared to put the hours in – there is still no substitute for hard graft – and gain different experiences where you can.

Learn how the finances of a business work. You cannot make good decisions without understanding the financial implications. Finally, treat everyone with respect and allow their voice to be heard. People that feel valued will in the main perform well.

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