Debbie Hewitt’s varied career and wide range of experience give her unique insight into what it takes to lead fashion retailers through troubled times.
“The whole retail landscape is changing at such a pace – the traditional competitors are not the competition any more,” says Debbie Hewitt as she sits down with Drapers with a cup of coffee in her home in west London. “For Moss Bros, the disruptor won’t be other high street brands selling a smarter suit – it’ll be somebody who comes in with a subscription model. Young people these days are thinking about disposable income in a very different way. Their attitude to owning things is changing, and retail is right at the eye of the storm.”
As non-executive chairman of Moss Bros Group and White Stuff, as well as Visa Europe, The Restaurant Group and Comparethemarket.com owner BGL Group, Hewitt has both an insider’s and outsider’s view of fashion retail. As such, she is uniquely placed to comment on the changes facing the industry today, from the changing role of bricks-and-mortar stores to the fallout from Brexit.
Neither of the fashion businesses in her portfolio have been immune to the wider challenges facing retail. After stock issues triggered two profit warnings in early 2018, Moss Bros revealed that its gross margins during the 23 weeks to 5 January were hit by deep discounting around Black Friday and in the run-up to Christmas.
Meanwhile, White Stuff’s sales and profits fell in the year to 28 April 2018, which it put down partly to a slump in consumer spending on clothing.
Hewitt says the general shift in the UK towards spending more on experiences rather than clothing is just one of a number of issues making retail so complex today: “There are a host of factors. With the growth of online and various other channels to market, you’ve got to think more broadly about where and how your product is available to the customer. Different and newer competitors will have more agile models and a different cost base.”
We need to think differently about how our industry is going to be disrupted going forwards
“What’s happening to the high street, to the supply chain, to the way that product is sourced – everything is being disrupted and with speed,” she adds. “Twenty years ago, there were four or five big department stores and you would not conceive of anything different. And then, overnight, Amazon created a department store without the infrastructure and cost of a pure bricks and mortar operation. And what they do with that data, how they understand the customer, their whole supply chain – it’s phenomenal.
“We need to think differently about how our industry is going to be disrupted going forwards.”
However, Hewitt says both White Stuff and Moss Bros have the building blocks and executive teams in place to return to growth.
“With both those businesses, they know who their bullseye customer is,” she says, adding that this is the key to guiding any retail company through choppy times: “No matter how fast the pace of change, where you’ve seen businesses get into trouble or lose their relevance, it’s because they’ve lost touch with the customer.”
She points to Marks & Spencer – where she began her retail management career – as an example: “In the very early days of my career, like most retailers, we were closed on a Sunday. We also chose not to accept credit cards or to have changing rooms in stores because of our no-quibble returns policy and we were so proud of that. But we became out of touch with what the consumer wanted from the product and from their shopping experience.”
A Saturday job as a shop assistant in a womenswear independent in Newark, Nottinghamshire, first sparked Hewitt’s interest in fashion retail, and she joined the M&S management scheme in 1981. She quickly felt an affinity with store management: “I liked being out there where the customer was,” she recalls.
In 1987, she took a car sales job at the retail arm of motoring services firm Lex, because it gave her the opportunity to study a company-sponsored MBA. However, she quickly realised that the M&S training had given her people management skills, but she knew little about how to run a retail business.
“I thought I was running a store [at M&S] and knew everything there was to know about retail. Suddenly I realised I didn’t understand how pricing worked, how buying worked, how the balance sheet worked, or have the basic business knowledge that ‘cash is king’. I understood how to manage people, but not how to drive a store’s profitability.”
It was a tough transition, but Hewitt says it was “the best mistake I’ve made”: “I learned a huge amount about how consumer businesses work. Car retailing was very much a man’s world, and I’m not a petrolhead in any sense of the word, but I learned that all you need to do is give the customer confidence that you know your product and understand their needs.”
She became one of the company’s top car salespeople and, between 1993 and 2009, worked her way up through management roles at Lex Service and then the RAC (Lex bought RAC’s motoring services arm in 1999), where she was latterly CEO.
Despite the fact that she worked in a “man’s world” for more than 20 years of her career, Hewitt says she has never felt discriminated against because of her gender: “People have backed me when I’ve shown I have the experience to do a job. The only discrimination I’ve felt is when people said, ‘We can’t give it to you because you haven’t got the experience.’ It’s hard to disprove that, but unless someone takes a chance and gives you the experience it’s hard to break the circle.”
But she adds: “I think the fact that I haven’t consciously experienced [gender discrimination] doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen – of course it does. Logically, discrimination must happen in some shape or form, given the deficit of women in senior jobs. Practically, women have the babies, and until men can have babies that’s always going to influence things.
“It has got better – and the fact that we’re talking about it today is a helpful and positive thing. The thing I’d really pump prime is opportunities for young people, because that’s where discrimination starts. I think one of the reasons we haven’t been able to get more female senior executives is because, generally speaking, we haven’t had the pipeline coming through. If I joined government, I wouldn’t become minister for women, I would become minister for youth.”
Hewitt left RAC in 2009 after helping to integrate the business into its new owner, insurance firm Aviva, and began to build her portfolio of non-executive roles.
Debbie is the consummate retail leader, and I have often gone to her for advice
Peter Ruis, Anthropologie
Over the years, she has carved out a reputation as a highly knowledgeable and approachable leader. She was awarded an MBE in the 2011 New Year Honours List for services to business and the public sector.
Martin Newman was non-executive director of White Stuff between September 2014 and December 2018. He calls Hewitt “the consummate chairman”: “She’s always on top of everything she needs to do from a governance point of view, and makes sure the board sticks to the agenda, and she has a nice style – it’s very collaborative. She’s been incredibly successful, but is also extremely personable and grounded. I have a huge amount of respect for her.”
Echoing Newman’s words, Peter Ruis, international executive director at Anthropologie, says: “Debbie is the consummate retail leader, and I have often gone to her for advice. She is an individual of huge integrity, experience, and knowledge – an asset to every business she is connected to.”
Hewitt joined the board of Moss Bros as an independent non-executive director in June 2009, not long after giving birth to twins, and became acting chairman in March 2010. The position was made permanent the following month and her nine-year tenure will come to an end this April. She will step down as soon as a successor is appointed.
She argues that, despite the headwinds facing high street retailers, now that it has resolved its stock issues Moss Bros has an opportunity to strengthen its position in the market through product innovation and its hire business. She points to its made-to-measure service, which was relaunched under the name Tailor Me in 2015 and allows customers to personalise their off-the-peg suits.
Hewitt joined White Stuff as chairman in 2012, after it suffered a couple of years of declining sales. Here, Hewitt says the opportunities lie in its localised approach.
“What White Stuff offers is very pertinent to its local community. It doesn’t feel like you’re going into a chain store – whether that’s because of the visual merchandising or the community work it does. One of the things we’ve learnt is how difficult it is to stand out in shopping centres where there is more conformity. We pride ourselves on the fact that the stores feel quirky and different: they’re not mass-produced, and our customers are incredibly loyal to that.”
Hewitt believes firmly in backing people who do not always have the experience, as others have done for her in the past. In 2017, she named former M&S director of clothing and beauty, Jo Jenkins, as the new chief executive of White Stuff – her first CEO role.
“Jo is a real talent,” says Hewitt. ”She gets the customer, she gets the product, and she does it with humility and such drive and determination.”
There is no doubt, however, that Jenkins and Moss Bros CEO Brian Brick face big challenges this year, as do all retail leaders – from the changing role of stores to the fallout from Brexit.
Hewitt says she believes in a future for bricks-and-mortar retailing, but insists that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.
“Primark has no [transactional] online presence at all, and Asos is completely online – and both work. It’s a matter of thinking about your product and your customer and what they expect and how that is evolving. Generally, the growth of online means there will be fewer stores, but there will be retailers that want more stores because that’s what their footprint requires, and others with too many stores or stores in the wrong places.”
She adds that, as consumers generally move away from buying things and pivot to experiences, it becomes even more critical to have a differentiated product and proposition that gives them a reason to want to buy from you.
As 29 March fast approaches, Brexit is, of course, never far from any retail leader’s mind. Hewitt points out that White Stuff and Moss Bros are UK-based and their international strategies are in the “very early stages”.
“The biggest challenge of Brexit is the not knowing. Any business can plan once it knows what is going to happen, but the uncertainty facing our own businesses, our people and our suppliers weighs heavy. One of the biggest risks is that Brexit distracts from the real added value development of a business.”
Her task, therefore, will be to ensure the businesses in her portfolio stay focused on the fundamentals – well-designed, value-for-money product, sold through the right channels, at the right price. And with her breadth of experience and firm focus on the customer, Hewitt is well-equipped to take that task on.
Debbie Hewitt’s CV
- 2006-2009 CEO, RAC
- 1987-2006 Various roles, RAC (formerly Lex Service)
- 1986-1987 Various store management roles, M&S
- 1981-1986 Management trainee, M&S
Current non-executive roles (including date of appointment)
- July 2018 Chairman, Visa Europe
- July 2018 Chairman, BGL Group
- May 2016 Chairman, The Restaurant Group
- May 2012 Chairman, White Stuff
- June 2009 Chairman, Moss Bros
- April 2008 Senior independent director, warranty provider Domestic and General
Previously held non-executive roles between 1999 and 2018 include:
- Non-executive director and chair of the remuneration committee at: Alumasc, De Vere, Luminar, Mouchel Group
- Non-executive director of: the Office of Government Commerce
- Non-executive chairman of: HPI, HR Owen, Evander Group
- Senior independent director of: NCC Group, Redrow