‘It’s not a daunting task to run Harrods,’ says the department store’s managing director who, despite his boss’s notoriety, thrived under ex-Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed.
He was a difficult bugger,” says Harrods managing director Michael Ward of his former boss, the colourful and sometimes tempestuous Mohamed Al Fayed. “My interview for the job was probably the shortest I ever had,” he laughs, in his self-deprecating way.
Ward, who is nearly five years into the role, graciously declines to provide more details on Al Fayed, who in May sold the luxury department store for £1.5bn to the Qatari royal family.
All he will say is that “he is exceptionally engaging but like so many successful entrepreneurs a little difficult”, and adds with warmth that their relationship is peppered with banter, like a “comedy duo”.
So how was Ward able to handle the man who famously failed to keep many of his managing directors for long? “The reason I was successful was that we’ve had continued strong success [at the business] and I always managed strong entrepreneurs,” he says.
Since Ward joined Harrods, the department store has notched up record sales and profits, including a pre-tax profit rise of 40% to £77.8m in the year to January 30, when sales rose to £519.8m from £464m.
Ward’s secret to managing his team - not to mention royalty - is to “coach and empower people and give them their space”. He adds: “I have no ego at all. It isn’t about position and power, it’s about ‘How do I do my job well? How do I motivate people?’”
So how does the man without ego reconcile himself to working for a luxury department store which is very much based on the rather large ego of Al Fayed and his 25 years at the business?
“Of course, everybody loves beautiful things,” he says, by way of explanation. And Ward certainly does, in particular 1920s glassware from French brand Lalique and classic cars. His most prized possession is a commemorative E-type Jaguar signed on the dashboard by the motor vehicle manufacturer’s founder Sir William Lyons. He says that when he furnished his holiday home somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a container load of items “from a loo roll holder to a dining table” arrived wrapped in Harrods bags. He laughs at the preposterousness of it.
“Our job is to sell beautiful things in a hugely theatrical environment.” But is he theatrical? “Not at all,” he laughs. “You have to understand it and have the ability to bring it to life.”
It seems the managing director of the most bling of retailers is as far removed from the business’s ethos as he could be. Not that he isn’t engaged with every element. A walk with Ward around the one million sq ft Knightsbridge store shows him to be as excited and involved as possible, in everything from the fossil room to the pet shop, to the new Louis Vuitton boutiques and bullet-proof hunting jackets.
His management style is democratic and non-hierarchical. Every Wednesday, Ward and his management team meet to discuss every shopfit and have a “fantastic debate” which he says makes for a better business. “A good manager has to have the confidence to go ‘OK, I made a mistake’”, says Ward, but he stumbles when asked what words others would use to describe him. He suggests “methodical” and “supportive”, then comes a big pause. “I’m not sure. I should have read my 360-degree review.”
Ward’s reference is to Harrods’ peer review system and its “honesty” is something he has encouraged in a business not renowned for its openness .
“It’s a lot more honest than it was,” says Ward. “Over the years that I’ve been here, we’ve become more open. But I don’t think there [ever] was the closed culture people perceived there to be.”
Ward is seemingly unfazed by the enormity of running Harrods, which has grand plans to open a store in Shanghai, to relaunch its website to take on luxury etail giant Net-a-Porter and to drive sales of its eponymous own brand.
Ward plays these strategies down, saying that if a store should open in Shanghai, it is at least three years down the line, and that to snap at the heels of Net-a-Porter would be “nice” but that the web is only a “marginal” part of the business.
“It’s not a daunting task [to run Harrods]. It goes back to the question of whether the job has a mental and intellectual stimulus. Does it challenge you?”
Ward says his need to be stimulated mentally shaped his career decisions and has led to a varied job history, although he argues they share “a very common theme”.
His roles have ranged from group finance director at Lloyds Pharmacy, a business he eventually ran, to partner at private equity firm Apax in 2003, where he was involved in deals for supermarket chain Somerfield and currency exchange firm Travelex.
Ward stayed just two years at Apax. “Private equity was something I enjoyed but to which my temperament was not so suited,” he says. “I missed the Monday morning sales figures and managing people.” And so Ward set off for that infamously short interview.
“What Harrods needed was a good, solid retailer,” he says. “We want excellence in every department we contribute to. The strong performance [of last year] is across every category, and that’s part of the challenge: to maintain the consistency of quality and timelessness.”
Ward adds that Harrods’ customers are also returning to super brands for investment pieces or, in other words, things that will “transcend seasons”. The store is continuing the refits of boutiques for its super brands, leading to a clear rise in sales performance for some, such as Chanel, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton.
“The power brands have been a huge success,” he says. He instigated a renaissance of the French fashion houses by increasing the amount of stock on display by 10%. “If you want to make sales you have to have product on the floor.”
Ward, who is a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and holds a masters in business administration, says there was no great epiphany, “no handing down of the tablets from Mount Sinai” about taking a career in retail. “You’ve got to do things which you are passionate about.”
Ward has learnt most from those on the shopfloor - customers and staff - and has a surprisingly loyal customer base from which to learn. “It’s an international business base. The tourists are important but not material,” he says.
Ward’s loyalty is without question; he shops nowhere else. He buys from virtually the whole store and if the world were his oyster he would buy a Royo painting in store at the moment.
His passion is cooking, although this is not shared by his wife. “My wife has never cooked for me,” he says. When asked why, he kids that he won’t let her: “She’s seen my life insurance policy.”
Ward may joke, but to insure against his loss, Harrods would undoubtedly pay through the nose.
2006 Managing director, Harrods
2003 Partner, Apax
1997 Celesio buys Lloyds Pharmacy; Ward remains managing director
1994 Group finance director, Lloyds Pharmacy; promoted six months later to managing director