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Paul Sweetenham

Having dreamt of being the boss from the age of 16, TJX Europe’s president now runs a £1bn retailer and has strong views about how the next generation of talent can follow in his footsteps.

There aren’t many bosses of billion-pound retailers that you wouldn’t recognise by face in today’s age of the businessman as celebrity. Arcadia owner Sir Philip Green and former Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose are as much in the gossip columns for their off-duty antics as they are on the City pages with their results. But chances are you won’t recognise this man (and this week’s cover star): the European president of TJX Companies, parent company of the unique, off-price concept chain TK Maxx.

Paul Sweetenham is his name and building a 252-store UK retail business from scratch has been his game for the past 17 years. The European business over which he presides also includes 47 stores in Germany, seven in Poland and 24 furniture shops called HomeSense, and reported sales of $2.2bn (£1.4bn) in 2009. The business is due to report its 2010 figures on February 24.

Sweetenham has never given an interview before, but has agreed to speak exclusively to Drapers in support of our Next Generation project, to encourage and support young talent in the fashion industry.

He left school at 16 with no qualifications but, by chance, managed to secure a position as, of all things, an assistant fragrance and cosmetics buyer for a Southampton-based duty-free retailer that sold products on cruise liner the QE2. It’s something of a surprise to hear that Sweetenham’s retail roots lie in what is perhaps thought of as a typically feminine industry. He himself comes across as more typically blokey - his chat is littered with banter and dry humour, while his hobbies include fast cars and a round of golf with one of his best mates, Savile Row tailor William Hunt.

“Leaving school with no qualifications, I just wanted any job,” Sweetenham admits when asked if his original career plan had been retail. “But it was tough at the time, because my mates were all training to be plumbers and electricians, and apprenticeships were the big thing. To not be doing an apprenticeship was a bit embarrassing. I was smelling perfumes down the Champs-Elysées in Paris while my friends were fixing radiators.”

Rising up the ranks

His embarrassment didn’t last long, though, when by 21 he had been promoted to watches and jewellery buyer at the retailer and was still going down the pub, but now as the proud owner of a white Vauxhall Cavalier.

“I had a company car and my mates didn’t,” he recalls. The car theme seems to have been a pretty good incentive for Sweetenham ever since.

Motors aside, he has been fiercely ambitious and highly motivated since his first day as an assistant buyer, openly admitting he wanted to run the company from day one. “I planned to be a chief executive by the age of 35. I failed, though. I didn’t make boss until 36,” he says, only half joking.

Shortly after his rise to watch and jewellery buyer, he traded the Cavalier in for a Peugeot 205 1.9 and a new job in branch merchandising, followed by regional manager, both at Principles For Men (part of the Burton Group). He chose the retail conglomerate’s training scheme over M&S’s.

During his time at the Burton Group, he had the opportunity to work with some retail greats, including its chairman Sir Ralph Halpern and his successor Laurence Cooklin, who he says were hugely influential for him.

Sweetenham eventually became retail director of the Burton Group-owned Champion Sport business, but left after being lured on a trip to see TJX in Boston by retail headhunter Paul Meechan in 1993.

Pastures new

“My initial enthusiasm for the Burton Group had become jaded. And I didn’t want to do another UK retailer,” he says. “When I first saw the store [TJ Maxx in Boston], I was done. It was unique and I knew it would work here from the off,” he says of why he was persuaded to leave the relative safety of the Burton Group - certainly the then academy for future retail industry chiefs - for a start-up and unproven operation.

He took the job as head of retail at TJX Europe in 1993, joining a tiny team reporting direct into the US and based in Hayes in Middlesex at a former distribution centre for BT with a series of Portakabins forming a set of makeshift offices. “We couldn’t go to work if it was windy,” Sweetenham jokes.

The current senior vice-president of brand and business development Deborah Dolce, general merchandise director for menswear Roger Bannister, group property director Patrick

Turnbull and group distribution director Alan Porte were all among Sweetenham’s colleagues from day one, 17 years ago. It is a fact that makes Sweetenham proud: “We have a huge number of long-serving senior people. People don’t leave, because TJX Companies presents more cross-functional career opportunities than traditional retailers. We would never say someone is a ‘retail ops’ person and leave it at that.”

Moving people around the business to expand their experience is inherent in TJX Companies’ culture. It runs various schemes and initiatives to ensure talent is harnessed and nurtured, and that its employees are given a broad working experience (see box).

An education

Sweetenham himself was schooled in all disciplines bar finance, holding positions in merchandising, distribution, buying and marketing before eventually being appointed president of TK Maxx in 2001, rising later to his current position as president of TJX Europe.

“There is no bureaucracy here, in that it [TJX Companies] embraces what I would say are core retail disciplines and merchant instincts,” he says.

It’s easy to trot out a line like that, but can that actually work practically for a company with more than £1bn sales annually? Sweetenham insists it can, owing to the company’s flat management structure, which is geared towards keeping pace and energy in the business. Sweetenham sits at the top and 12 divisional directors report directly into him, including the heads of buying. “This doesn’t mean we make quick decisions in terms of haste, but it does mean we can be timely,” he says.

It also means Sweetenham is aware of what’s going on “everywhere” in the business, which, given his experience, having run every division during his 17-year stretch, is undoubtedly a strength. Rumour has it he has a near Rain Man-like ability to recount last weeks’ sales figures by product category and by store come Monday lunchtime. “But you don’t tell people what to do,” says Sweetenham. “You give your opinion on what they are doing.”

Sweetenham is not an office person, either. “I don’t have drawers,” he says, gesturing around the room. “I’m always out in our countries or with the buying folks.”

His week isn’t structured as such, “but it’s planful, while being spontaneous - in that order,” Sweetenham says. “I get up early to think about what to do. I don’t think I ever stop thinking about our customer.”

“Curious” is the word Dolce uses to describe Sweetenham and “curious” is what he says he looks for in good retail employees. “We want people who are outward-looking - who are interested in ‘stuff’.”

Backing women

He is also a big supporter of women in retail, firmly believing that too few women reach the top. “Whilst you’ll always need a balance, there are just not enough women in senior retail positions. Women are the principle shoppers after all,” he says.

“There was nothing worse than going into a meeting at Burton Group to see 30 blokes sitting around the table. Companies are not flexible enough to enable women to reach senior positions around their life plan.”

He adds: “I could demand that Deborah [Dolce, a mother of three] come to a meeting at 7pm every night, but what would be the point of that?” he says. Coincidentally, Sweetenham’s own boss and the overall president and chief executive of TJX Companies is a woman. Carol Meyrowitz was in November listed as one of the top 50 female chief executives in the world by the Financial Times.

It’s not just attracting women to choose a career in retail that is the challenge, though. It’s still all too often thought of as a second-rate career by much of the general public. “Retail has some work to do to make itself a career choice for young people,”

Sweetenham says. “I don’t really know any country that is good at promoting retail as a career. Retail is slightly celebritised here compared with the US, though. The boss of [US department store chain] Bloomingdale’s, for instance, would be seen as a good businessman, but he wouldn’t get anywhere near to someone like [Apple founder] Steve Jobs in America. He wouldn’t be known.”

He adds: “I like the concept of apprenticeships. Retail is not acknowledged enough by the Government or educational boards. There should be more formal retail qualifications like the retail management BA at Bournemouth University. The sector just doesn’t have the stature. Lots of people who do well in retail have simply tripped upon it as a career.”

For Sweetenham, his job is as much of a hobby as his cars (he now owns several). “It’s an infectious industry, especially the higher up you go. More people should appreciate that,” he says.

“There is such an appetite for social networking with young people today, but what they don’t realise is that working in retail is a form of exactly that - social networking.” The tough environment shouldn’t put people off choosing retail as a career either, says Sweetenham. “I don’t think the skills you need for retail have changed since the Venetian merchants. Even if the environment is tough, if you are talented and have got something to offer, those attributes will always get you a foot on the ladder.”

TJX Europe: Strategies for nurturing talent

TJXcellence

Once a year, every TJX Europe employee is invited to make an application to the senior leadership team to be considered for a different role/opportunity within the company. The application centres on what the employee believes their capabilities are outside their existing role.

Employees are then observed and assessed by an external company, and invited to make a presentation to the TJX European senior leadership team before an interview.

Examples of where this scheme has worked include graduate recruit Helen Gibbs - part of Drapers’ 30 under 30 feature (see p3 of the Next Generation supplement) - who now works in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) team, a 20-hour, a week part-time assistant in the Manchester store who was plucked from the shopfloor to join the property team, and a Liverpool store assistant who now works within the buying function.

“We recognise raw talent. This scheme is open to everyone. How many people succeed each year just depends on circumstances.

There isn’t a limit,” says Sweetenham. “We have a vested desire to move people across different functions.”

TJX Universities

The retailer has two “training universities”, in Boston in the US and Brussels in Europe and talented employees are sent to these ‘universities’ to “upskill” in their chosen function or in general leadership skills.

“It illustrates a commitment to permanent development of people. We are a teaching and learning organisation. We don’t have glass ceilings,” says Sweetenham.

CSR policies

TJX Europe has also raised £6.7m for Comic Relief via T-shirt sales and £10m for Cancer Research over the past five years and runs a project to build schools in Uganda. To date it has built 16 schools.

Dolce says: “CSR is implicit in the culture of the business and it is part of why people like to stay in the company.”

TJX facts

European turnover $2.2bn (£1.41bn) in 2009

European stores 252 TK Maxx in the UK; 47 TK Maxx in Germany; seven TK Maxx in Poland; 24 HomeSense across Europe

Number of employees in Europe 16,500

European head offices Watford and Düsseldorf

Readers' comments (1)

  • I was one of Pauls first employees in TK Maxx having previously worked for him at Champion Sports.
    I will never forget the first day i met him at Champion Sports Burton on Trent and he told me what his ambitions were,well mate you certainly have forfilled them and i wish you lots of luck for the future its a dam shame i never stayed with TK Maxx as i am sure i could of been a big part of its expansion but life goes on,i hope Jessica is well she must be 19 or 20 now how quick time flys.
    Good luck
    Steve Lovett

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