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Transformation man: Andrew Jennings' 45 years in retail

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With 45 years’ experience, Andrew Jennings has a track record of “transforming” struggling businesses across the globe. He talks to Drapers about the changing face of retail and why “almost” isn’t good enough

”A lot of retailers think they know who their customer is, but they don’t,” asserts retail veteran Andrew Jennings, speaking to Drapers over afternoon tea in central London. “I have a phrase: ‘haze in pulpit, fog in the pew’. If the senior management isn’t clear on the northern star – who the shopper is and what type of business they want to run – how can the middle management and junior members of the team implement the strategy?”

Jennings is full of such soundbites, as is his new book, Almost Is Not Good Enough: How to Win or Lose in Retail, published this month. And with almost five decades’ experience working at, and running, some of the biggest retailers in the world – Harrods, Saks Fifth Avenue, Karstadt – he is well placed to advise.

“I’ve had a privileged career over many years and continents, and I’ve learned a lot as someone who is still a student of retail,” he explains. “You can constantly learn. If you think you can’t, you are arrogant and you’re going to make mistakes. Too many mistakes are made in retail.”

The worst error, in his view, is to lose relevance: “The retail graveyard is full of brands that were once relevant, and the owners or management have let them become irrelevant to their customer. They didn’t move on.”

He argues that staying relevant is “not complicated” and breaks it down into four pillars: knowing your customer (“they will decide whether you are successful”); innovating (“show me a business that’s innovating with excellence and I’ll show you a successful organisation”); hiring talented and passionate people (“passion sets the human soul on fire”); and making sure your merchandising is on point (“you can’t underestimate inventory management”).

“You’ve got to have direction, and everybody needs to sing from the same hymn sheet. I’ve been at organisations and have asked 10 buyers to explain who the shopper is and they’ve all said different things. You then know there isn’t alignment – to be relevant you need that,” he adds.

Jennings has been interested in retail for as long as he can remember and showed an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age, growing and selling his own vegetables. Aged 18, he began his career as a management trainee at Debenhams and, a few years later, moved to his first international organisation,  

Greatermans department store chain in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was general manager. He then progressed to director of women’s fashion.

“I loved it,” he remembers. “The company had a modern way of thinking.”

From there, he moved to fellow South African department store Stuttafords as regional manager, before being promoted to chief operating officer in 1975. He remained in the role for 15 years before returning to the UK to be general manager at Harrods. His accent still carries a slight South African lilt.

Over the next 23 years, Jennings led a number of high-profile, global businesses, including House of Fraser, Ireland’s Brown Thomas, Canadian department store Holt Renfrew, US department store Saks Fifth Avenue, upmarket South African food retailer Woolworths, and German department store chain Karstadt Warenhaus. Today, he is an adviser to retailers including Australian department store Myer, a non-executive director at Ted Baker and chairman of Dutch variety chain Hema.

In retail, things change so fast. That’s what many retailers don’t understand or don’t want to understand

Throughout his career, Jennings has been known for turning businesses around, and prides himself on getting sales and profits back on track. When the retail boss joined Karstadt, the business was insolvent – he implemented a five-year modernisation programme focused on differentiating the product and cutting costs to return it to profit.

He says getting staff on board with his strategy and changing their mindsets was the single biggest challenge in his career: “In retail, things change so fast. That’s what many retailers don’t understand or don’t want to understand. At Karstadt the biggest challenge was changing the culture. Everyone thought it was a great company, but it was going bust. It needed to change its systems, processes and culture,” he says.

Despite the challenges, developing individuals and driving growth has been a career highlight: “I’ve been fortunate to have great teams and passionate people around me. It takes time to get people to change, but it can be done.”

Jennings devotes a lot of time to the next generation of retail leaders, particularly in his role as chairman of The Prince’s Trust Retail Leadership Group. This was one of the drivers for writing the book: “When I decided to put pen to paper, I wondered if people would be interested, but I’m really keen on sharing my experiences with young people.” All proceeds from the sale of the book go to the charity.

Ben Marson, director of corporate partnerships at The Prince’s Trust, says: “Andrew is a long-standing and valued supporter of The Prince’s Trust. With his enthusiasm and vision – not to mention his extensive experience in retail – he is really making a difference. In this role, he is helping us to inspire and mobilise the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors to support more and more disadvantaged young people. We feel very fortunate to have him working alongside us.”

Stores of the future will be exciting and focused. They will have an authoritative edit and understand what the customer wants

Even after such a lengthy and varied career, Jennings insists there has never been a more exciting time in retail than today. “Everything has to change. Shoppers are spending less on ‘stuff’ and are being more considered in their purchases. There was a time when my mum would wear Max Mara head to toe, but shoppers today buy ‘high–low’ – they team a T-shirt from Primark with a Prada bag.

“Customers are time starved, so they want a curated edit and they want to be able to shop it whenever, however and wherever they want.”

Jennings is convinced bricks and mortar has a “crucial” role to play in the future of retail, despite the growth of online: “Stores of the future will be exciting and focused. They will have an authoritative edit and understand what the customer wants. Returns per square metre will be key and we’ll see more sharing [of space] with cafes and shared work spaces. Personalisation will also be key in staying relevant to the shopper of the future.”

He adds: “We, as retailers, always need to be thinking ahead. I look at my six- and three-year-old grandsons and wonder how they will shop in the future. We need to be thinking about that now.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, agrees that thinking ahead and being agile are essential in today’s market: “Agility and being fleet of foot are the new retail CEO competencies. [In his book] Andrew provides real-life insight on what works – and what doesn’t – in a world changing faster than many can keep pace with.”

Independent retail analyst and consultant Richard Hyman has known Jennings for 30 years and believes he was ahead of his time in experiential retail: “I know of no leader in our industry with his breadth and depth of international retailing. He can draw on unmatched global experience and has always put ‘experiential’ at the heart of his approach. [He did that] decades before it became the fashionable word it is today.”

Jennings, a former marathon runner, shows no sign of slowing down. He insists he is entering the “second chapter” of his career, taking on a more advisory position: “I haven’t finished at all. When people ask when I’m going to retire, I say, ‘when I’m not relevant any more.’ I’m still learning and striving to be the best. I’ve always focused on raising the bar.”

He adds: “When I left one business, the team gave me a cushion, which I still have. It states ‘almost isn’t good enough’. It was my mantra and that’s where the title of the book came from. If you are satisfied, you won’t grow and the company performance won’t improve. We should always strive to be more.”


Jennings’ top 10 tips for retail success

1 Go big or go home

2 Execute ruthlessly

3 Manage inventory effectively

4 Point of view is key

5 Nurture passionate talent

6 Embrace technology

7 Embrace change

8 Joined-up thinking rules

9 Global domination is no panacea

10 Understand what you customer wants, needs and desires


Andrew Jennings career history

1990-1992 General manager and holdings board member, Harrods 

1992-1996 Group chief executive officer, House of Fraser

1998-2004 Deputy chairman, Brown Thomas 

1998-2004 President and CEO, Holt Renfrew

2004-2006 Group president and chief operating officer, Saks Fifth Avenue

2006-2010 Group managing director, Woolworths 

2011-2013 CEO, Karstadt Warenhaus

2014-present global retail adviser including senior retail adviser, Myer; non-executive director, Ted Baker International; chairman, HEMA; chairman, The Prince’s Trust Retail Leadership Group; non-executive director, AlphaWealth; non-executive director, Curzon 

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