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Why are retailers hiring strategy directors?


Farfetch and Marks & Spencer are among the fashion retail businesses enlisting strategists to bring a new perspective to their operations.

As the economic landscape changes, so too do the skills businesses need to survive. In a bid to chart a course through the competitive high street and the ongoing upheaval created by the Brexit vote, retailers are looking for fresh talent and new perspectives. And increasingly, they are bolstering their workforce with a new top job. Strategy directors are becoming a regular appointment, report the industry’s top headhunters.

Luxury online retailer Farfetch appointed former president of Net-a-Porter’s The Outnet, Stephanie Phair, to the newly created role of chief strategy director at the end of 2016. Marks & Spencer followed suit by recruiting consultant Melanie Smith as strategy director in May in a new role designed to “look forward and oversee growth opportunities”. Smith was previously global marketing and strategy director at private healthcare provider Bupa, and a partner at strategy consultancy McKinsey.

Away from fashion, other retailers are also prioritising strategic skills and adding roles focusing on the overall direction of the business. Sainsbury’s made former development director Irvinder Goodhew director of business transformation in February, and Argos appointed Huw Crwys-Williams as synergy and transformation director in June.

Headhunters expect the trend to continue as retailers battle to stay one step ahead of consumers and competitors. Here they explain why.

caroline pill


Caroline Pill, vice-president of executive search at Kirk Palmer Associates

We’ve seen a wave of businesses looking for this kind of role. Retailers need someone who can articulate a plan on how the business can grow, make consumer experience more relevant and examine what it makes sense to do globally as the world opens up and becomes even more accessible.

One could even compare the strategy director role to that of an “internal consultant” who can take a step back, look at the consumer and ask, “What are they getting? Are they happy? And how can we make their experience more seamless and enjoyable?”

Often, a strategic director will be someone who has a consulting background, and experience observing and analysing a business in a more objective way. You also want someone with strong operational expertise, as it is just as important – if not more so – to be able to implement the strategy. This is not the kind of role you can be in for six months. Trust and an aligned vision with the CEO is paramount.


Fran minogue

Fran Minogue, managing partner, Clarity Search

Appointing strategy directors is not happening in fashion as much as in other areas, so perhaps fashion needs to catch up. Many fashion brands aren’t as big as those in food and electricals, for example, which have more resources to hire specialists and can invest in this talent. It is something more clothing retailers should be thinking about – the market is becoming increasingly crowded and there is the argument that if you take the branding off a dress or a T-shirt, you can’t tell where it’s from.

Retailers need to work harder at creating a differentiated proposition and taking a customer insight-led approach to product development. It is interesting that, wlthough she doesn’t have fashion experience, Jill McDonald (who is due to join Marks & Spencer from Halfords as managing director of clothing, home and beauty) has a marketing background, and Gordon Mowat, who is joining her team as director for clothing and home supply chain logistics and planning, spent most of his early career at consultancy McKinsey, so maybe the message is getting through.


sarah lim

Sarah Lim, managing director and retail sector lead, UK and EMEA, Korn Ferry

We’ve definitely seen more retailers looking for strategy directors. I think it’s a very good indicator of the stress the sector is under and that businesses are having to think about new strategic options. They have to think competitively about which markets they should enter, where they want to play and where they can win, which are all classic issues for a corporate strategist.

Often CEOs are spending most of their time managing shareholders in the City, as well as the day-to-day running of the business, so they are too busy to go deep into strategic plans. It’s a trend I expect to continue and something we’ve seen particularly in bigger organisation and in pureplays.


The Drapers verdict

Everyone in retail knows today’s market is challenging. Adding someone able to focus solely on the right routes for future growth, what can be improved and what consumers want is a clear advantage. However, this kind of top-level position is sure to be expensive at a time when many are watching costs.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Many businesses are run badly, some very much so.

    Instead of these CEO's getting their P45's, they get a strategy director in to get the company moving and can claim credit at the same time.

    Therefore one job is created to hide the incompetence of another.

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  • Where are the CEOs with vision? Those who take risks and try something different in this sector? Traditional retail is so slow to act. Is it because they are mostly finance people who inherently try to squeeze pips from methods that are quickly becoming outdated?

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