For a man who describes his personality as “100mph all the time”, crippling roadworks were a cruel irony for Richard Perry.
The newest store manager of the year still winces at the memory. Three weeks after taking over at Sainsbury’s Heyford Hill store in Oxford, on a mission to turn the struggling store around, massive roadworks brought the surrounding area to a standstill. Customers couldn’t get to the city centre store. Colleagues couldn’t either. After a week, sales had fallen 15% and customers by 20%. The nightmare lasted for seven and a half months.
“It was dreadful,” he recalls. “From day one it took me a ridiculous amount of time to get to work and when I did arrive my colleagues weren’t there. It was a ghost town. It turned our world upside down. It destroyed my trade. It was scary.”
Evenings and weekends brought some respite so the store worked hard to take advantage and to be ultra ready. And Perry upskilled staff during the downtime to keep them busy and boost morale (91% of colleagues are now multiskilled, compared with 31% when he arrived).
Finally, on 15 December and two months late, the roadworks ceased. But there was no time for relief. “Christmas hit us like an avalanche,” he says. “Normally you glide in but we had to be fit and ready.”
Which, it was. And the turnaround is complete. And sales - in a declining market - far from being impacted in the longer term, are up 2.8% year on year and customer numbers up 3,000 a week.
Presenting his case to a panel of judges at the Guildhall Perry admits to appalling nerves beforehand. “The Guildhall is imposing and so alien to my world.”
Yet his modesty (“I’m not perfect and I don’t pretend to be the smartest or the cleverest”) and passion (“the shop floor is everything to me”) shone through as he condensed 30 years of retail experience into a bravura performance over 20 minutes. And it needed to: the competition was the fiercest the judges could remember. And being on last didn’t help. “Waiting all day for the final slot was hard, but I felt better once I got in the room,” he says.
As to the night itself, Perry can barely remember much about the moment.
“I just remember Adam Leyland pausing before he announced the winner. The first word I heard was Sainsbury’s and my partner, Sue, reacted before I did. I was so stunned and shocked. Then there was an eruption of excitement from my table. It was amazing. I don’t remember anything after that, who I met, or what I did on stage. After that we had a few drinks and I spent a lot of time texting and ringing colleagues. It was a moment of great pleasure and I wanted to share it.”
New town, new job, no regrets
Perry joined Sainsbury’s in 1985 as a graduate trainee and “loved it”. “I was really excited. It was a whole new experience, a new town, a new job, and no regrets.” But it’s not been plain sailing. “I had a meteoric rise, then a plateau,” he says. “I was a deputy for five years and got frustrated. I went through a period where I was staring in the mirror thinking ‘what next?’ I wasn’t making the progress that I thought I should be making in my head”
He snapped out of his malaise thanks to a regional manager called John Hayler. “He saw a spark in me and I connected with him,” says Perry. “He believed in me, gave me the opportunity and self-confidence and the belief. Ten years later I am still working for him.”
That experience taught him a great deal about management and the pressures young store managers find themselves under. “It’s a very complex time but there is enough support and resource you can draw from to get you through the early days,” he says. “My values are akin to Sainsbury’s - trust, respect, integrity, transparency and realising the importance of people - and that’s what I always fall back on. I needed someone to believe in me a And now I understand my responsibility to others.”
As well as the 340 colleagues at Heyford Hill he now manages three Sainsbury’s Locals. “Having three c-stores is exciting; it’s a very different dynamic and a different customer. From a personal development view it’s the next stage for me.”
However, it was Heyford Hill he took the trophy home to. “It felt like a football manager bringing home the FA Cup. The response was overwhelming. They all clapped me in and the trophy has gone around the store. Everyone has wanted to hold it and touch it and look at it. There is a real sense it’s a team prize. And that’s what I wanted. It’s the highlight of my career.”
Status: I’m with my partner, Sue, and daughter, Megan, 16. I was preparing my presentation while she was doing her GCSEs.
CV: Joined Safeway as a part-timer aged 16. Joined Sainsbury’s in 1985 as a graduate and was an assistant manager 18 months later. Appointed deputy manager at a new store in Fareham in 1993 and won his first store manager role on the Isle of Wight in 2002. More store manager roles followed and Perry was shortlisted for Sainsbury’s store manager of the year in 2006. He joined Heyford Hill in 2014.
Best career advice: Be prepared to ask and get help. And learn from the people around you. Show vulnerability because business is a complex and changeable thing.
Currently reading: Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson.
Currently listening to: Oasis and Blur. That’s my era.