After stepping down from Marks & Spencer and Asda, retail legends Sir Stuart Rose and Andy Bond give Charles Wilson and Adam Leyland their tips for the next generation

Congratulations on all you’ve achieved in your careers. You’ve had a fantastic impact on the trade.

But with the economy in the doldrums, is this still a good industry to work in? What advice would you give to the next generation about starting out in grocery retail?

Sir Stuart Rose: “This is the most exciting industry you can work in. I started on a shop floor in 1971, and in those days there was a certain snobbery around shopkeeping, but no-one is in doubt today about retail’s importance. It’s dynamic, fast-moving, offers a multitude of roles and operates as a true meritocracy. I’m living proof. If you are hardworking, warm breathing and good you can get to the top. It’s fantastic.”

Andy Bond: “There are a lot of young people in retail, and the great thing is it promotes and rewards talent quickly. I started in retail at 28, but whether you go to university first, or join from school, as [new Asda CEO] Andy Clarke did, there are different routes to the top, and you can’t say that of many industries.

“Whichever route you choose, however whether you’re a school leaver, or enter from university my advice is the same: get a good training at a big retailer or fmcg firm. As Malcolm Gladwell says, it takes 10,000 hours to be world class at anything. There are no shortcuts.

“It’s like sport. As a teenager, I was a good sportsman. While the similarities can be overstated, sport offers a fantastic set of lessons for business and retail. You learn: what you put in is what you get out; dedication, focus, discipline; you learn to plan/do/review and follow a system to achieve success.”

So what would be your advice to a new store manager?
Rose: “I would say: embrace the experience, go the extra mile. Better service does make a difference. A good store manager can impact store takings by 10% and if you achieve that you’ll get noticed.”

Bond: “I never got the chance to be a store manager  it wasn’t quite the culture at Asda and I started in retail at 28, so it seemed a bit late but I salute Tesco for being so dogmatic in insisting on it for its senior leadership. It would have been very beneficial.

“But my advice for a new store manager is to get close to customers and colleagues as quickly as possible. On your first day work on the tills and ask as many customers as you can about what they think of the store. On the second day stock the shelves and get to know the colleagues.

“A store manager is a leadership role, and when you’re managing as many as 500 people, understanding people is what it is about. Too many store managers sit in an office. You need to be on the floor.”

Rose: “There’s a feeling I get from new recruits that they want to be managers straight away. I was on the shop floor for five years. It was the most important experience I ever gained in learning this industry.

“There isn’t a day that has gone by since that I did not relate to what I learnt on the floor the impact of a product on shelf, the feel of the store, getting to know the consumer and what they want.”

What advice would you give to a new buyer?
Bond: “Again, I would go and spend time in store. And not just filling shelves to understand the category, but learning what customers expect from you. It is easy to focus backwards down the supply chain managing the suppliers.

“But you should focus on the consumer. Retailing is all about being close to customers. And remain humble even in a junior role, you have power, but you have a responsibility: you are there to be the advocate for the consumer.”

Rose: “The other thing I would add is to have good antennae on the market, competition, trends and the consumer. If you go full price and others go on sale, you’ve got a big decision to make. So remember: what you plan is only 50% about what you do; it’s 50% what the market is doing. You have to know the market and the detail.”

Any advice for a new retail CEO?
Rose: “My advice is to listen. In the first 30 days listen. As well as consumers, your own people will often know what needs to be done there is a huge amount of knowledge in an organisation. You are the conductor, you set the tempo, but a leader cannot do everything. They need to get everybody to play their part.”

Bond: “Focus is also critical. The job of a CEO can be all-consuming. I focus on three buckets: people, strategy and execution. People: you are the people director. So understand what’s on their mind and what the recruitment needs are. Strategy: you are the strategy director. So define and communicate the strategy. Execution: a lot of CEOs get disassociated from the day-to-day. But if you are not close to execution you cannot define the strategy.”

What advice would you give to a supplier?
Bond: “Obviously knowledge of the ultimate customer is vital. But be humble enough to acknowledge that retailers invariably know the consumer better we’re in shop every day and are the most prolific product development groups in Britain.

“I’ve sat in far too many presentations relying on grey, colourless quantitative and qualitative insights, which are not on the heartbeat of the consumer.

“The result is that suppliers have a fixed way of viewing a category, without acknowledging that Asda, Tesco and Spar consumers see and use the category in different ways.”

Rose: “And don’t treat the relationship as adversarial. Work with the retailer to add value through innovation and value for money.”

You seem to have really enjoyed your career. But what was your best day in retail and what was your worst?
Rose: “The best was seeing off Philip Green and keeping Marks & Spencer an independent business. The worst was knowing how big the task was to get the business back on track.”

Bond: “The best, for me, is easy: becoming CEO of Asda. It was the summit of my aspirations and the day before my 40th birthday.

“It’s hard to single out the worst. I’ve had so many bad days. My career is littered with failures. But failure is important. If you don’t fail you don’t learn and you haven’t taken a risk.

“And we’re not doing enough to encourage failure as a necessary by-product of risk. As a leader you must encourage risk taking and this requires failure. People learn from failures and move on.”

Rose: “Never worry about making mistakes; the trick is not to make the same mistakes twice. Every day in retail is an exciting day. Be energetic, be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s a superb industry.

“I just wish I had known then what I know now because I would have worked twice as hard.”

Read more
Charles Wilson Q&A: Tesco ‘is the scariest beast in UK grocery’ (26 February 2011)
Editor’s Comment: Grocery leads the way as perfect storm looms (26 February 2011)