Five years of strong performance has seen bed store chain Dreams rack up higher profits and sales figures despite a ‘challenging UK retail environment’. Alka Gandhi, Head of the Retail Leadership Practice at Berwick Partners speaks to Mike about the company’s dramatic transformation and his advice for senior leaders.
Mike is a passionate leader with retail running through his veins. He began his career at Marks & Spencer working both in the UK & Hong Kong before moving to Phones4U. He then joined Gamestation as Managing Director where he embarked on an exciting and successful period resulting in the sale of the business. Prior to becoming CEO of Dreams, Mike held roles with both Asda and Mothercare.
What motivated you to take on the role of CEO at Dreams in 2013 and what skills as a leader have you developed during this time?
Following a discussion with an exceptional leader, Katie Bickerstaffe, I realised instead of going back into another big corporation role I wanted my ‘own train set’. Ten years earlier I had grown and sold a small to midsized retailer, Gamestation, and I knew that had been an incredible experience, I loved the accountability. After the disappointment of Mothercare, I recognised that joining Dreams was a huge risk to my career but, with the total support of my family, I knew it was the right challenge for me and I was so determined to improve the business.
During my time at Dreams due to the strength of my leadership team, I have been able to invest in my strategic development, spending time in the USA ensuring I’m up-to-date by enhancing my knowledge on the latest technology and innovations, enabling Dreams to invest for the future.
As a leader what are the key factors that you should consider when commencing a business turnaround?
Firstly, you need to be honest with yourself to ensure you have the experience, skills and crucially the determination that it is going to require. As someone told me prior to joining Dreams ‘this is a no training environment’ i.e. I needed to hit the ground running!
Secondly, you must make sure you have an outstanding CFO who also has the skills, previous experience of a turnaround and credibility with the suppliers and shareholders.
Thirdly, you must be comfortable and confident with your owners and major shareholders, so you ensure, very quickly, that you are all aligned to the same plan, targets and timescales.
Having worked both in listed and private equity organisations such M&S, Asda, Mothercare and Dreams, what qualities do you look for in future leaders? And what advice would you give someone aspiring for a role on the board?
I look for leaders who care - care about people, care about customers and care about working together to consistently improve. It is so much more enjoyable and productive to work with people who want to build a business properly, ensuring it is built well and that it can perform for customers and colleagues, rather than with those who just want to run as quickly as they can so they can look down from above!
For those aspiring to be a board director, I would say keep educating yourself at work, and when the time allows outside of work, once you have gained the right experience an opportunity will arise. Remembering that when it does you are only at the start, you need to keep learning and developing to ensure you, and the organisation, can continue to grow and improve.
What is the best piece of advice that you have received? (And how has it shaped you both as a leader and person)
Well, I do remember my first piece of advice from Mr Stewart at Marks & Spencer, Perth, (when I was a management trainee). It was the day Lord Rayner the Chairman was visiting. ‘If in doubt, faint’ was his advice if I did not know the answer to any of his questions! Not something I’ve advised others to do!
The best advice I’ve ever gained was from Andy Bond, the CEO/Chairman of Asda Walmart. Andy was one of the best leaders I have worked for.
I always admired how focused he was and the quality of his questions - but also how much time he made to ensure he was fit and healthy. I remember thinking if he can do it, I can - how can I aspire to be a really good leader if I cannot manage myself better. It changed my life.
Finally, what do you see as the key challenges facing retail leaders in the next 5 years?
The ‘pace’ of change has always been there in my 30 years ‘in retail’, however, the current ‘scale’ of the changes is greater. Keeping your business ‘current’ and fit for the future will be increasingly challenging over the next 5 years as the cost of technology for new entrants decreases. Actively listening to your customers and colleagues and making decisions/taking action to improve the business daily/weekly will keep you relevant.