In our latest Transformational Leaders interview, Berwick Partners’ Alka Gandhi speaks to John Colley, Executive Chairman and CEO of Majestic Wine about leadership, lessons and the advice gained during a career within retail working for businesses such as Argos, B&Q, Kingfisher Plc and Majestic Wine. John’s experience spans both PLC and PE organisations both within the UK and internationally. Having returned to Majestic Wine over a year ago, John has been instrumental in the turnaround of the business during the toughest time that retail has faced.
When you took on your first CEO role, what was your biggest learning curve?
I was asked by the Maxeda Group Chairman Tony DeNunzio (Benelux’s leading DIY retailer) to be CEO for one of their key businesses based in Amsterdam. It was 2010 and the market was in recession at the time, I had been in the Benelux for a year acting as their Chief Commercial Officer, so it was a challenge plus I was unable to speak Dutch! It was a steep learning curve in which it became clear that the title alone did not make you a CEO; how you landed and created an impact did, so you need to be ‘comfortable with the title’ – by that I mean the way in which you communicate and engage with all your colleagues right from shop floor, to the board room. In retail, accessibility, visibility and communication for me are vital to earning respect and trust from your teams.
I also learnt that it was extremely important to build a good network of coaches and mentors. I was very fortunate to have Tony DeNunzio, a very experienced retail executive as my Chairman, this relationship was also key, a good relationship with your Chairman is critical, he became an important sounding board for me when I needed to get guidance and advice. Tony also encouraged me to develop a broader leadership behavioural skill set and introduced me to a leadership coach who I still work with today, this was invaluable in my early days making the jump from a technical specialist to one that was leading and guiding the team of technical specialists that made up my board.
In summary, I would say my biggest learnings were the importance of building a strong and broad network of relationships and still take time today to continue to do that. Such a network will undoubtedly become an invaluable font of knowledge as you progress through your career, not least of which in testing times of crisis you can pull together with ideas and support; I think today’s COVID challenges prove this!
You have led and been part of several boards. When you returned to Majestic, one of your first tasks was to build your exec team. What qualities do you look for when building a board?
Before I make any changes, I seek to understand the current board and will often find there are very good people. Usually by the time an individual is being considered for this level role, it is a given that the technical skills are there. However, I am more interested in their broader skills and their ability to
help to move the business forward and run it with me, and sometimes it's useful to have external assessments carried out to establish views on the team and get 3rd party opinion.
Basically, I want to ensure they complement my skills and style and that of the team. In addition, they need to complement and challenge the wider leadership team, whilst sharing core values and offer different views or experiences to encourage healthy debate.
I would also add that in a PE business, individuals need to understand the culture and differences of a PE board. There are certain areas which, if someone has come from a Plc environment (or not
worked in PE before), will find different. So, I ensure they do their due diligence to ensure goals, values and personal styles are aligned in a new environment.
Over the last five years the retail sector has faced huge challenge and change, now COVID-19 has placed further pressures. What advice would you give to emerging leaders preparing for their first Board role?
A good question – especially as a lot of even the most experienced executives have never been faced with a crisis like this and are still learning themselves, me included! Today’s leaders need to be agile and resilient in order to have a positive impact. They must have the confidence to be able to make decisions, sometimes tough ones quickly with their teams.
You cannot be taught resilience or agility, these come through experiences in my view– so I would say seek out situations and opportunities that challenge you, help you grow or take you out of your comfort zone. Be inquisitive, adaptive, and self- driven. The more tools you have in the toolbox, the more effective and valuable you will be to have on the exec team.
We will not always be in ‘crisis mode’. As I said previously, do not underestimate the power of building a good, broad network - because you cannot know everything! I have had many Zoom calls in recent months sharing ideas and ways of working with other senior leaders, one of the positives of the crisis and one I would like to see continue.
What is the best piece of advice that you have received in your career, and how has this shaped you both as a person and a leader?
I’m fortunate in that I would say that my father has been my biggest positive influence, particularly during my younger years. He was a senior executive within the retail industry so my ‘learning on the job’ started as a young boy. He has been a good sounding board for me over the years and still is. Again, this brings me back to the importance of a trusted network, but it is also important to remember that yes, people will help and support you, but they can’t do it for you!
Therefore, in terms of advice I would say: ‘understanding what you want is one thing but planning how to get it and building a plan around it is the key’. It helped me to approach my business and personal goals by creating a ‘life plan’. It provided me with goals and focus. This piece of advice forced me to think long and hard about the opportunities that arose and ask important questions; what would I learn, would it challenge me, can I make a difference here? Should I take this opportunity or is it an opportunity at all?
Having this focus gave me the confidence and belief in myself.
An impossible question – what do you see as the biggest challenge for retail over the next two years?
That’s a tough one because we don’t know what the real cost of the pandemic will be to the economy, let alone our sector. Sadly, I think we will see many more businesses disappear, but equally those that can demonstrate a real need, can differentiate themselves and have the agility and people to deliver a good proposition will survive and grow.
Let’s be honest, it was only last year that many had written Majestic off. But we had our best
Christmas ever in 2019. We have all the raw materials required to be successful; good colleagues, a strong brand, loyal customers. If we pull these levers in the right way…we should achieve good things.
For more information, please contact Alka Gandhi, Head of the Retail & Leisure practice. Alka specialises in leadership appointments partnering with businesses led by transformation, turnaround or investment growth strategies. Her clients include blue-chip, family owned, private equity and SME’s.Her functional experience extends across commercial, marketing, e- commerce, B&M and operations.