Transformational Leaders: Peter Pritchard, Group CEO of Pets at Home

Transformational Leaders: Peter Pritchard, Group CEO of Pets at Home
Published: 2 January 2020

Berwick Partners speaks to Peter about leadership, lessons and his advice to future leaders. Two years ago, Peter Pritchard moved into the Group CEO role at Pets at Home at a time when the business was facing some major challenges. He has not only been key to transforming the business but also developing a strong leadership team and culture. Pets is enjoying a much-deserved period of success following some exciting initiatives. His message is clear that to succeed you must invest to understand your consumer and serve those needs.

When you became CEO, what was your biggest learning curve?

The first thing that I felt was that nothing had prepared me for this job; my first CEO role. However, I very quickly realised that I had been fortunate to have had lots of great ‘experiences’ and the chance to learn from some exceptional people. But, to be honest it’s not until you ‘sit in the top seat’ that you realise how difficult and complex the job is, and you need to draw upon all your past learnings, bringing it all together under one hat. I have had a rounded and broad background which has certainly helped me stepping into this role.

Two years later, I can truly appreciate what a steep learning curve it has been; getting up to speed pretty quickly and facing new experiences such as the investor roadshows for the first time. Becoming the ‘outward face’ of the organisation was certainly a ‘baptism of fire’. Because you are truly responsible for the breadth of the business the key is to find a way to quickly grasp areas that you have no or little experience of – that was probably the biggest challenge to stepping into the role.

How do you ensure that as a leader you continue to learn and evolve?

Interestingly, this is where I think most CEO’s get it wrong. They assume that they have got the top job and that’s it – they are top of their game. For me personally, I think it’s important to keep learning and developing. I recognised this immediately. This was my first CEO role, so I proactively joined an external year-long programme for newly appointed CEOs. It was transformational. It helped me develop an external perspective on the organisation. Sometimes it is too easy to get ‘sucked into the pets view’ of the world. I would encourage leaders to be curious and explore the world outside of their ’castle.’ And if the CEO isn’t doing this then who is?

This year I spent a week with digital businesses in China, meeting CEOs, understanding their businesses, lives and looking to see what I could learn and bring back to my business. I have to say that whilst being a CEO is a tough job – I have been blown away by the kindness of other CEOs, particularly their desire to share learnings and genuinely open about things that have worked and those that haven’t.  I have also spent a week in Germany and the US meeting with retailers and leaders there.

In addition, at the time of my appointment we formed a new leadership team and were keen to ensure that the team developed in a structured way. As a leader it is key that you not only focus on your development but also ensure that your team is being developed – I think this has been a game changer for us!

The retail landscape has changed so much and so rapidly, what advice would you offer to future leaders preparing for a CEO role?

Firstly, I would say substitute the word retailer for ‘satisfying the customer’.  Retail is no longer about ‘selling stuff’. The role has shifted to satisfying the needs of customers – accept this and you will be in a better place to understand the ‘purpose’ of your business and build the right capabilities required to deliver this.

I often get asked the question, ‘why is your business doing so well?’ My answer is always ‘because we are not are not a retailer, we are pet care business whose ‘purpose’ is to help the customer with all aspects of caring for their pets.’

Dig deep – by that I mean revaluate your business, ask the uncomfortable questions and most importantly make sure you are aligned to what your customers are asking you to do.

My advice is to go out and get as much diversity of functional experience as you can. You don’t have to be an expert in it all, but when you are in the top seat it will be invaluable when you are responsible for CSR, trading, finance, marketing etc. Be prepared to put yourself outside your comfort zone. I was fortunate to have worked across a broad range of areas at Asda where I was moved into several roles outside of my ‘core’ skill set. At times it was painful, but also empowering.

Learning is valuable – don’t stop. Have a go at as many things as you dare!  And finally, it’s ok to make a mistake. 

What are the top 3 qualities that you look for in your leadership team?

That is easy, in addition to the relevant skills I look for:

  • Firstly, ‘Experiences’ – bruises, blood, failure(lessons) and of course business success.
  • Secondly, I look for people who have the right cultural fit for the organisation (not look, sound, operate the same) but come with the same set of core values and beliefs.
  • Thirdly, I never recruit anyone I wouldn’t want to have dinner with. When you are spending most of your week with people, make sure you like them, it makes work easier and more fun. I can genuinely say that I not only respect my senior leadership team but also enjoy working with them.

What experience has shaped you both as a leader and a person?

I think the most important thing that has shaped at least 60% of me is my family; the work ethics that I was brought up with and general values such as respect and kindness.

From a work perspective I have been lucky enough to work with talented leaders and that has allowed me to see ‘what good looks like’. Individuals such as Allan Leighton, Archie Norman, Justin King and others – seeing them operate has helped me to learn and develop my own style.

Looking ahead 5 years – what do you see as the key challenges facing leaders in retail?

Coping with change and uncertainty will be a challenge. I think the concept of a 5-year business plan is flawed; we need to think of it as the 5-year direction. Leaders will need to be more agile and adaptable in their thinking and responses. This will be a learning curve for many.

Another challenge will be sustainability of talent and the internal drive to keep things moving forward in the face of adversity. Personal resilience will be critical for leaders – along with the need to ensure they take time to recharge to avoid ‘burn out’ – something that is still overlooked. Today’s world is more competitive and challenging. We are seeing new and unknown issues arising every day, with greater expectations on employees. Sometimes I compare my role to that of a priest – helping my team ‘keep the faith’. No matter what’s going on outside in the world, my role is to always provide support and guidance.

The responsibilities and expectations on leaders will continue to increase requiring individuals to think about their legacy. Not just their impact today.

For more information, please contact Alka Gandhi, Head of the Retail & Leisure practice across our offices in Manchester, London and Birmingham. She 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.

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