Most British retail bosses not 'fit for purpose'

Internal hiring remains popular and many chief execs only have retail experience. But is that such a bad thing?

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 29 Apr 2016

The backgrounds of 32 current CEOs from the UK’s largest retailers (£1bn+ revenue) tell an interesting story. A quarter have spent their entire career working for one retailers, nearly a third cut their teeth working in store operations, 91% are male and 97% are white. 

The stats come from a new World Retail Congress and Green Park report, which claimed that many retail bosses aren’t  ‘fit-for-purpose’, particularly when it comes to a lack of digital nous and ‘data-driven skills’. A series of interviews with 100 chairmen, CEOs and senior execs from the retail sector found there were some lingering question marks over ‘the willingness of today’s CEOs to adapt’ that could pose a problem for the sector. 

There’s certainly evidence that many retailers have struggled to make inroads in the fast-moving online world; BHS’s recent pleas to its landlords a timely reminder that some high-street stalwarts aren't in the best of shape. 

Read more: The evolution of the digital director

The report suggests there’s very much an insular, stick with what you know approach in retail. The debate over whether Steve Rowe will be the man to turn around M&S’s flagging clothes division has often been opened by pointing out that he’s been at the company for nearly 30 years. A good thing because he knows the inner workings of the retailer, or bad as it could simply lead to more of the same?

While the proportion of women in executive positions has increased steadily, the percentage of those appointed CEO has not. The number of black and minority ethnic (BAME) CEOs remains very low and the report noted, not reflective of the 10% of BAME people in the UK working population.

Of course, the development of digital has been a dilemma for businesses across sectors, from publishing to telecoms - not just retail. Christine Cross, advisory board member at River Island and Monsoon Accessorize, said, ‘Do CEOs understand technology and data? No, probably not. It’s a bit like being a pilot of an A380 and not understanding what the controls do.’ 

Credit: World Retail Congress

That’s not to say some of the more widely seen traits among retail CEOs are negative.  A lack of external experience might mean fewer fresh idea but those hired from within know their customer well and often have a really thorough knowledge of how their business operates.

And you don't need to be the most technologically savvy CEO, as long as you're hiring those who can help on that front and acknowledging the importance of online developments. Nonetheless, retailers neglect understanding of digital commerce at their peril.

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