Management in 10 Words, Terry Leahy
Random House Business Books, £20.00
How apt it is to be reviewing Sir Terry Leahy's Management in 10 Words, as the country's schools and colleges release their class of 2012 onto the job market. There's more urgency than ever to the question of how to employ this new cohort of hopeful workers, as unemployment among under 25s just keeps rising, and rapidly.
For as long as I can remember, there has been 'retail career snobbery' - an attitude that a career in retail is somehow a poor choice, compared with the professions, manufacturing, the creative industries and, of course, the City.
Justin King, chief executive of Sainsbury's, said recently: 'Time and again, we have heard the words "shelf-stacking" used disparagingly. Retail is arguably one of Britain's most meritocratic industries. The vast majority of our store managers, and those in other retailers, started out shelf-stacking and they will tell you it was a vital part of their development.'
Leahy and his three brothers were raised in a two-bedroom prefab on a Liverpool council estate. His father was a carpenter who joined the navy when the Second World War broke out. He was injured when he was hit by shrapnel and contracted tuberculosis and had to stop working. So he became a greyhound trainer. 'Dogs and gambling, washed down with quite a bit of drink, became his life'. The family was so poor that Leahy lived in his school uniform until he was 16. However, his parents taught him 'the importance of manners, education, hard work, common sense and respect for others'.
He won a scholarship to Liverpool's top grammar school, which he says was his 'salvation'. Having studied business, he couldn't find work near his home, but he did get a job at Tesco stacking shelves in south London and just 18 years later he became its chief executive.
'At an early age, I'd learned that if I wanted to achieve something, I had to look to myself,' he wrote. 'Self-help, not "please help" was my mantra.' This sets the scene for the book, which mostly lacks personal anecdotes. This is not a book about the man, who is a deeply private individual, but one with tips and lessons to increase the chance of success in running businesses.
There are 10 chapters, each dealing with a different management theme, such as loyalty, trust, truth and values. Each chapter centres on Leahy's own experiences of running Tesco and how he tackled the turnaround of the company. He also talks about what he has learned from great company leaders, including Sam Walton of Wal-Mart and Taiichi Ohno of Toyota.
Leahy describes being at a government meeting where a senior official asked him: 'How did Tesco go from being a struggling UK retailer to the third largest retailer in the world?' Leahy replied: 'It's quite simple. We just focused relentlessly on delivering for our customers. We set ourselves some simple aims and some basic values to live by. And then we created a process to achieve them, making sure that they knew what everyone was responsible for.'
Apparently, there was a stunned silence. And then someone said: 'Was that it?' 'Yes,' he answered.
Right from the start, as Leahy was being promoted through the company, he knew that by 'relentlessly delivering for customers' and winning the loyalty of customers and colleagues alike, he would make the retailer the success it became.
In 1995, Leahy was promoted to marketing director and he makes no attempt to hide the significance of his Tesco Clubcard idea, which led to an 11% rise in sales on the morning of the launch. 'I knew something had changed in the industry forever, and my life along with it,' he said. Now, more than 43 million people have a Clubcard.
When Leahy joined Tesco, it was trailing Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer. Today, Tesco accounts for more than £1 in every £7 spent on the British high street. This book is proof that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
I would have liked more detail about Tesco's processes, as well as far more about Leahy's colleagues. And it's a bit too impersonal for my liking. I believe people and relationships are at the heart of all great organisations. Nevertheless, it is a book that is powerful in its simplicity, like the man himself.
For the class of 2012, Leahy should be an inspiration that starting on the shop floor is as good a way as any to achieve one's hopes.
Moira Benigson is managing partner at MBS Group, an executive search firm specialising in consumer and retail.