Allan Leighton: Retail in the blood
Next time you enter an Asda store, don't be surprised if you see Allan Leighton lurking in the aisles.
The Royal Mail chairman and retail legend still maintains a keen interest in the grocer, despite having left eight years ago. Credited with turning around the grocery giant, Leighton likes to keep a watchful eye on its progress. Not that he needs to, he admits.
"Whenever I can, I go to the stores and I think they're in pretty good shape," says Leighton. "Andy Bond has done a really good job. Asda has taken advantage of the sweet shop that is Wal-Mart and has been able to go into that sweet shop and get the bits it wants. I'm pleased it is progressing so well. We tried to make it better when we were there and Andy has made it better still."
Last week, Leighton was named one of the UK's top executives in a new report by headhunter Directorbank. Famous for "going plural", he has occupied various roles in retail in the past 20 years, including board positions at Bhs, Lastminute.com and Selfridges, where he is deputy chairman at present.
"Retail is a great business to be in," says Leighton. "It's dynamic. Things happen by the minute, not by the day and you can do something today that has an impact tomorrow. That's the buzz.
"In my whole time in retail I don't think I've ever had a day where, at the end of it, I've felt in complete control. And that keeps you on the edge. I expect to be in retail for the next 20 years."
As well as Royal Mail, where he is due to step down as chairman next year, it is Canadian grocer Loblaws that is exciting Leighton at the moment. He is president of the retailer and splits his time between Canada and the UK. "I never moved out of retailing, I just moved location," says Leighton. "Loblaws is a C$30 billion dollar (£15.66 billion) retailer and I'm heavily involved. I'm getting my grocery kick every day in Canada at the moment."
With two decades of service under his belt, has Leighton ever seen tougher times than now for retailers? "I don't think any of us have been through anything like it before, because it's a different set of circumstances," he says.
"It's driven by the banks whereas, generally, downturns are driven by industry. It's less predictable, which spreads more uncertainty. And the thing any business wants is a degree of certainty."
But Leighton believes there is a ray of hope for grocers. "Recession is generally good for food retailers. There's an opportunity there and the big four all understand that and are all marketing their own piece of it."
All retailers have the potential to benefit from the economic squeeze, maintains Leighton. "Downturns give you the opportunity to look at your cost base. What are you investing your capital on? Are the hurdle rates right? How productive are you? Good leaders will take this as an opportunity to sharpen their business," he says.
Selfridges is Leighton's main retail interest in the UK today. Leighton says the company is in great shape. "Selfridges is a unique business," he says. "I'm biased, but I think it's probably the best store in the world. It's thrived in the past three to four years and I expect this to continue."
Tesco is another thriving retailer and Leighton is impressed by its "Britain's biggest discounter" initiative. "I went into one of its stores on Saturday and thought it was very good," says Leighton. "It is the best retailer in the world now. It executes better than anyone else."
Not that Sainsbury's or Morrisons has escaped his notice. "The four grocers in the UK are pretty bloody good – the rest of the world look at what they do," he says. "Particularly because they do huge volumes from relatively small footage and therefore the supply chain and infrastructure have to be pretty finely tuned. The UK grocers do infrastructure and supply chain better than anyone else. And that's the blood and guts of food retailing."
With such a penchant for British retailing, Leighton does not rule out a return to the sector as a chief executive. "Wait and see is the stock answer. I'm sure at some stage I'll definitely do something back in the UK, but I'm committed to what I need to do [at Loblaws]," he says.
Wherever he ends up in the coming years, one thing is certain: he won't go for an easy role. "I tend to do things that would be fun to do and are a bit of a challenge," says Leighton.
"I'm never a great one for running a steady state; I'm better when something needs to happen," he says. And as the downturn claims more retailers by the day, there is sure to be a ready supply of embattled companies for Leighton to choose from.
BEST IN CLASS
2008: president of Loblaws
2002-present: chairman, Royal Mail
2000: goes "plural" and sits on various boards including Selfridges', where he becomes deputy chairman
1999: chief executive, Wal-Mart Europe
1996: chief executive, Asda
1992: group marketing director, Asda
1991: sales director, Pedigree Petfoods
1983: managing director, Mars Ireland
1974: salesman, Mars
_____________________________________________ Author: Nicola Harrison, retail-week
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