Ben Stimson switched jobs from Retail Director of Waitrose to Digital Director in the same week he started his first corporate NED role - the Nurole-appointed Non-Executive Directorship of boatyards-owner Premier Marinas (owned by the Wellcome Trust). But Stimson was already a pro at change, having joined John Lewis Partnership in 2010 as a ‘Senior Learner’ - best explained as a mid-career training programme - leaving his role of entertainment giant Sky’s Head of Reputation. His earlier career involved a spell as a Managing Consultant for multinationals including Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, and, his first role after graduating with PPE from Oxford, as a Policy Adviser for business lobby group the CBI. Stimson had a number of Non-Executive roles before joining Premier Marinas, including as Chair of the Nationwide Building Society’s charitable foundation. Here he talks digital, retail and his tips for a successful a NED application process.
You’ve been a chair of Nationwide’s foundation and two other boards, plus experienced your own NED application processes- what’s your tips to those putting together an application?
From my Chair perspective, I’ve been really surprised at how much people underestimate the need to really find out about the business that they’re hoping to help govern. It’s vital to really understand what the business is, and bring your perspective to it. Before I went for my most-recent NED interview, I ‘mystery shopped’ a couple of the marinas - I wanted to have had the experience of visiting them and be able to discuss what I’d found.
I also think it’s important to think about how you could apply your past experiences to the one you’re keen to secure. I’d Chaired and been Trustee for a couple of voluntary sector boards before my NED role - so felt I had to convince people that the Non-Exec perspective from voluntary sector organisations applies just as much in the for-profit context. I was quizzed, for example, on my past experience being part of an audit subcommittee. You can build up your experience in a lot of ways, not just on large, corporate boards.
Talking of cross-relevant skills, what can retail professionals bring to non-retail boards?
The main expertise you bring to a board is knowledge about connecting with your customer. Working in retail gives you a deep, live knowledge of what people are doing everyday in terms of consumption. Speaking personally, whilst I was running Waitrose stores as Retail Director, I picked up perspective on running a large scale operation with a team of people who know how to interact with customers, including the problems that causes and fun that creates. That feeds into so many businesses - with Premier Marinas, for example, I’ll be focusing on making the most out of what our marinas offer - how the restaurants, cafes and shops can widen their appeal to lots of different groups of customers, as well as the core boating customer.
You don’t come from a tech background but are running digital at Waitrose - how do you think Non-Execs on boards - without extensive IT operations experience - help firms with digital transformation?
There are certainly lots of people spouting a lot of jargon about digital. But my view, in a larger business, is that being digital means understanding your customer properly, and being really connected to them. From there, it could mean having an app that makes it easier for groups of customers to access your business, or having the right technology in your shops to transact easily, but at its heart it’s about knowing your customer and what they want.
What’s key for a digital business?
Speed. At Waitrose, the online business means running five websites and two apps, and the heart of it is reacting to customers much more quickly. It’s finding out on a Monday that our customers want X and having it on the website by Friday. It’s about getting the organisation set up to speedily work out what a customer wants, and even more speedily, to respond to that want. Previously, digital investment meant spending years of time and even more money on huge projects - now it’s about being more agile, moving faster to changing demands.
How do you respond to constant demands to measure digital success?
It’s not that the business chooses whether to invest or not, it’s the customer who chooses. You don’t have a choice about how the customer will shop with you, and if your app doesn’t allow your customer to, say in the marinas business, buy electricity easily, then people will go dock elsewhere. It’s not just about proving the return, it’s about staying ahead. It’s true that you can spend a lot of money very quickly in IT - but the heart of the matter is, lots of people might say ‘wouldn’t it be nice if people came into shops rather than go online?’, but that’s not what is happening across the whole retail industry.
If you had to invest in a new retail business today, what area would you opt for?
Something that’s a huge social and environmental issue but also an opportunity: a business that finds a way to avoid the intensive plastic packaging and materials used to deliver and sell food. The number of customers who tell us they want to address the amount of plastic they use, and the way food is packaged - at Waitrose we’re moving in the right direction, but I’d like it to move even faster.
Do you think the High Street will still exist in 20 years?
Yes- it’ll look fundamentally different, but it’ll still be there. There will be masses of disruption and it’ll be very tough, but also there are lots of opportunities. People are always going to be wanting to pop into a shop and choose what they want, go to a cafe, have an experience - it’s not all just about speedy delivery.
How have you found the Nurole experience?
Really good - as a candidate, I initially was concerned that a digital headhunter would mean no human interaction at all, but the site was straightforward, the updates were good and at all the right points there was someone talking on the phone - it just worked.
Let’s finish with a few quick-fire questions...
What was your biggest break?
Getting a job at John Lewis Partnership, age 40, as a Senior Learner - sort of a mid-career re-training programme.
What are you reading now?
Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts.
What’s your favourite quote?
”Daddy, can I have more screentime.”
What do you do to have fun?
Eat good food.
What’s your favourite app?
The new challenger banks’ apps, where I see a lot of innovation.
When does your alarm go off and how many hours of sleep do you get?
5.45am, and 6-7 hours.
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