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Posted: 28 Oct, 2021

On 18th October, the second session of TMA NOW’s Spotlight Series took place. The Spotlight Series aims to shine a light on leading women in the restructuring, distressed and insolvency space and this session shone a light on Pippa Wicks, executive director at John Lewis and former Deputy CEO of the Co-op Group. Pippa was interviewed by Clare Kennedy, Managing Director in Turnaround and Restructuring at AlixPartners, on the challenges currently facing the UK’s retail market.

If you missed the session or would like to watch it again, you can find the recording here.

Opening the webinar, Gemma Smith, TMA NOW Committee Member and Vice President at AlixPartners, welcomed Pippa and Clare, asking them to reflect on their career paths and share how they reached their current positions.

Now an Executive Director at John Lewis, Pippa started out her career as a consultant, saying that consulting exposed her to lots of areas of business, helping her to learn that she wanted to work in retail and pursue a career in operations where she could ‘make things happen’. After taking some CFO roles Pippa then went back to consulting with AlixPartners before starting to take up non-executive director roles with Hays plc, Ladbrokes plc, Hilton International plc, Arcadia plc and The Metropolitan Police. Turning down the first seven non-executive roles she was offered, Pippa said she has clear criteria for the companies and people she wants to work with, wanting to work with people she respects and in roles where she is intellectually challenged.

Clare, now Managing Director at AlixPartners, said she has spent her entire career in restructuring, studying for and taking lots of exams in the early part of her career, followed by years of focusing on progression and pursuing promotions. After her second maternity leave Clare said she set her sights on becoming a Managing Director at AlixPartners and forged a path to get there by taking interesting and challenging appointments that would get her noticed. She also said that she benefited from having an excellent sponsor who advocated for her, something she now puts effort into doing for others.

Since joining John Lewis, Pippa has had to take some tough decisions and Gemma asked her to share her decision-making process. Pippa said that her process always starts with collecting and analysing data but also includes a great deal of empathy, remembering that decisions impact peoples’ lives. And while this impact can’t always be avoided, the stress caused to those affected can be minimised with a good implementation plan, following which, the focus can shift to rebuilding.

Asked by Gemma to share some advice for other women who want to get roles on boards, Pippa said that having a mentor to advocate for you and push you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do is a great way of progressing in your career. She also said it’s important to network and let colleagues and headhunters know you’re open to certain roles. While many women find the idea of networking a little daunting, Pippa said that she networks with people she has something in common with and likes so that it’s not too forced.

Giving advice to women looking to progress through the ranks in restructuring, Clare also said that having a mentor is a real benefit. She said it’s important to have clarity as to where you’re going in your career and while this doesn’t mean having a long-term plan all mapped out, it does mean having an idea about where you want to end up. Finally, Clare said it’s important to think about your values, how you want to conduct yourself at work and how you carry yourself throughout your career. She said she learnt early on that trying to compete and behave like a man doesn’t get you very far. Being authentic is powerful.

Moving on to discuss the pressures currently facing retailers, such as Covid-restrictions, inflation, transport and freight issues and labour shortages, Clare asked Pippa how these pressures are impacting John Lewis. Pippa said that like many retailers, John Lewis is being heavily affected. Due to Covid restrictions, John Lewis have lots of containers in the wrong parts of the world, many of them stuck at key ports in China that are closed due to infection spikes. Like others, they are also struggling with labour shortages and have increased pay and benefits packages to make joining the John Lewis partnership more attractive than joining another employer. Pippa expects the current challenges and their after-affects to last for another 18 months, and said John Lewis is doing all it can to ensure one of the most important periods in retail, Christmas, goes well. Chartering extra ships to ensure stock arrives on time, making stores feel safe and uncrowded, and securing exclusive product lines is all part of John Lewis’ plan to entice customers to shop with them over their competitors.

Reflecting on last year when lockdown and store closures meant retailers had to move entirely online, Pippa said that John Lewis was in the fortunate position of having 20+ years’ experience doing online retail. With the knowledge that customers that shop through their app are worth 4x more than their other customers, John Lewis has been investing in their online offering for some time and had the capability and capacity to deal with the uptick in demand. To keep up with the trend to online, John Lewis is investing £50m in its online platform and app this year as well as improving its click and collect option by forming partnerships with the Co-op and Boots so that customers have more than 1000 places around the UK where they can pick up their orders.

Looking to the future, Pippa said she thinks sustainability is something retailers should be focusing on. She also thinks retailers need to understand that shopping competes with leisure and to survive, brick and mortar shops need to think about what they can offer that can’t be bought or experienced online. Exclusive brand collaborations, food and drink outlets, and events are all things retailers can be doing to make their shops a destination worth going to.

Thank you to Pippa, Clare and Gemma for their time and to everyone who joined the session. The next Spotlight webinar will take place on 9th November with Berta Escudero and Federica Pietrogrande, Managing Directors at Gordon Brothers, discussing some of the challenges facing traditional retail companies and how the ABC model can be a way out for brands in crisis. Register here.


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