The chief executive of Alliance Boots’ health and beauty division is a ‘lifer’, with the brand running in his veins.
Alex Gourlay is not unusual in being a Boots lifer. There are many, like him, who have worked for the health and beauty giant all their lives. But he is unusual in that he is the only director from the old publicly quoted Boots to sit on parent Alliance Boots’ board.
Softly spoken Scotsman Gourlay was chosen to head up the health and beauty division and sit on the board last year by executive chairman Stefano Pessina. And Pessina - not a man given to going overboard with praise - is the first to highlight the role of Gourlay in the company’s success, saying last week that the retail arm was “thriving” under his leadership and helped the group to achieve profits of more than £1bn.
It is Gourlay’s ability to combine forward thinking with a deep understanding of the heritage of the Boots brand that caught Pessina’s eye.
And Pessina has former Boots chief executive Richard Baker to thank for spotting Gourlay’s talent.
Gourlay, who started out at Boots as a Saturday boy in one of the retailer’s Glasgow stores, was on a secondment in the human resources department when Baker joined the business in 2003. Baker remembers: “I was about three or four weeks in and I was annoyed that there didn’t seem to be anyone in the retail division who could do everything that I thought needed to be done. However, there was one guy in our Monday meetings - Alex Gourlay - who, when he spoke up, sounded very sensible.”
After one of the meetings at the Nottingham head office, Baker went to Gourlay’s desk and asked him to join him for lunch.
“We had fish, chips and mushy peas and, after two hours in conversation,
I asked him to become my stores director,” recalls Baker.
Baker says Gourlay had been a “very successful store manager” and what shone through in their conversation was “he was very customer-focused, as well as being sales-focused”.
He adds: “He is a great innovator and visionary and, importantly, is popular with his teams, as they see him as one of their own.”
Gourlay’s experience of the business is held in high regard by the current management, too. Alliance Boots chief executive Andy Hornby says: “There is so much depth to the Boots brand, which Alex just gets; it’s in his blood. Plus he has a genuine focus on the customer, and on customer service, which is so important.”
Gourlay, who trained as a pharmacist, has grasped the opportunities that private ownership of the business have given him. Over the past year, he has been instrumental in the creation of new growth avenues for Boots in partnerships with grocer Waitrose and mother and babywear retailer Mothercare. The deals will see Boots and Waitrose cross-sell products, while Mothercare is creating a range of kids clothes for Boots, which will hit the stores in September.
Gourlay is also exploring further ways to extend the Boots brand by opening its click-and-collect operation and Advantage Card to a select group of retailers.
Golf fan Gourlay is keen to grow the brand through partnerships while maintaining the Boots heritage.
When talking about the business, Gourlay’s enthusiasm is obvious and he is always at pains to praise his team for what the group has achieved so far.
As a Boots lifer with a clear vision of the potential for growth, Gourlay has emerged as a key figure in Pessina’s grand plan.
Family Married with two daughters
Enjoys Golf and football
2009 Appointed chief executive of Alliance Boots’ health and beauty division and to the board of directors. Managing director of Boots UK, with responsibility for health and beauty
2007 Appointed managing director of Boots UK and to the group operating committee. Prior to that, he was healthcare director of Boots the Chemists and held roles in store operations and HR
1981 Qualified as a pharmacist
1976 Joined Boots as a Saturday assistant