House of Fraser’s hire of Alex Williamson as its new chief executive raised eyebrows in the industry this morning.

Alex Williamson House of Fraser web index

The industry’s surprise was mainly due to the fact that nobody knew who Williamson was, let alone what qualities he might bring to the struggling department store chain.

Fresh from a pretty impressive run as chief executive of Goodwood – the 2,000-acre estate famous for the events that it hosts – Williamson began life not on the shopfloor but as an Ernst & Young auditor.

Following his stint at the big four firm, he headed to Warner Music and TUI Travel before arriving at Goodwood as finance director in 2008.

From Glorious Goodwood to harangued HoF

In the eight years since Williamson arrived at Goodwood – which plays host to various events including the Festival of Speed motorsports weekend to horse racing at Glorious Goodwood – he has delivered double-digit growth every year.

“We are not the only organisation to highlight that we [department store chains] need to change … [we are] the only retailer to have put a head on the business who has come from that background”

Frank Slevin, House of Fraser

Goodwood has gone from having an annual turnover of £49m and not making a profit to nudging a £100m turnover with £8m free cash since Williamson’s arrival.

He did this by tightening up how the business managed its cash flow and its approach to investment.

Once he was able to see the business’s possible growth trajectory more clearly, he carefully balanced investment against profit, only investing when it was clear it would pay off.

While those numbers are impressive, the size of the business is dwarfed by House of Fraser – its gross transaction value was over £1bn last year.

Williamson took the top job at Goodwood in 2012, working in tandem with Lord March, owner of the estate and the eldest son of the Duke of Richmond, to ensure that the 17th-century grounds in West Sussex not only survives but thrives.

If making sure a costly estate survives by drafting in experiential events sounds familiar then you’ve clearly been paying close attention to House of Fraser’s new strategy.

HoF chairman Frank Slevin – also not a retailer by trade – was quick to point to Williamson’s appointment supporting that aim.

“We are not the only organisation to highlight that we [department store chains] need to change,” he told Retail Week.

“But we appear, at the moment, to be the only retailer to have put a head on the business who has come from that background. That reflects how important it is to us to deliver a customer experience-led proposition.

“Alex brings great depth of experience when it comes to delivering an exciting, compelling lifestyle-led experience, which, if we are going to transform department store retail, we need to be embracing.

“Transformation isn’t delivered by classic retail appointments.”

Change agent

His view was echoed by a number of headhunters today.

“It is an unusual appointment”

Nicola Wensley, Page Executive

“It has certainly been the month for unusual appointments with bikes and burgers at M&S and now this,” said Aqua retail managing director Mary Anderson-Ford.

“The industry does need to go back to retail theatre, it has to be a day out, an enjoyable past-time and – potentially – House of Fraser is ahead of the game with this one.”

Page Executive fashion director Nicola Wensley points out that recruiting from outside the industry and prioritising soft skills is a growing trend.

“It is an unusual appointment,” she acknowledges. “But you have to think about the future retail chief executive and what skills they are going to need.

“I think we are starting to see a lot of appointments coming from outside the industry with a customer-led approach.

“The age-old appointments of shopfloor retailers will not be as common. Instead, we are seeing innovators and change agents who might not need to come from the industry.”

Meshing with the team

House of Fraser certainly set out on its chief executive search with an open mind.

“Obviously the initial candidate list was heavily weighted towards retail but it included people from hospitality and leisure”

Frank Slevin, House of Fraser

“We threw the net open quite widely at first,” Slevin tells Retail Week. “Obviously the initial candidate list was heavily weighted towards retail but it included people from hospitality and leisure.

It speaks a lot for Williamson that he outshone those with abundant retail experience.

Slevin says: “He is very much looking forward to bringing his experiences from Goodwood and developing his vision. I think he will complement the existing team very well.”

Another headhunter believes that Williamson will need to mesh well with the existing House of Fraser team as his lack of retail experience will otherwise hinder him.

“He is known as being an innovative guy and a high-energy, bright, ideas man so he will bring fresh thinking and a different perspective,” she says.

“The benefit [he brings] is a much broader view on how you premiumize an offer and how you create that customer experience in a premium environment.

“Goodwood has got a huge range of businesses so when you’re thinking about the drive towards experience then it works.

“On the other hand, he does not have the scale, complexity, product piece and the retail background.

“He will have to be a very strong leader in terms of building a team around him. He will need a very robust management team in order to land his great ideas.”

Williamson will swap his view of Goodwood’s rolling acres for the bustle of House of Fraser’s Baker Street HQ later this summer.

The industry’s eyebrows will have relaxed by then – but all eyes will be trained on him.