Robbie Feather is the first chief executive hired outside the Fenwick family, and should bring the benefits of his diverse background to the historic group.

While he’s risen through retail’s echelons quickly, Feather did not begin his career in shop keeping.

After reading law at Cambridge, he trained as a barrister before joining consulting firm Coba Group, which specialised in leveraged buy-outs and where he worked for four years.

In an abrupt volte-face, he then joined Asda as a category manager in 1996, leaving after three years to co-found bedroom furniture retailer Feather & Black, alongside business partner Adam Black.

“He’s got a sense of vision and a good strategic brain, so he’s very rounded”

Richard Pennycook, Fenwick

A decade later, Feather returned to the retail fold with a two-year stint at John Lewis as electricals and home technology buying director.

He joined Sainsbury’s in 2011 and has held various positions in the group since, the most recent being Argos commercial director – a post that he’ll leave at the end of the year.

A family affair

Feather’s arrival at Fenwick comes as the historic family business is in the midst of a hiring spree.

The family, who have been the guardians of their business since 1882, are gradually relinquishing day-to-day control of their retail empire, five generations after founding father John James Fenwick set up shop in a Newcastle doctor’s house.

Since the departure of chairman Mark Fenwick last year, group trading director Hugo Fenwick and managing director Adam Fenwick both stepped down from their roles.

Chairman Richard Pennycook, also the first non-family member in his position, joined the business in February. Chief financial officer Peter King, formerly of The Fragrance Shop, arrived in 2016, while multichannel boss Kate Smyth – who has spent her career in fashion – was appointed in May.

Leadership style

Feather’s tenure at John Lewis is expected to set him in good stead for adapting to Fenwick’s culture. His decision to establish Feather & Black also appealed to the board.

“Obviously JLP isn’t a family business, but my sense is that the culture is somewhat similar to that, so I think he will get our culture very quickly,” Pennycook told Retail Week.

“He’s got some entrepreneurial flair and bravery, which you need, and we liked that about him.

“When you talk about 21st century leadership and getting away from demand control – the way that retail used to be run – I think Robbie’s style is much more inclusive and collegiate. And he’s pretty tenacious. He’s also got a sense of vision and a good strategic brain, so he’s very rounded.”

Feather’s management style will be instrumental to the department store chain’s success in a tough market. Fenwick’s profits dipped by a third in its last year, dented by both investment in digital and markdowns, while sales were flat.

“We’ve got a plan, which is in pretty good shape, but it needs to be owned by the CEO,” said Pennycook.

Fenwick’s new strategy will also include finally having a transactional website, which should arrive around the end of 2018, and investing in next generation flagship stores, such as its new Bracknell venture.

All the while, it will continue to pump money into all things “experiential” in a bid to see off leisure spending and online shopping.

Fenwick’s hiring spree is set to continue too. While the department store will draw on its own resources, it’s also set to make more external hires as Feather builds his team.

One thing’s for sure, life at Fenwick will be very different from now on.