“We would have got more credit if we had let it go horribly wrong,” says N Brown boss Angela Spindler, sitting in her spacious office at the retailer’s headquarters.
When Spindler arrived at the fashion retailer in July 2013, it looked like a business in fine shape, so it came as a surprise that performance started to dip as she set about transforming the company.
“If we had let it go horribly wrong and then fixed it, everyone would have realised the need for change,” she says. ”People talk about turnarounds, but you do a turnaround when the business is failing. What we’ve done is a transformation.
“I came into a business that was probably the best mail order business in the country. It was super-profitable, it had a great reputation. It was at the top of its game – but it wasn’t sustainable”
Angela Spindler, N Brown
“I came into a business that was probably the best mail order business in the country. It was super-profitable, it had a great reputation. It was at the top of its game – but it wasn’t sustainable.”
Like many retail transformations, N Brown’s was driven by the growing influence of ecommerce. Despite almost 50% of N Brown’s sales coming from online when Spindler arrived, she says it was still set up as a catalogue retailer.
“The product was bought in two big chunks each year. We didn’t have a design function or a merchandising function. We were 95% committed at the start of the season. We’re now 50% committed.
“We have built the business from scratch into a digital model,” she says.
That transformation has required some big changes and Spindler was forced to take a cold hard look at the Manchester-based business.
Of 1,000 employees at its headquarters, 450 roles were either outsourced or made redundant. Another 300 new employees were brought in and the entire top team was made over.
Spindler terms this decision her riskiest move.
“So much change in people at the top is a risk that has paid off. They were excellent but we needed new skills”
Angela Spindler, N Brown
“So much change in people at the top is a risk that has paid off,” she says. “They were excellent but we needed new skills.”
“Seeing those people succeed is what motivates me. I have built this team. I handpicked them all. And I am so proud of them.”
Strong leadership has been crucial throughout this challenging period for the business and Spindler, an ambassador of Retail Week’s Be Inspired campaign to promote the careers of female leaders, has demonstrated this in spades.
Spindler may be an affable character, but you get the impression she is made of sterner stuff.
As the discussion turns to whether women sometimes feel an implicit need to be ‘liked’ that troubles their male counterparts less, the former George at Asda exec insists she does not feel that way.
“I think successful leaders, men or women, have to put doing the right thing ahead of being liked,” she says firmly.
A bumpy road
Spindler has been tested along the way as N Brown’s transformation has been far from flawless, with two profit warnings coming thick and fast in the six months from autumn 2014 to spring 2015.
Added to that, Spindler has had the spotlight of the City shining down on her.
However, she says last year was a “significant milestone” in N Brown’s transformation. Total sales were up in the year to February 27, 2016, but profits were hit by investment once more, although the second half saw N Brown back in the black.
“I think I underestimated just how different all of the business processes needed to be for us to be a successful, profitable, sustainable digital retailer. That has been a steep learning curve for me”
Angela Spindler, N Brown
“I think I underestimated just how different all of the business processes needed to be for us to be a successful, profitable, sustainable digital retailer,” she says now. “That has been a steep learning curve for me.”
Unlike rival Shop Direct, N Brown will not be fully digital for some time, though. Spindler is charged with judging the right time to shut down N Brown’s legacy catalogue businesses and keeping them performing to their best of their ability while they last.
“We still have an important traditional business,” she says. “That is not because we are resisting the transformation, it is because they are valuable customers. We don’t talk about ’managing decline’.
“We talk about looking after really important customers who have served this business for decades.
“I fully expect those businesses to be there for the next five years. But they are not our future.”
For now, she feels as though N Brown is “80% of the way there”.
“I’m very pleased with where we are at the moment,” she says. “In most respects we are through the other side.”
A master plan
Spindler may be one of only three female chief executives at FTSE 250 retailers (the others are Karen Hubbard at Card Factory and Jill McDonald at Halfords), but the position was never in her master plan.
After graduating from Manchester with a psychology degree and an ambition to practise in her field – “I love understanding what makes people tick, it provokes a lot of consideration in the way I do things” – she instead headed for the corporate world.
“I quickly realised, having worked in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit, that that was going to be much too tough,” she says. “So I went to Cadbury Schweppes as a sales graduate and absolutely loved it. It became the foundation stone of my career.”
It was her first general management role and came with a lot of autonomy.
Separate from Asda, it had its own finance, distribution and people teams. Spindler was handed a mandate, backed by the Walmart board, to build the brand across the world.
“Rolling it out globally was difficult,” she says. “We had the endorsement of the board but we still had to individually persuade each of the markets why they should adopt it.
“I recognised how hard fashion was but I loved it instantly. And it really set me up for my general management career.”
Staying in retail
“When I first started in retail I honestly thought I wouldn’t stay,” she reveals. “I came from a very considered, risk-averse FMCG world to a really fast-paced, ’chuck 100 things at the wall and see what’s going to stick, trade the business every day’ world.
“It was a pace I had never experienced before. I found that overwhelming to begin with but now I can’t imagine working in any other sector.”
For other women hoping to climb their way up the retail ranks, Spindler’s advice is characteristically succinct.
“It comes down to ABC. Ability – no difference there; breaks – no difference, that’s just luck; courage – that’s where the difference is”
Angela Spindler, N Brown
While she believes that the preference during the recession for bosses with track records dented women’s progress, she places the onus on the individual, rather than any systematic problem.
“It comes down to ABC,” she says. “Ability – no difference there; breaks – no difference, that’s just luck; courage – that’s where the difference is.
“There is less internal pressure for women. It is hard to really go for it and say you want to do that assignment or presentation and to put yourself out there.
“If you want to get on, the only person who will make that happen is you.”
Spindler, clearly, has no problem making that – and a lot more besides – happen.
Behind the counter
Last book: The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin
Last film: Kalinka
Last TV series: I love forensic investigations like Prime Suspect – and period dramas too
Favourite band/artist: David Bowie
Last purchase: One of our coatigans
Biggest inspiration: Michelle Obama