Amateur pilot and retail stalwart Alan Smith is to join furniture retailer ScS as non-executive chairman ahead of a potential IPO later this year.
Smith has more than 30 years of managerial and board experience in store and leisure retailing and is considered to be a “safe pair of hands” to guide it through the potential IPO process.
“He’s a very solid citizen in terms of running retail,” one industry watcher said.
Speaking to Retail Week, Smith says his role will be to “help [chief executive] David Knight build the business”.
“Every time I visit a store or occasionally work in a store, you do realise how difficult a role it is”
Smith aims to create an environment that supports staff within the business. Describing what he’s learned about the industry over the last 30 years, he said: “It’s a bit of a cliché, but I think it’s two things – trust the customer, and trust the employees.
“The hardest job in any retail business is the one facing the customer. On the floor, on the checkout – that is both physically and mentally the most taxing.
“Every time I visit a store or occasionally work in a store, you do realise how difficult a role it is. As a member of a senior team in retail, you have to keep reminding yourself of that.”
Dealing with the City
While Smith will not be drawn on any potential IPO plans for ScS, he said he has extensive experience dealing with the City, as chief executive of three listed businesses in the past, and has been a non-executive director of airline group Flybe for nine years.
“That was a business that had significant relationships with the City, first of all with the IPO and then with the cash raised later on,” he says.
He says that working with the City can be “quite challenging, and rightfully so when people are investing into a company they’ve got to understand how the company is going and have the right to question if they’re not happy with the performance. So it can be challenging, but it can also be satisfying”.
“I’ve always really enjoyed that direct relationship that retailers have with their customers”
Smith came into retail in a roundabout way, starting in management of pubs, and then becoming managing director of The Victoria Wine Company, a chain of off licence shops in 1986.
He says he is attracted to retail because of its quick response time.
“You can make a tactical decision on pricing or promotions, and you know the next day if it works. That can be a bit scary sometimes, but rather than long run businesses, like large machinery or bridges where you don’t know for three years, it is that instant feedback for good or ill that is satisfying and occasionally frustrating.
“And I’ve always really enjoyed that direct relationship that retailers have with their customers.”
Time at Somerfield
Smith exited Somerfield in 2002 after the supermarket chain faced a dramatic fall in profitability and due to strains between Smith and executive chairman John von Spreckelsen, who had been described as a “dream team” when they joined forces in 2000 to run the retailer.
Speaking to the Telegraph in 2002, Seymour Pierce analyst the late Richard Ratner said: “Von Spreckelsen and Smith got in the way of each other. The company was not big enough for the two of them.”
Describing the challenges faced at Somerfield, he said the retailer was fourth in terms of scale. “You were very much trying to succeed despite the huge amount of effort that was being put in by the other supermarket chains. I recognise that supermarket trading is very difficult now, but it was fairly hairy in those days.”
No doubt Smith will leverage the skills that he picked up in the grocery market in his new role leading ScS through the competetive big-ticket sector. And it looks like he is in it for the long term.
“When you take on an important role like this, you assume it is for the long term. I certainly have no plans to retire; I still work virtually full time in the various different roles. I want to continue to work and I need to do so to be able to continue flying,” he laughs.
Alan Smith CV
2012 to present Non-executive director of Displayplan
2006 to present Non-executive chairman of Fisher Leisure Holdings
2006 to present Non-executive director of NAAFI
2007 to 2014 Non-executive chairman of Empire World Trade
2006 to 2014 Non-executive director at Flybe Group
2006 to 2007 Non-executive director of Floors to Go
2005 to 2006 Chairman of Robert Dyas
2004 to 2005 Chairman and chief executive of Robert Dyas
2003 Interim chief executive of Esporta
2000 to 2003 Chief executive of Somerfield Stores
1999 to 2000 Chief executive of Punch Taverns
1996 to 1999 Chief executive of Evans Halshaw Holdings
1995 Chief executive of Boddingtons
1989 to 1995 Managing director of B&Q
1989 to 1992 Managing director of Superdrug
1986 to 1989 Managing director of Allied Lyons (The Victoria Wine Company)