As B&Q launches its biggest ever winter Sale, Nicola Harrison asks its recently appointed chief executive what the future holds in store
B&Q chief executive Martyn Phillips compares his job to that of a conductor. The boss, who took up his first chief executive role in April, says it is difficult for him to get used to taking a step back from everyday detail, but says: “I don’t want to play an instrument – and that’s hard for me – I want to make sure we stay on key.”
Phillips has delivered a harmonious overture so far, with B&Q’s UK and Ireland retail profit jumping 20.6% to £46m in the quarter to October 29.
The 43 year old will be hoping that success continues with the launch of B&Q’s biggest ever winter Sale today. For the first time it will run until March and Phillips says B&Q will stand out from the crowd through its transparent pricing – it is promising to beat any price on kitchens and bathrooms.
Phillips says that people can expect more adventurous decisions from him under his leadership. “B&Q has an opportunity to step up again. I want to make bold changes, but in a very considered way. I want to do something two or three times a year that is very unexpected,” he says.
The Welshman describes himself as competitive. Phillips harboured ambitions for a career in sports, having completed a sports science degree and played rugby at a national level for Wales’ school boys’ team. However, those dreams were prematurely dashed when he suffered a foot injury.
Phillips believes the energy he used to put into sport he now puts into his job, and would much rather be dashing round stores than be sat at a desk.
After deciding on a career in human resources, he was advised to go into the people-driven retail industry. His first job was at WHSmith on a graduate training course, and Phillips describes it as a “good training ground”.
After five years at Woolworths – then owned by Kingfisher – he helped set up sister chain Big W, which Phillips calls “one of the best parts of my career”. When the brakes were put on expansion before it was eventually wound down, he moved sideways in the organisation to B&Q, as its human resources director of stores.
Was the transition to DIY hard?
“It was a lot tougher than I had given it credit for,” says Phillips. “The customer missions are so different.”
He compares B&Q to a car showroom – because of the way it sells kitchens and bathrooms – a garden centre and a builders’ merchant all rolled into one.
Add multichannel to the mix and there is a lot to take in, he says. “It was eight years in before I really started to understand home improvement,” admits Phillips, rather modestly.
In terms of being able to put up shelves or hang a door, Phillips says he is no handyman, although he is having an eco-friendly house built from scratch. Using B&Q products, of course.
“I’m throwing myself in at the deep end,” he laughs.
The family man’s rise to the top of B&Q was a bit steadier. When former chief executive Euan Sutherland was appointed in 2008, he made Phillips – then human resources director – operations director. Did Sutherland already have his eye on succession planning? Phillips, who has worked for Kingfisher since 1994, does not think so. “He just knew I could do something different. It gave me a new challenge,” he says.
Phillips says the transition to chief executive of the largest DIY retailer in the UK was managed well, because of his relationship with Sutherland – now Kingfisher UK & Ireland chief executive – and with Kingfisher boss Ian Cheshire. “There is a base level of trust, I can be very open with them,” he says.
Getting the B&Q board together was Phillips’ first task, and one he enjoyed. “We want to set up a dynasty here,” he says. “There’s a lot of very good people in B&Q. We need to move them on through the business at the right time.”
Despite having moved up to the position of chief executive, Phillips still retains his focus on people and says he loves getting the best out of people and building teams.
“We’re trying to create an environment where people can perform,” he says. “I try to be a coach. But I have a lot of humility – I know I don’t have all the answers.”
Phillips is clearly determined to help drive B&Q onto the bigger and better things, whether as coach, conductor or chief executive.
Family Married with two young children
Lives in Southampton
Interests Rugby and cycling
April 2011 to present B&Q UK and Ireland boss
2008 to 2011 B&Q UK and Ireland operations director
2005 to 2008 B&Q UK and Ireland HR director
2002 to 2005 B&Q UK and Ireland HR director for stores
1994 to 2001 Woolworths, various HR roles
1990 to 1994 WHSmith, HR manager