The Harrods managing director has successfully worked alongside Al Fayed to increase the retailer’s profit 40%.
Working alongside Mohamed Al Fayed at Harrods defeated many seasoned retail executives. But Michael Ward not only managed to work with the famously difficult Egyptian for four years, but outlast him.
But that’s not surprising given the success Harrods has achieved during Ward’s tenure as managing director, recording a 40% boost in pre-tax profits to £77.8m in the year to January 30.
The understated, low-profile Ward is not the typical department store boss, and having previously run Lloyds Pharmacy and worked in private equity for Apax, wasn’t an obvious choice to run the world’s most famous store.
So how was Ward able to handle the man who famously failed to keep so many of his managing directors for very long? Ward says: “The reason I was successful where others weren’t was we have had continued strong success and I always managed strong entrepreneurs.”
He admits working with Al Fayed wasn’t always easy, but describes their relationship as being like “a comedy duo”. “He was a difficult bugger,” says Ward, adding “the primary part of his character is that he is exceptionally engaging but, like so many successful entrepreneurs, a little difficult.”
Now Ward’s role involves managing Harrods on behalf of the Qatari Royal Family, who bought the store for £1.5bn in May. Ward says the secret is to “coach and empower people and give them their space”. He adds: “I have no ego at all. It isn’t about position and power, it is about ‘how do I do my job well?’, ‘How do I motivate people?’”
His management style is democratic and non-hierarchical. Every Wednesday he and his management team meet to discuss every shopfit and have a “fantastic debate”, which he says makes for a better business.
So how does the man without ego reconcile himself to working for a luxury department store famed for selling products people generally don’t need. “Of course, everybody loves beautiful things,” he says. And Ward certainly does; in particular 1920s Lalique and classic cars. He says that when he furnished his bolthole somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a container load of items “from a loo roll holder to a dining table” arrived wrapped in Harrods bags. He laughs at the absurdity of it.
“Our job is to sell beautiful things in a hugely theatrical environment,” he says. But is he theatrical? “Not at all,” he laughs. “You have to understand it and have the ability to bring it to life.”
It seems that the managing director of the most bling of retailers is far removed from the business’s ethos. But a store walk with Ward around the labyrinthine Knightsbridge shop shows him to be excited and involved, from the fossil room and the pet shop to the new Louis Vuitton boutiques.
It’s a far cry from chartered accountant Ward’s early career in consumer goods with Bassets and Bulmers, followed by Lloyds Pharmacy, which he joined in 1993 and stayed with after its 1997 takeover by Celesio. Ward ran the UK operations for retail with about 1,100 stores at that time.
He got a taste for making deals with the sale of Holland & Barrett in 1997 and in 2003 he joined private equity company Apax where he was involved in the Somerfield and Travelex deals.
“My previous boss Allen Lloyd was great at buying things. He bought Holland & Barrett. We raised £250m. I had been buying and developing businesses and it was a skillset,” Ward says.
He was at Apax just two years - “I missed Monday morning sales figures and managing people” - and went for what he says was his shortest interview ever with Al Fayed. The rest is history.
2006 to present Managing director, Harrods
2003 to 2005 Partner, Apax
1994 to 2003 Group finance director, then managing director, Lloyds Pharmacy/Celesio