The Shop Direct Group chief has proved himself to be an enthusiastic moderniser, so can he work his magic with this week’s Woolworths relaunch online? By Lisa Berwin

When Shop Direct Group was courting TV stars Trinny and Susannah to front a campaign for Littlewoods Direct they were flown up to the home shopping group’s headquarters in a private jet. As soon as the deal was signed, the mode of transport changed to a train up to Runcorn then a taxi to its Speke head office on the outskirts of Liverpool.

That, say those who know chief executive Mark Newton-Jones, sums up how the company and the man himself operate: smooth, but also realistic and down to earth. It obviously did not dent the relationship with the TV duo either, who continued to front the ad campaign and went on to design a fashion range for the retailer.

Ever the optimist when you speak to him, Newton-Jones – who this week spearheaded the relaunch of much-loved retailer Woolworths as an e-tail brand – is described by his colleagues as friendly and sociable. However, he is also known for his strong opinions.

He has had to make tough decisions in the continued turnaround of Littlewoods from what was a dinosaur into a modern home shopping group. He closed all the Littlewoods stores and is now in the process of streamlining the catalogue operation.

Ideal Shopping Direct chief executive Mike Hancox says: “It is clear he has had a tough job with catalogue sales declining. He has had to take a lot of heads out of the business, so he won’t be popular with everyone.”

Most of the job losses have come from Newton-Jones’s strategy to re-engineer more sales from online than the older catalogue format. He expects online sales could represent as much as 70 per cent of total sales by 2010/11.

Hancox, who shares Newton-Jones’s love of Birmingham City Football Club, believes he has done a good job and has an extensive knowledge of the home shopping market.

He says: “He is bright and single-minded.” This focus has helped Newton-Jones raise the profile of his brands, particularly Littlewoods and Littlewoods Direct, which is soon to undergo a major rebranding to capture a younger customer, as Very.co.uk.

M and M Direct chief executive Steve Robinson says: “Mark has done an exceptional job at Littlewoods, taking a business that was essentially an older catalogue business into a modern, popular e-commerce business.”

Newton-Jones is open-minded to suggestions from both staff and customers. At its head office, there is a suggestions policy called “Mail Mark” and staff working on the Woolies relaunch have been twittering for months to find out what the public wants from the brand.

Although it has been a long road to reshaping Littlewoods as a modern business, Newton-Jones is confident about bringing Woolworths firmly into the 21st century.

And while there is a lot riding on the relaunch of Woolworths, he will undoubtedly remain as calm as ever, and apply his smooth touch to the job.

This suave touch doesn’t wash in his private life, though. His kids are said to be less than impressed by his old E-Type Jaguar, which he loves and drives proudly around, much to their horror.

But while he may be an embarrassing dad at home, in the retail sector the potential success of Woolworths and Very could prove to be further testament to Newton-Jones’s ability to modernise even the most old-fashioned of retail concepts with a modern multichannel spin.

MODERN MAN

Age 41

Family married, with two sons

Career history

2005-present chief executive, Shop
Direct Group

2003-05 chief executive, Littlewoods Stores

1985-2003 various roles at Next, rising to director of Next Directory for five years