With UK politics in such a precarious state, the huge unknowns flowing from the Brexit referendum and the changes in consumer shopping behaviour, I find it hard to remember a more difficult era for retailers to steer their businesses along the best path for long-term prosperity.
Unless something very remarkable emerges from the negotiations in Brussels, which seems most unlikely, Brexit will surely haunt future generations.
Looking at the voting pattern by age group, it’s arguably a legacy left by my generation to the younger.
Which brings me to business generally, where building legacies and things that stand the test of time has to be one of the most fulfilling elements of anyone’s career. It’s the ultimate goal of the company.
However, in retail so many things are transient and short-term – marketing promotions, fashions lasting a season or less, financial performance measured year-on-year.
We all strive in our career to be involved with success stories. Personally, I feel fortunate to have been involved to a greater or lesser extent in a few.
When I joined Selfridges in 1991, despite the fantastic location and the beautiful building on Oxford Street, the interior was a mess.
It was exhilarating to be a part of the Selfridges team, initially under the leadership of Tim Daniels and subsequently Vittorio Radice, in the complete renaissance of the business.
Being a part of the team on the pitch as the changes occurred is probably the highlight of my working life to date.
“Building legacies and things that stand the test of time has to be one of the most fulfilling elements of anyone’s career. It’s the ultimate goal of the company”
Iconic department stores with one or just a handful of locations have withstood the test of time for a century. If they continue to invest in their buildings and the offer, they provide one of the few antidotes to the march of online retail.
In 2006, as one of my first non-executive positions, I was fortunate to join Asos when its turnover was a mere £35m.
In this case, watching from the touchline rather than being on the pitch, it was rewarding to watch both Nick Robertson and Nick Beighton and a new generation of retailers create a worldwide business from nothing.
A similar path of progress is now underway at the Boohoo group.
Founded 10 years ago by Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane, the Boohoo group comprising Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal now has three digital brands in the young fashion space. Although they are new kids on the block, they are starting to create their own legacy.
“If, like me, you feel ashamed of Brexit, then focus instead on the legacy you can determine”
There is sometimes a debate about whether the best legacies are created by certain ownerships. Public companies are always subjected to regular scrutiny by the financial markets, which can be tiresome if you are involved with a business turnaround.
However, if you explain the strategy to shareholders clearly, and then deliver, my experience is that they will support you.
In the last two decades, private equity has played a pivotal role with many retail businesses.
But the problem is that they’re looking for an exit in the medium term and to maximise the value of their investment at that point. This may not be in the best long-term interests of the business.
There are a number of very successful family-owned businesses in retail. Unlike private equity, family-owned businesses often do take a long-term view.
However, working in a family business, when you are not a member of the family, is not for everyone.
We all want to be remembered for something. We want to be able to look back over our careers and be able to say, “I did that” or “I was a part of the team that did that”.
If, like me, you feel ashamed of Brexit, then focus instead on the legacy you can determine.
Peter Williams is chairman of Boohoo.com and Mister Spex and Sophia Webster