After a successful career working for some of the biggest high street names, Paul Mason is set to be appointed chairman at Cath Kidston.
Paul Mason is part of the ‘Past Marsters’ club - those who did their training at FMCG giant Mars and went on to run a series of major retailers. Mason and his fellow alumni, including the ‘godfather’ of the Past Marsters Allan Leighton, are all over-achievers in their own right.
Like his peers, including Sainsbury’s boss Justin King and DFS chairman Richard Baker, Mason attended the “university of management” as Leighton called Mars, and went on to make his mark in retail. However, he was set apart from many of his peers by his humble background, with one former colleague describing him as a “Sunderland boy done good”.
Mason’s background gave him a no-nonsense approach that has held him in good stead throughout his career, whether that was leading businesses such as Asda, Matalan or Somerfield, and no doubt Cath Kidston, the homewares and fashion retailer he is expected to join as chairman.
John Cleland, chief executive of gym chain Esporta, who worked for Mason at both Asda and Somerfield, says: “The great thing about Paul is that he is a people person. He’s very big on listening skills, sets out a very clear vision and he articulates that vision very well. Everything is delivered in plain English and he won’t try to blind people with management speak.”
Mason, an avid Sunderland football fan, is also a “brilliant networker”, says Cleland. He believes Mason’s insight comes from his widespread experience, but also from learning from other business leaders. He says Mason is “continually in self-education mode”.
Mason says himself that he’s an “ordinary man”, a miner’s son. He adds: “I’ve been very lucky to work with lots of talented people. The common thread in all my roles is that I’ve worked with great people, and learnt something from each of them.”
After moving on from Mars, Mason has had many career highlights. He set up the central distribution network at B&Q, then joined Asda alongside Leighton, a retailer he describes as “broken” when the new team moved in.
He worked on the reinvention of Asda and when Walmart bought the business he became its first president and managing director. “It was difficult suddenly being part of a huge global group and one of 17 presidents, and I had to fight a lot of battles, probably more so in those early years than my successors,” he says.
At Matalan, Mason developed a strong team but a difference of opinion on strategy with founder John Hargreaves led to him leaving after 15 months. Mason wanted Matalan to move into more high street locations, alongside its low-cost out-of-town format.
After a spell at Levi Strauss, Mason was parachuted into Somerfield to turn around the business and subsequently sold it to the Co-op for £1.57bn. While the price was below the original £2bn hoped for, getting the deal through was still a coup for Mason and his team.
Mason, a keen family man who splits himself between his London and Yorkshire homes, has busied himself with smaller retailers since exiting Somerfield. He took up the position of non-executive chairman of upmarket handbags and accessories retailer Radley in 2008 and is now poised to develop 32-store Cath Kidston, a role he is understood to be close to signing for, placed by headhunter Heidrick & Struggles.
Mars taught Mason to “do the same with a small brand as you do with a big brand”, so he will apply that to Cath Kidston. He is also understood to be a keen shopper of its Marylebone shop.
While he hates the phrase “go plural” Mason wants develop his portfolio of interests further, and all of which will no doubt be approached with his familiar no-nonsense style.
Started his career at Mars, then moved to B&Q
Other roles included Asda managing director, chief executive of Matalan, and European president of Levi Strauss
Joined Somerfield in 2006 as chief executive and sold it to The Co-operative Group in 2008
Since then, he joined Radley as non-executive chairman and is understood to be joining Cath Kidston as chairman