Three of the most high-profile chairs in the UK retail industry have outlined some of the biggest issues facing boardrooms.

Speaking on a panel session this afternoon at Retail Week Live 2019, Lord Stuart Rose, Debbie Hewitt and Andy Higginson said the biggest issues facing retail boards in the UK are the pressures being put on chief executives, knowing when to change a strategy and the increasingly diverse wants and needs of the modern consumer.

Ocado chair Rose said retailers are facing the same problems they have always faced as well as new ones, and executives are under more pressure than ever before.

He said: “The problem with retail today is that there is a hell of a lot going on in our sector – regardless of whether you’re in electronics, grocery, clothing. We’ve got too much space, we’re constantly in mediation, we’ve got margin pressure.

Stuart Rose RWLive 2019

Lord Rose: ‘You’ve got to be a counsellor to the chief executive, but you’ve also got to be the gatekeeper’

“We’ve got all the problems that we used to have to deal with, plus the new things that we’ve got to deal with. Executives are under a huge amount of pressure.”

He said he saw his role as chair as to “lift the load off the executive” and not let them get “bogged down from their day job, which is to drive business”.

“You’ve got to be a counsellor to the chief executive, but you’ve also got to be the gatekeeper, and it’s quite hard to do. That’s why I say it’s more an art than a science,” he added.

Outside the box

Moss Bros chair Debbie Hewitt said boards can get into difficulty when they “sleepwalk into strategy” and that a chair should encourage their executive to look to examples from outside their sector.

“Executives now are under so much pressure, so what boards can do very powerfully is simplify the agenda. You need to get your board to think outside of your sector. Where boards get into difficulty is when they sleepwalk into the wrong strategy and they can keep doing the same thing and ultimately the business will close.”

Debbie Hewitt RWLive 2019

Debbie Hewitt: ‘You need to try and get the executive to think outside of the box and outside of the sector’

“You need to try and get the executive to think outside of the box and outside of the sector. Nine times out of 10 the competition is not who is doing what you’re doing today but what you’ll be doing tomorrow,” she added.

Morrisons’ Higginson said one of the biggest challenges he has seen for legacy businesses like his is that by default they start from a position of “incumbency” while pureplays and start-ups are freer to be more agile and responsive.

He said consumers’ wants and needs are changing and a board must always listen to what customers want.

“The challenge for businesses is really that they start from a position of incumbency. The new start-ups don’t have that but everyone else has some sort of incumbent position and the challenge is how to manage the resources you have today in an ever-changing and fast-changing consumer environment.

“You have to adapt your model, adapt the way you do business. The most important thing for a board is to listen to the customer and what they are doing,” he added.