“I was once told by somebody I wouldn’t get on in business because of my accent.”
The words of one former colleague still rankle with The White Stuff and Restaurant Group chair Debbie Hewitt, despite the successful career she has gone on to forge.
Born into a working-class family and brought up in a council house in Nottinghamshire, Hewitt is a shining example of social mobility in the retail sector.
Her father, Ray Moore, was a labourer in a local factory. Her mother, Wendy, worked for the Inland Revenue and was the household’s breadwinner.
“She was my very first role model really in that, right from the get-go of me being born, she worked,” Hewitt says. “She was the breadwinner in the family, which at that time was quite an unusual set of circumstances.”
Tragically, when Hewitt was just 14, Wendy died of a brain tumour. Her older sister, Tracey, had to step up to look after both her and their younger brother, Kevin, while Ray worked all the hours he could, including nights, to keep food on the table.
“Really talented leaders are those who take risks in bringing through talent, give people an opportunity and then support them”
“There was no sick pay or anything in the same way that there is these days,” Hewitt recalls. “So suddenly my dad had to rely largely on my sister to do a lot of the childcare for myself and my young brother. The notion that any of us could have gone to university at that stage – it was never going to happen because he couldn’t afford it.”
Hewitt admits she feared being left behind by friends who went on to higher education but her journey to the top, against the odds, is a story she felt compelled to share as part of Retail Week’s No Limits campaign.
“Normally I read these things – has anyone got something to say about diversity, has anybody got something to say about this and that – I read them and think yes, they are relevant, but No Limits really struck a chord,” she says.
“I am so passionate about social mobility because I’m one of the lucky ones and I worry about social mobility because the gap is getting broader, not closer. Covid has accelerated that.
“I have young children, 11-year-old twins, and you worry about what four months of homeschooling does. Our kids are very lucky, they have the technology and they have parents who can and want to help them with their education; that’s not true for all children.
“Those kids who don’t have the technology, but are bright and smart and sharp, but don’t have the facilities, have missed out on four, five, six months of education – that worries me. That’s the hidden cost of Covid that lots of us haven’t yet understood.”
A straight-A student, Hewitt’s working life began on Marks & Spencer’s management training scheme at the Moore family’s local store in Newark.
Within months she was transferred to Peterborough – the city where the BGL Group, which Hewitt now chairs, is based – and during an eight-year stint with the high street bellwether she also spent time in Hong Kong, Paris, London, Dublin and Belfast.
She says M&S was “an amazing place to be” at that time and believes the “phenomenal training” she received set her on the successful career path she has since followed.
Hewitt fondly remembers the “inspirational pep talks” she received from former executives including Marcus Sieff, Lord Andrew Stone and Clive Nickolds – father of former John Lewis boss, Paula – during their visits to her stores.
But despite such coaching from people she describes as “brilliant leaders”, Hewitt often questioned whether retail could offer her a viable long-term career.
“The reality of all my friends being at university, and me not, made me panic,” she admits.
“I was thinking: ‘Is this job going to lead to anything? My friends are off doing these exciting courses at university and I’m going to get left behind.’ How wrong could I have been?”
Hewitt, however, remained determined to do a degree. She was approached by Lex Service, which promised her the opportunity to complete an MBA. But she says “a fancy job with a fancy title” turned out to be a glorified role as a used car salesperson.
She stuck it out, completed her MBA and in 1999, the company acquired automotive services company, RAC – the name that the enlarged business would eventually adopt three years later.
By the age of 32, Hewitt was promoted to the RAC board and went on to become managing director.
It is a role she says she could never have landed without the faith that was shown in her by those at the top of the business.
“Lots of people took risks on me when, on paper, they shouldn’t have done. I was young to be given management responsibility, I didn’t have a degree. But really talented leaders are those who take risks in bringing through talent, give people an opportunity and then support them,” Hewitt says.
“I’m where I am today because six or seven people, at very significant moments of my career, took a risk on me. The RAC chair, Sir Trevor Chinn, who was very well-known in the motor industry, took a risk and put me on a board at the age of 32, having had several people tell me I was too young.
“Everyone said: ‘What is he doing?’ That was amazing to be so supportive of me. He was taking a personal risk in doing that.
“If retailers are only thinking about the traditional routes of sourcing talent, you’re going to miss out on some amazing people”
“Andy Harrison was my boss for a period of time at RAC and he took a massive risk on the roles he gave me to do. Had they not been courageous enough to take those risks, I wouldn’t have got there.”
Having now built a successful portfolio career, Hewitt hopes her route to the top can inspire other leaders to actively drive social mobility within their businesses at a time when the pandemic threatens to further separate the haves from the have-nots.
Hewitt’s message on that front is clear: “The best talent is not always in the most obvious place.
“If you want the best talent, you’ve got to open your mind to access it and help it. If retailers are only thinking about the traditional routes of sourcing talent, you’re going to miss out on some amazing people.
“Those sectors that really open their mind about how to get access to talent in different ways, and don’t sleepwalk into the tried-and-tested, will be the ones that succeed.”
Get involved in No Limits
If you are a senior retail leader and want to get involved in the No Limits campaign, or if you are a retail employee with an inspirational story of how the sector has changed your life for the better, contact Retail Week editor Luke Tugby on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #RWNoLimits.