Dixons Carphone has appointed outgoing Shop Direct boss Alex Baldock to replace Boots-bound Seb James at the helm.
Retail Week spoke in detail to Baldock almost a year ago, when he was crowned the Clarity Retail Leader of the Year at the Retail Week Awards 2017.
In Shop Direct’s Liverpool headquarters, Alex Baldock is nursing a cup of peppermint tea.
“You’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got a bit of lurgy – with four kids at home there’s always something flying about,” says the recipient of this year’s Clarity Retail Leader of the Year award.
While Baldock may be feeling under the weather, the business he was challenged with turbo-charging in 2012 is anything but.
In the five years of his stewardship, Shop Direct has been transformed from what Baldock describes as a “dusty old, unprofitable, shrinking catalogue retailer”, running at a £57m operating loss, to a trailblazer in ecommerce.
Last September, the etailer reported a 43.6% jump in full-year underlying profits to £150.4m, delivering its fourth consecutive year of rising profits and sales, 70% of which now come from mobile.
While many retailers have been knocked sideways by the tidal wave of change that ecommerce has brought in recent years, Shop Direct has ridden the crest with seeming ease.
However, to imply that it has all been plain sailing would do a disservice to the tough choices that Baldock has made during his time at the helm, which meant he stood out to the judges.
Unlike previous recipients of this award, Baldock is not a retail veteran who has been able to fine-tune his skills over many years. Previously in banking, Shop Direct was Baldock’s first senior job in retail.
“I’m nobody’s idea of a retail lifer, that’s true enough,” he says. “It’s for others to judge how well I’ve done, but I think there are some common characteristics that successful chief executives charged with large, complex and far-reaching transformations tend to have.”
When asked what qualities those are, the Oxford graduate, who got a double-first in modern history, uses militaresque terms: “Strategic clarity, relentless execution and the ability to get people to follow.”
“My father worked for everything he ever got in his life and what I took from him was a fierce work ethic and unbending integrity”
Baldock gives the impression he manages like a general.
When asked which leaders he looks up to, Bill Slim (“the best battlefield general in the British army during the Second World War”) ranks highly alongside names closer to home such as Next boss Lord Wolfson (“a class act”).
“These are all leaders who have got something in common,” says Baldock. “They look at the organisation and how to bring out the best in a group of disparate people and get them aligned in the same direction, wanting them to turn up and be inspired, dare I say, to do a good day’s work.
“That’s the sort of benchmark that we set ourselves as leaders here.”
Family and football
Baldock is not shy about looking for inspiration on how best to bring such qualities to Shop Direct and is known to plough through history books on a weekly basis to glean ideas.
He even takes inspiration from watching his beloved Chelsea, describing new manager Antonio Conte as providing “a classic lesson in leadership, and one that many of us can learn from”.
But Baldock’s passion for business was actually awoken by his father, former Marks & Spencer chairman Brian Baldock.
“He worked for everything he ever got in his life and what I took from him was a fierce work ethic and unbending integrity that couldn’t help but serve as an example,” says Baldock. “I’ve admired that and done my best to live up to it in my own way since.”
Will Baldock want to follow in his father’s footsteps and move on to a retail stalwart such as M&S one day? Not just ambitious, clearly Baldock has discovered a love of retail; his eyes light up when talking about what the future holds for the sector.
However, he affirms his focus is Shop Direct and says he has only skimmed the surface of what is possible for the etailer.
More to go for
Over the past five years he has concentrated on transforming Shop Direct into a digital retailer. Now Baldock is eager to move on to the next stage – making it world-class.
Decisive action has been taken to get the business to where it is now. Flagship brand Very.co.uk launched fully personalised homepages for customers, in what was regarded as a retail first. The Littlewoods catalogue was axed and the Woolworths website was shut down.
Baldock was the driving force behind all of the changes – did he ever have doubts that they might not pay off?
“There were a series of bold decisions but they didn’t feel like gambles, no,” Baldock says.
“One of the benefits of having a clear strategic direction is you can have an idea of the business you are building towards.”
For Baldock, this meant converging Shop Direct’s various fascias into two ‘power brands’ – the “much-loved” Littlewoods, and Very.co.uk, which he describes as “the driving force behind the business”.
Baldock is keen to downplay his achievements at Shop Direct – he drily describes the business turnaround so far as “pleasing”.
“You don’t achieve anything on your own and I’ve been really lucky to surround myself with an exceptionally talented crew here”
However, when he talks about what comes next for the retailer, he punctuates his list of ambitions with enthusiastic thuds on the table in front of him.
Increased personalisation – an area in which Shop Direct has invested heavily since his arrival – ranks high on his to-do list.
He also counts artificial intelligence and, in the longer term, virtual reality, as future etail transformers.
He believes such technologies will make personalised service available to all, not just the preserve of affluent customers.
“We think we do something that matters – we’re not curing cancer but we are giving our customers nicer lives and that gets people out of bed in the morning,” says Baldock.
“We want to bring inspiration as well as ease of access to our customers, and we’re going to stay the course until we achieve that.”
Baldock is clearly not a man to do things by halves. There’s an intensity to him – he rarely breaks eye contact – and a feeling that he applies unwavering focus to all tasks he carries out.
He rarely switches off and an 80-hour working week is the norm.
“I don’t tend to sleep a whole lot, I’m lucky that way. I don’t seem to need it maybe as much as I should,” he says.
However, when he is not working at Shop Direct’s headquarters or attending meetings in London, he spends his weekends with his wife, four children and two dogs (named Zola and JT, naturally, given his love of Chelsea) in Somerset, in what he describes as “the most inconvenient triangular commute of all time”.
His schedule is unrelenting, but his drive knows no end either.
“We’ve achieved a fraction of what we’re capable of and of what we’re going to achieve. If we end up transforming this dusty old catalogue retailer into a global ecommerce and technology titan, I wouldn’t be surprised”
So how does this recognition of his achievements by his peers feel?
“It’s incredibly humbling for myself to be bracketed with the retail titans who have won this award in the past, but I think more than that it makes me proud of the people here,” he says.
“You don’t achieve anything on your own and I’ve been really lucky to surround myself with an exceptionally talented crew here at Shop Direct, so this award is for all of us.”
But there is no chance of Baldock, or his talented crew, resting on their laurels – not when he is pushing for global preeminence.
“We’ve achieved a fraction of what we’re capable of and of what we’re going to achieve. If we end up transforming this dusty old catalogue retailer into a global ecommerce and technology titan, I wouldn’t be surprised,” he says.
If Baldock can maintain the relentless pace he has set so far, few would bet against him.
- This article was originally published on March 7, 2017.
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