John Browett’s job leading DSGi has been a challenge from the start, but he has made plenty of headway in tough circumstances. Amy Shields finds out why
If anyone could convince shareholders to back a rights issue at DSGi it was John Browett. The affable and intellectual chief executive has gone about restoring confidence in the beleaguered retailer’s turnaround with a mix of pragmatism and understated enthusiasm.
When describing the former Tesco high-flyer’s management style analysts use words including “personable”, “confident” and “in control”. He turned bad news last week – after revealing spiralling debt and negative like-for-likes – into a rising share price.
However, when Browett joined DSGi at the end of 2007 the City was sceptical about his ability to lead a retail company with the issues facing DSGi.
A former management consultant, 45-year-old Browett has in the past undertaken quite cerebral roles. But while his retail pedigree may not be broad, it is deep. After completing an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, he trained at Boston Consulting. In 1998, he joined Tesco as group strategy director.
He headed Tesco.com from 1999 to 2004, charged with launching non-food products, and drove the development of Tesco’s overseas stores as development director.
Such is his draw that he has poached a number of his management team from Tesco to join him. In a letter to DSGi staff, written before Christmas, Browett wrote that DSGi has a very “strong, determined management team”.
Colleagues say that he garners respect by remaining calm and level-headed.
If he is unhappy about something he will make it apparent without making a scene. One colleague says he’ll sometimes make jokes about colleagues’ dress, despite his own distinctive preppy style of chinos and jumper.
Browett read zoology at Cambridge but his passion has turned to technology. A tour of a PC World or Currys store with him reveals a schoolboy enthusiasm for talking at length about the technology behind flatscreen TVs.
On another occasion, he revealed his hands-on nature when a disgruntled customer barged into a back room after realising who Browett was. He leapt to his feet and attended to the customer.
Browett will not compromise on this focus on the consumer and customer service. It is a lynchpin of his “Renewal and Transformation” plan for DSGi and is a rule by which he leads his own life.
In fact, the best customer service Browett ever received led to an unusual outcome. He married the American former waitress after she served him coffee in a cafe in Texas.
His understanding of the customer is key. DSGi chairman John Allan’s decision to accept the chairmanship was based on a meeting with John Browett.
“When I visited stores with him I noticed dramatic changes going on,” Allan said at the time. “I thought, here is someone who understands about creating a business that is consumer focused. And it’s not just talk, there is real action going on to make this a very attractive retail proposition.”
It will be an uphill struggle for Browett and the timing of his joining was unfortunate given the battering DSGi has taken. But he knows what he has taken on. In January he said: ‘What we’re not expecting to see is some kind of disastrous slump of biblical proportions … this recession … doesn’t look like it is out of the ordinary.”
Whether he will end up eating his words remains to be seen but Browett’s successes so far outweigh the failures and the changes at DSGi since he joined are palpable.
Family: married, with three children
Likes: racing small sailing boats
2007-present: chief executive of DSGi
2005: development director, Tesco
1999-2005: head of Tesco.com
1998-1999: group strategy director, Tesco
1993-1998: Boston Consulting
1991-1993: MBA Wharton
1986-1991: Kleinwort Benson
1983-1986: Cambridge, Natural Sciences