Sportsmen, philosophers and even the odd journalist have all inspired the UK’s retail chief executives. Charlotte Hardie talks to five familiar faces about those who have influenced them as they have scaled their very diverse career ladders

Technique is what you fall back on when you run out of inspiration, it has been said.

The creativity and fresh thinking that emerges from looking at the approach of others is key to running a successful, dynamic business. Most retailers will be the first to admit that their career has been shaped by the achievements of others. Be they fellow personalities in the corporate world, members of the royal family, or even football managers, they have all given direction to the UK’s retail leaders – unwittingly or not.

The question is, who are they? And most importantly, what are their traits that have proved so motivational?

The retail giant: Andy Bond, chief executive, Asda

Archie Norman, former Asda boss
“The guy who recruited me to Asda and certainly the architect of the modern-day company. Also the guy who introduced everyday low pricing/everyday low cost retailing to the UK. He has a great mind and an ability to recruit and develop great people – Allan Leighton, Richard Baker, Justin King and so on.”

Sir Philip Green, owner, Arcadia and Bhs
“The UK’s best retail entrepreneur – plain and simple.”

Mike Duke, president and chief executive, Wal-Mart
“My boss and leader of the world’s biggest retailer – you don’t get to run the world’s best business without being gifted. Mike’s great attribute is his remarkable humility and sense of humanity.”

Lance Armstrong, athlete
“I don’t need to tell you the story – an inspirational athlete who achieved the top prize in his sport against all the odds. His passion and drive is overwhelming and his story proves that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.”

The Deal-making wizard: John Lovering, chairman, Debenhams

Allen Sheppard, later Lord Sheppard
“I knew Allen in the early 1980s when he was CEO of Grand Metropolitan and I was FD of its pub and restaurant business. He was a great leader. He was decisive yet delegating, informal but demanding. I was in my early 30s then, and he taught me something which I now use as my own: ‘The key to management is having an iron fist in a velvet glove held lightly around the throat’. He hired good people, trusted them to implement, but was never more than a yard or two off the pace.”

Alan Bowkett, Lex Service
“Alan was an ex-colleague from Lex [Service, now owned by RAC] and I shared an office with him in the late 1970s. He left the corporate world to try leveraged buyouts, and became a serial entrepreneur when I was still on wages. He did a number of private equity deals, including a buyout in the mid-1980s of a ball-bearing company – it was almost one of the first LBOs. Seeing him do this and be successful was one of the factors which inspired me to do the same. It wasn’t so much that he made it look easy, but he made it look better than working for wages.”

Bert Fokkema, then Hoogenbosch CEO
“Bert was CEO of Hoogenbosch BV, a Dutch shoe and sports retailer. Working with him, I really understood for the first time about the nuts and bolts of retailing. Before that I’d always been a corporate person – an FD and so on. Through him I learnt about merchandising and range planning, consistency of store design, and generally how to be a retailer.

“After 31 years as an employee, he also turned his mentality into that of entrepreneur in becoming an owner [In a private equity deal, Lovering and Fokkema bought the 200-store chain from Sears for £15m in 1995]. It’s very difficult to do that – especially in somewhere like Holland, where the stakeholder style of management is at odds with private equity.”

Richard Kirk, chief executive, Peacocks
“Richard is a fount of drive and enthusiasm. He understands the importance of delegation to high-quality management and shows such trust in his team. In 10 years he has reinvented Peacocks three times, from an older women’s downmarket discounter, to the value fashion retailer that it is today. He’s changed the business proposition and had the insight to see how to do it and the courage to implement it.”

The outspoken character: Gerald Ratner, retail entrepreneur

Lord Kalms, founder, Dixons
“I’ve always admired his no-nonsense approach. There was a lot of talk back in the 1980s about store design and creating space. I remember Stanley saying: ‘If you want space, go for a walk in the park’.

“Anyone can be the cheapest, but you have to do that in a way that makes the customer think they’re getting the best possible deals and the best offers. If Stanley discounted he didn’t waste it, and he got what margin he could while getting a tremendous appearance of value. His windows just screamed value at the public, and we learnt a lot from him in that respect.”

Michael O’Leary, chief executive, Ryanair
“The reason I admire O’Leary is he says what he thinks. He says outrageous things because he likes to. I respect that in a way. People will say this is all very well coming from me, but you get such a lot of boring rubbish coming out of so many businessmen’s mouths. When you read about Michael O’Leary you might not agree with him but at least you’re not getting meaningless comment that’s been written by some PR bloke. Sometimes CEOs are like call centres – they have six stock answers to every question and use whichever one seems more appropriate.”

George Davies, fashion entrepreneur
“George is someone who knows his brands. A lot of people are a jack of all trades, master of none. George isn’t one of them. I used to phone him and he’d be out in Austria looking at cloth or something. That’s what’s made him such a success – unlike a lot of retailers, he gets down and dirty with the product. He’s always surrounded by it and he’s not detached. You don’t make a phenomenal success out of three major brands – Next, Per Una and George at Asda – by fluke.”

Arsène Wenger, manager, Arsenal
“When you listen to what he says he makes brilliant sense. He runs Arsenal in a proper way – he doesn’t spend £30m here and £40m there. He’s highly intelligent, incredibly articulate and he’s achieved unbelievable things. That guy could run any business.

“Wenger never criticises his teams. He creates morale. That in retail is very important and something people don’t pay enough attention to. He’s also measured. He doesn’t shoot his mouth off like a lot of managers do.”

The online pioneer: Julian Granville, co-founder and MD, Boden

Archie Norman and Allan Leighton
“They are, perhaps, the joint fathers of modern British retail management. Nearly 10 years ago, Johnnie Boden and I once spent a day with Allan shadowing him at Asda. What was most notable was the way he interacted with staff. The combination of Allan’s energy, clarity and ability to simplify the complex was and remains his great strength. And that, combined with Archie Norman’s intellectual rigour, made them such an exceptional team.”

Benjamin Franklin, US inventor, public servant, scientist, politician, philosopher
“They don’t make them like Benjamin Franklin any more. A genuine renaissance man, excelling across an extraordinary range: business, invention, science, medicine, public service and politics. He spent the first 20 years of his life building a highly successful printing business, amassing a great fortune. He then dedicated himself to altruistic works. His combination of common sense and a contrarian streak led to startling hypotheses for the time.”

Charlie Munger, vice-chairman, Berkshire Hathaway, and Warren Buffet’s right-hand man
“I’ve been to see Munger speak twice in Omaha and twice in Pasenda. I’m practically a member of his cult. He’s a polymath with a fantastic mind who can turn his hand to anything. He’s primarily seen as an investor, but he – together with Warren Buffett – is also an extremely talented manager.

“Most significantly, though, he recognises the importance of psychology in business. He’s fantastic on the importance of psychological issues in understanding what drives us. He gave a talk in 1995 called The Psychology of Human Misjudgement, which considers among other things the extraordinary power of incentives. Look it up on the internet. It’ll take 30 minutes to read and I guarantee you’ll be a better retailer once you’ve read it.”

Sam Walton, founder, Wal-Mart
“This is someone who had unbelievable focus and dedication. A culture of frugality ran through everything he did, from forbidding anyone in his business to accept gifts from suppliers to passing on all savings to customers.

“In terms of retail, it’s difficult to think of anyone else who even approached the level of what he achieved. He is proof of what can be achieved with a combination of hard work, discipline and leading from the front. He was low key – almost the opposite of stereotypical larger-than-life charismatic boss – but he was nonetheless an inspirational founder, builder and leader of one of the greatest retail businesses in the world.”

The self-made entrepreneur: Lord Kirkham, chairman, Dfs

Eddie Healey, businessman
“Eddie is a successful Hull businessman listed in the Sunday Times Rich List together with his brother Malcolm with a net worth of £1.35bn. I met him around 35 years ago before their kitchen business Status Discount became part of the MFI empire. Since then, Eddie has become a property superstar through The Stadium Group and developed, owned, operated and subsequently sold the Meadowhall shopping development in Sheffield.

“Eddie shattered my preconceived idea of the multi-millionaire businessman, his style being informal, natural, generous and easy to underestimate. He is intuitive and a little Machiavellian – but in the nicest possible way. What do I remember of all he said? Perhaps the comment: ‘deal them while they are hot’.”

John Garnett, industrial campaigner and chairman of the Industrial Society
“John was father of Virginia Bottomley, minister for health in John Major’s cabinet. He never retired and was the most charismatic and motivational speaker I have ever met. He was truly inspirational, focusing on leadership, teams and vision. DFS employed him as a consultant often. My most powerful memory of him are his words: ‘Staff do what they like doing and what the boss checks on.’ And that anything good and of value requires ‘eternal vigilance’.”

Ian Wooldridge, Daily Mail columnist for 46 years
“If you think you know about living, visit Ian’s life – he has been everywhere, done everything and yet was a modest genius. He died two years ago, but in his lifetime he interviewed Idi Amin at the point of a pistol, flew upside down with the red arrows and crossed Alaska on a dog sled. He ran with the bulls at
Pamplona many times, but only once with me as his guest and that is my abiding memory.
He gave me lots of advice but Retail Week wouldn’t print it.”

Anne, Princess Royal
“I have worked with the Princess Royal for the Animal Health Trust Charity for almost 20 years. I have learnt through her never to shirk a difficult decision or action. Give instructions that leave no room for ambiguity. Stay cool and don’t panic. If it wasn’t Princess Anne, maybe it was Prince Philip, but the advice I won’t
forget is: ‘Don’t sit down if you smell wet paint.’”