The Asda Academy - Learning a lesson at Asda

Earlier this month, George design director Kate Bostock became the latest Asda recruit to be lured to a high-profile position at one of the UK's most traditional, but troubled, high street retailers.

Bostock will join Marks & Spencer as head of women's clothing in the autumn, adding her name to a growing list of Asda ex-pats attempting to revive the fortunes of retailers that have lost their way.

Others include former Asda retail managing director Justin King, who joined Sainsbury's as chief executive in March, and former Asda chief operating officer Richard Baker, who took up a chief executive role at Boots last September. Both have showed their worth at results presentations in the past fortnight.

King has also already shown that the jump from Asda to M&S can be made - he joined Sainsbury's after heading M&S's food division, which included the Simply Food chain. Bostock herself is already a former M&S employee, so should find the return a more comfortable one.

Asda attraction

So what is it that makes ex-Asda employees so appealing for sorting out the problems of retailers such as Sainsbury's, Boots and M&S? Their very ethos and management structures, because of their histories, are very different from Asda's more dynamic way of working.

Nick Scott, head of retail and fashion at PeopleSearch consultants, says the market requirement for retail talent has changed of late. 'Generally speaking, over the past six to 12 months there has been a steerage away from products to a more trading-focused bias. It is the younger, up-and-coming executives from a supermarket background, such as Tesco and Asda, (that are in demand). They have got the trader mentality,' he says.

Fran Minogue, head of retail and luxury goods for executive headhunters Heidrick & Struggles, agrees. 'The top people at Asda and Tesco are very much in demand and get calls all the time, but (at Tesco) are very rarely tempted,' she says.

Quick on the draw

With Tesco riding on an all-time high, it is no surprise that tempting executives away from the retail giant is a tough job. Asda, therefore, is a natural second choice, but, as the high-profile nature of the new positions shows, not a poor second best.

Asda has proved itself to be a rich hunting ground for retail talent as its previous management sparkle fades, say headhunters. They say this is a natural consequence of the takeover of Asda by US giant Wal-Mart nearly five years ago. 'It is not the same entrepreneurial culture as it was before,' says one recruitment source.

So was it Asda that originally developed such a hotbed of retail talent?

Undoubtedly Asda has played its part in moulding some incredible industry players, including Bostock and new Argos managing director Sara Weller.

However, the real answer for a number of ex-Asda bosses - including Justin King, Richard Baker and Matalan's former chief executive and now Levi's European president Paul Mason - is confectionery and pet foods retailer Mars.

The Mars and Asda link is largely down to one man - Asda's former chief executive. 'We have the Allan Leighton factor. He spotted certain people in Mars and took them into Asda,' says Minogue.

Leighton himself had been previously brought into Asda from Mars by Archie Norman, Asda's then-chairman. At Asda, Leighton and Norman developed the learnings that Leighton had picked up at Mars. 'He and Archie created an incredible culture at Asda. They gave people the belief that they could really do something,' says Minogue. 'That's generally why Mars and Asda people have done well. It's that spirit of empowerment.'

Mars has spawned other talent too. So why did it ignite such a retail passion in its employees? WHSmith marketing director Stephen Robertson was a Mars employee for six years, from 1986.

Like his fellow ex-Mars peers, nicknamed the Past Marsters, he has the opportunity to catch up with his colleagues on a yearly basis at gatherings they organise, and is also kept in touch with people's comings and goings with a Past Marsters brochure.

Although he did not follow the Asda route, Robertson explains that it is the mentality of Mars that spawns such successful retail talent.

'A Mars background gives you a number of things. They do provide excellent training and discipline and an understanding of business processes, as well as developing management skills,' he says.

Work, rest and play

According to Robertson, a Mars training also provides the most valuable lesson a retailer can learn. 'They are a business clear on the principles they want to operate, one of which is that the customer is king. It's an essential basis for being a retailer and the one piece of thinking that everyone takes away with them,' he says.

However, in truth it is not just one piece of thinking that ex-Mars employees of the period took away with them. Even though it is 14 years since he left Mars, Robertson can still accurately quote Mars' five guidelines: quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom.

For the rest of us, the more familiar chant is the former marketing slogan 'a Mars a day helps you work, rest and play'.

For the new ex-Asda and Mars chief executives on the high streets, there will be little hope of rest for a while.



March 2004-present: chief executive, J Sainsbury

2000-03: business unit director, food, M&S

1994-2000: director, beers, wines and spirits, Asda, rising to retail managing director, hypermarkets, Asda

1993-94: marketing director, Allied Maples

1990-93: managing director, Haagen-Dazs UK

1989-90: sales development manager (Cyprus), rising to sales and marketing director (Egypt), Pepsi-Cola International

1983-89: manufacturing manager, rising to national account manager, Mars Confectionery


2003-present: chief executive, Boots

1995-2003: business unit director, rising to chief operating officer, Asda

1986-95: Mars, head of sales - UK multiples, group brands and national accounts controller


2004-present: European president, Levis

2002-03: chief executive, Matalan

2001: president and managing director, Asda

1999-2001: chief operating officer, Asda

1996-99: retail director, Asda

1995-96: development director, Asda

1990-95: various roles, rising to buying and logistics director, B&Q

1984-90: various marketing and management roles, Mars GB


2000-present: various chairmanships, including Royal Mail and Bhs

1992-2000: sales director, rising to to chief executive, Asda

1991-92: marketing director, Pedigree pet foods

1974-91: Mars, rising to marketing director



Summer 2004: managing director, Argos

13 years at Mars from 1983, rising to European development director


2004-present: marketing director, WHSmith

Six years at Mars from 1986, rising to European marketing manager


1994-present: chief executive, Dixons

12 years at Mars from 1970, rising to marketing manager.