Those without a retail background still have plenty of nous to bring to the sector, says Neil Gillis.

One of the reasons given for the demise of HBoS as an independent bank was that its chief executive, Andy Hornby, was a retailer and not a banker.

This was clearly nonsense on a variety of grounds. Having banking professionals in charge at Northern Rock and Royal Bank of Scotland did not alter their destiny. It is also a convenient simplification to pin the economic crisis on a handful of individuals in a few banks – it was much more widespread, complex and deep-seated than that.

However, it was interesting to see this old prejudice about specialisation come out yet again.

Throughout my own career I have been fortunate to move between different sectors – from tea to health clubs, frozen food to pubs. Each time I have moved sector some industry guru will tell me that you can’t just learn the tea/food/health club/pub game that easily – it takes years of experience.

The implication is that you can only be competent within a sector if you have spent most of your career within it. Retail is no different with regard to this myopic view. One of the criticisms you often hear muttered within this industry is that this or that individual is “not a retailer”, by which it is meant that they should really go back to where they came from.

Clearly there are certain roles within each industry that do require specialist skills and experience. You would not wish to be operated upon by an accountant who had recently taken up a career in surgery. But many roles within retail are capable of being performed to a high standard by people with little or no retail experience.

Very often they bring a fresh perspective, new insights and the ability to ask seemingly naive but challenging questions. This becomes particularly true of general management roles where abilities such as leadership, strategic clarity, determination and commitment are far more important than the number of retail years you have stamped on your ticket. Marc Bolland at Morrisons, for example, is doing an excellent job running the UK’s second-largest quoted retailer despite never having held a retail role in his life.

The retail sector has been incredibly successful in the UK. But as the landscape changes there is a risk it could suffer if it is seen to be hostile to new thinking from outside the industry.

The emergence of the closed shop is one of the first signs of a declining and stagnating sector. But there is a further consideration that may be more important to you as an individual. The day may come when you – as a retail professional – feel that you would like to try your skills in another sector.

When that time comes let’s hope that attitudes towards specialisation have changed and you don’t face the prejudice that still attempts to confine professional managers to one sector for the duration of their career.

Let’s hope that retail can be the beneficiary of new thinking and new talent from other sectors and that in turn our diaspora can pollinate other industries with the agile and customer-focused approach for which this sector is known.

  • Neil Gillis is chief executive of Blacks Leisure

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