CV: Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell Marketing director, Thomson Holidays
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I read modern history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, from 1981 to 1984, and was going to be a teacher - teaching seemed like one of those things you do if you're reading modern history. But in my last year I remember going to see a career adviser, ticking boxes on a form and getting a stupid computer print-out back, recommending that I be either a teacher or museum curator - which galvanised me into action.

In the vacation before my final year I wrote to three large organisations in Slough, where I lived - Johnson and Johnson, ICI and Mars - and said I was a bright young graduate looking for a career. I got no response from Mars or Johnson and Johnson, but ICI wrote back to me, and I went to see a lady there called Anne Ferguson, who spent an hour with me telling me what marketing was. It seemed to use the skills I was learning at university, like problem-solving, interpreting, and working with judgments.

I then looked around for graduate training programmes, and I got offers from Ford, Glaxo, IBM and ICI. I went to Glaxo, and the graduate programme gave me six months in market research, six months in product management, six months in international, and a bit of time in sales - which helped me make the transition from being a student to being a business person.

And I realised I wanted to be a fully fledged marketer, but in ethical pharmaceuticals marketing is not the driving force of the business. I didn't want to hang around 16 years or so waiting for a new drug to come to market, and so in 1986 I went to Sterling Health, as an assistant brand manager on Panadol and Hedex. It was very much an FMCG environment, and it was a very young, vibrant sort of place. But the company went into a nose-dive, and I left with all the other marketing people when the American parent sold it.

I then went to Homepride Foods - part of Dalgety - as a senior brand manager, where I learned how to play against the other brand manufacturers, such as Mars and Unilever. I also witnessed the rapid transfer of power from the manufacturer to the retailer. Big supermarkets were dictating what you did with marketing, and I felt, after six years at Homepride, that FMCG wasn't going to keep me going for the next 30 years. I had to make a transition.

Functionally, I'd gone up to where I was pretty fast; however, I felt quite weak in terms of width of experience. So I did an MBA at Cranfield, sponsored by Dalgety. It was a two-year programme, and I carried on with my regular job, doing a weekend's study every fortnight with four block weeks a year of residential stuff. And, in 1993, I was voted "most likely to succeed", probably because I was a noisy person and always objected to what the professors were saying.

Half-way through my second year, I felt the opportunities arising at Dalgety weren't the sort of things I wanted to do, and I joined a service business, being head-hunted into Barclaycard as head of marketing. That was a very different animal, because there, we had this great database of 6 million customers, telling us everything about their spending habits, to help us get them to change their behaviour and attitudes.

But when I'd been there for nine months, my boss, Mike McManus, who'd been one of the reasons I'd gone to Barclaycard, left. That seemed like a calamity at the time, but I then got his job as commercial director, so it turned out fine. I was in charge of about 170 people, spending pounds 100m, and managed other card companies such as Premiercard and Company Barclaycard as a de facto MD, as well as having responsibility for our business in Germany and European development plans. In the marketing world, this job made me famous, because it's a high-profile business, and no other financial service company gets near it in terms of brand awareness or brand image.

And then, six months ago, when I was looking at something that Barclaycard could do with Thomson Holidays, Thomson's MD asked me if I fancied a new challenge, so I came here. This industry's been cutting its own throat for years: price has been seen by most of the players as the only competitive weapon, and they ignore the others, like enriching the product and creating strong brand images. My job now is to try and change all that - but it's the change agenda itself that excites me.

Recently, I've been to Majorca and Ibiza to learn about product range, and to talk to our customers and reps. Thomson is the market leader by quite a long way, but we haven't been innovative enough in the last few years. We will assert our leadership much more strongly in the future, and will worry about our customers more than about our competitors.