A day in the life: Autumn chill gives Debenhams boss a spring in his step

Rob Templeman, the chain's chief executive, has stock to shift and stores to open if he is to satisfy investors who bought in at the float. By Susie Mesure
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The Independent Online


For a boss of a £1.7bn retailer, mornings don't come much better than this. The air outside Rob Templeman's London bolthole is crisp, even chilly. Finally, commuters will be forced to don an extra layer or two, or better still, a coat, before setting out. Debenhams has racks of this season's dogtooth numbers still to shift and time is against it: the demise of the January sales means shoppers expect stores to slash prices this side of Christmas.

Another plus for the chief executive of the UK's biggest department store chain is that he has but a short hop into work. Years of canny dealmaking, including a £9m-ish windfall from floating Debenhams earlier this year, have left him with plenty of spare change for a pied-à-terre in the capital as well as his Kent family home. He spent last night in town, where he often stays during the week with one of his two teenage daughters. "She is meant to look after me but last night I cooked her dinner," he says. Beats tackling the rush hour jam on the A2 at any rate.


The day starts, as ever, with a run through of yesterday's sales figures. He won't divulge how bad (or good) they are, but the word in the industry is that the chain is finding the going tough. As Mr Templeman admits, a resurgent Marks & Spencer, "hurts everyone". After a quick chat to a couple of directors, it's time to walk the floors of the group's flagship Oxford Street store before it opens for business. As a retail old hand - he cut his teeth at Harris Queensway, the now defunct conglomerate that used to own Hamleys - the 48-year-old knows it is vital to stay in touch with what's going on inside the stores.

"One of the sayings I've had is that the people on the shop floor nearly always know what the answers are and they're totally bemused that people like me never ask them." It's handy because his fourth-floor executive suite has a door leading straight out to the store. Not quite a secret passageway, but almost.

One of the main ways Mr Templeman shook up the sleepy ex-plc after buying it for £1.7bn three years ago with Texas Pacific, Merrill Lynch and CVC, was to instigate an "adopt-a-store" regime for the top team. His is Clapham Junction. The idea is that once a month senior directors have to get their hands dirty. "If a store manager says to me, 'Work on the till', I have to work. But they don't normally let me stay on there long because I'm not fast enough." There is league table back at HQ and prizes at the end of the year. He grumbles that last year he was given the group's "second worst" store.


Tuesday is when Mr Templeman packs in his external meetings and today he is meeting one of his biggest suppliers. Three-quarters of Debenhams' stock is own-bought as opposed to being concessions, which is good for its margins. This includes the group's USP, its Designers at Debenhams ranges, exclusive lines from big-name fashion stars such as Julian Macdonald, Jasper Conran and Betty Jackson. After that he has a quick look at some "story boards" - the collages reminiscent of primary school that retailers use to plan new ranges. He was shown two new brands that Debenhams is launching for Spring: Mantaray, a women's Billabong-esque surfwear label; and Gorgeous, which extends its existing lingerie label for the bigger woman into fashionable clothing.

Mr Templeman was much derided for his lack of fashion know-how when he took over the business, along with having "overpaid". He has since turned both claims on their heads. Witness the vast sums that he and his fellow directors, including "deal king extraordinaire" John Lovering, made for themselves and their backers before using the stockmarket to seek a way out. As for not knowing about fashion, well, for starters Debs is about a lot more than just clothes - "It's the most diversified product portfolio on the high street". Plus he now confesses that fashion is "probably the most enjoyable" of all the types of retail in which he's dabbled. And that from a man who has run the car maintenance chain Halfords and the do-it-yourself group Homebase.


You might think that running a publicly quoted company differs immensely from working in the closed-doors-world of private equity, but Mr Templeman reckons not. He says having thousands of shareholders as opposed to just three big ones makes next-to-no difference. Partly this is because Debenhams had to report quarterly-trading figures for its bondholders anyway so he couldn't hide away, and partly he says it's down to being such a "well-known high street brand that we attracted attention whether we were private or public". What being in private equity hands did do, however, was "focus peoples' minds" on "what drives value, whether that's debt reduction or margin or sales expansion".

Given that all the group's old-timers are still on the team - Messrs Templeman and Lovering, the finance director Chris Woodhouse, and one IT guy were the only new faces after the buyout - he thinks that the spell in private hands was good for the business. "They've [the operating directors] understood how a business operates in a financial perspective a lot more. That's probably made them better managers for the future."

Three such men now troop in for a meeting about a new concept that the group is planning to launch in its Glasgow branch. It's for the Ultimo lingerie brand, which is run by one of Debenhams' top suppliers, Michelle Mone. The sales areas are all getting spruced up. Think black, and lots of it. There will be more help for women seeking the right size bra.


It's off to the Vinyl Factory, a gallery off Carnaby Street, to check on preparations for the group's spring/summer press show. It's on Wednesday and Thursday and gives Debenhams the chance to gauge whether its ranges are up to scratch. Mr Templeman is walked through what Debs is betting will be next season's hot looks: Diane von Furstenberg-style dresses in kaleidoscope prints, anything voluminous daubed in 1960s' graphics and yet another outing for prairie chic.

He makes a good stab at sounding clued up, pointing out pieces by Jasper Conran and Betty Jackson. He queries whether a few will sell and wonders at the lack of anything formal. "I was told there would be some metallics. Metallics will be big." He lingers by the lingerie and swimwear, seeking out a skimpy white crochet bikini with mirrored sequins from Julian Macdonald's limited range. "Would you wear that?" he asks Justine Allister, its head of fashion PR. (Her reply probably isn't printable.)


Lunch is a simple affair. A sandwich at his desk.


A long and heavy session begins to discuss the company's marketing and promotion strategy for the next three months. (Father Christmas arrives in 130 stores today.) He scotches suggestions from some City quarters that the group has been holding too many "mega" sales days. There is just time to squeeze in a viewing of mocked- up store windows, which are ready for spring.


Tonight his daughter must fend for herself. Mr Templeman is out to eat with some property people, who are seeking out new sites for his group's ambitious expansion push. He needs serious help if he is to double the Debenhams UK estate to 240 stores - and find 100 towns that can take his smaller, women-only Desire format, as he has promised investors. Without that growth shareholders can whistle for the £2-plus share price that they hoped for when opting to back the 195p-per-share IPO. He'd better have chosen somewhere nice.

From DIY to high-street fashion

Name: Rob Templeman

Age: 48

Job: Chief executive, Debenhams, since December 2003

Salary: £1m

Other directorships: February

2003 to May 2006, chairman, Halfords; 2001 to February2003,

chief executive, Homebase; 1990 to 2000, managing director, Harveys Furnishings

Before that: Brief flirtation with IT before turning to retailing

Personal: Married with two children; homes in Kent and London