Life After Tesco: What Sir Terry did next
Leaving the supermarket giant allowed its former boss to focus on start-up businesses. He talks to James Thompson
Saturday 30 July 2011
Until March, Sir Terry Leahy had rather a big job.
As chief executive of the world's third largest retailer Tesco, he was in charge of nearly 500,000 staff in 14 countries, and delivered profits of £3.54bn there last year. After 14 years in this role and 32 at the grocer, he could therefore be forgiven for taking it easy.
But Sir Terry has been "busy" since hordes of Tesco staff waved him a goodbye outside the grocer's head office in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, more than four months ago. He has made investments in, or taken roles at, about 10 companies but is prepared to divulge only eight of them. Of these eight he has taken stakes in seven, including The Hut, the online retailer; Stuckonhomework.com, a website providing educational videos for GSCE students; and Eagle Eye Solutions, a mobile coupon company.
Speaking to The Independent, Sir Terry says: "I like business so in terms of a life after Tesco, I wanted to stay in business. Private investment allows you to do pure business so you can concentrate on business itself, not the wider governance activities."
However, in his short time away from Tesco, he has seen another side of business life in the UK in the way that smaller, successful firms find it "difficult" to raise funding. That said, he believes there is an economic recovery taking place but warns that soaring petrol prices currently mean that its trajectory is not yet clear.
What is already clear is that Sir Terry's private investment portfolio has largely focused on fast-growing start-up companies, which typically have the internet, mobile commerce or innovative technology at their heart. For instance, his investments also include Kind Consumer, a healthcare firm developing inhalation technologies, and MetaPack, a provider of online delivery systems.
Sir Terry says he was keen to get involved with businesses that have "some IP [intellectual property], adding that working with "entrepreneurs and interesting people" was also key. He cites Kind Consumer's breath-operated technology – which has a valve to regulate nicotine intake – for smokers who are unwilling or unable to give up, as an example of attractive IP.
In other areas, he describes his investment in Stuckonhomework.com, in which he has taken a 47 per cent stake, as "socially interesting". The site, which is based on the school curriculum, features real teachers providing learning videos online.
Of all his investments, Sir Terry could make a substantial return on his 3 per cent stake the most quickly at The Hut Group, which is considering a flotation later this year. Founded by Matthew Moulding in 2004, The Hut has acquired websites from Zavvi, the former entertainment product retailer, to Mankind.co.uk, the men's style and grooming site, over the past three years. Sir Terry says: "There is a good management team and they are very focused. They seem to be developing some of the good traditional retail disciplines into internet retailing in terms of logistics and customer acquisitions."
However, while he has largely been involved with high-growth, start-ups since leaving Tesco, the battles smaller companies face in raising finance has shocked him. Sir Terry says: "I have been surprised at how companies with good IP struggle to raise finance." The strong growth of online players and the recent struggles of numerous high-street chains have led to talk of a major structural shift among the sector's stronger and weaker players. This schism is being driven by the internet driving down prices, but also the lingering and painful squeeze on household budgets, which has outlasted the patterns seen after previous recessions.
But Sir Terry takes a positive stance on the impact of emerging online and mobile technologies. He says "you have to embrace it – you cannot avoid it. There is quite a dynamic change taking place, which is a good thing. And whilst it is clear that some businesses are struggling in the current climate, there are others that are doing well."
He adds: "I would say there are a lot of opportunities in retail down to the new possibilities of e-commerce and m-commerce, and also the possibilities from emerging markets." At Tesco, Terry invested heavily in the emerging economies of Asia and while for now, his only project in the region appears to his long-standing investment in a 48-acre West Sands eco-resort site in Phuket, Thailand, it is unlikely to be his last in the region.
Closer to home, Sir Terry has been consistent in his view since 2009 that the UK economy is in recovery and while his view hasn't changed since March, he says that record petrol prices have hit the consumer hard. "It has been a terrible blow to the consumer. If you are putting your money in the petrol tank you cannot put it into the shops."
Sir Terry adds: "There is a recovery happening but consumers have been hit hard by rising petrol prices – probably it is as simple as that and once they get through this it will be clearer to see." Details of Sir Terry's other investments will no doubt emerge soon but he has already given many clues about where they may lie. He says: "It is quite good fun to invest and advise companies about how to grow. I am busy but I have more control over my time." No doubt he has not been short of firms begging him for advice and a slice of his personal fortune.
Sir Terry's Projects
Stuck on homework: E-learning
A website providing educational videos for GSCE students that was set up by former ITV and BBC executives.
West Sands: Thai eco-resort
Sir Terry invested in the 48-acre West Sands resort in Phuket, Thailand, with his business partner Paul Mercer in 2006.
Social Mobility Forum: Charity
He joined the board of the charity – which aims to improve the social mobility of young people from lower-income backgrounds – in February.
Eagle Eye Solutions: Mobile coupons
It delivers coupons to mobile users and allows retailers to track redemption payments.
Clayton Dubilier & Rice: Private equity
Sir Terry joined as a part-time senior adviser to the US firm, whose investments include Hertz, the car rental company.
thehut: Online retailing
The company has acquired e-commerce sites, including Zavvi, and is eyeing an IPO. Sir Stuart Rose is an investor.
MetaPack: Online delivery
Founded in 1999, the company works with UK parcel carriers to help improve their delivery services on behalf of UK retailers.
Kind: Healthcare technology
It develops pioneering inhalation devices that intend to tackle significant, unmet health problems, such as smoking addiction.
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