On Planet Retail, keep your head or you'll lose it

As Mulberry's chief became the latest shopkeeper to fall on his sword amid profit warnings, survivors tell Alex Lawson how they beat the stress

Next's relentless rising profits, reported yesterday, stuck out like a sore thumb as its quoted rivals go on the defensive.

Lord Wolfson, the Tory peer and Next boss, has spent his 13 years at the helm serenely ensuring the continuing appeal of the affordable, fairly fashionable clothing retailer. He has shunned the limelight courted by peers and gained gravitas simply by speaking about the subjects – Europe, local planning, government policy – which push his agenda.

His unfussy approach is incongruous to the bombast and bluster of most retail chiefs. And there's been bluster by the busload in Planet Retail lately. Facing empty high streets and rivals armed with billions to spend after successful stock-market listings, Britain's high street executives are feeling the heat.

Already this year, internal and external pressures have triggered the departures of Simon Calver from Mothercare and Euan Sutherland from the top spot at the Co-op. Yesterday Bruno Guillon resigned his post at the luxury handbags specialist Mulberry shortly after issuing a profit warning. Bookies have even been taking bets on which chief will exit next from Marks & Spencer, Morrisons and Tesco.

Only last week, Mr Calver's successor at Mothercare, Mark Newton-Jones, said retail chief executives need the "constitution of a horse" to do the job. He should know. He has had staff at two northern call centres he shut down, while at Littlewoods owner Shop Direct, burn effigies of him.

But when sweat gathers on the brow, how do retail chiefs stay focused and motivate their huge workforces?

"The key is to keep smiling even when it's raining, as staff morale is really important," says Iceland's founder, Malcolm Walker.

He has run the frozen food retailer as a public and private entity and vehemently favours the latter ownership structure. "The problem with public companies is that you sometimes fudge decisions to keep the like-for-likes and profit moving."

Dalton Philips tried to keep the City on side last week – raising Morrisons' dividend despite plunging profits – but not everyone is clear on who "the City" really is.

One retail chief says: "Who is the City? The most vocal are a collection of analysts, journalists and outspoken fund managers. It would be easier to do what the Daily Mail says to gain approval but it's not the right thing for the company."

Ocado's chief executive, Tim Steiner, who has shrugged off City criticism over its lack of profitability, prioritises explaining strategy to those who "matter most". "The important thing is when there is external pressure, you have to understand what is causing it," he tells The Independent. "If you are confident it is not an issue, concentrate on your strategy and explain it to the people who matter most – your staff, customers, shareholders and suppliers.

"If people outside of that group don't understand or want to understand, it's less relevant and shouldn't deviate you from your strategy."

Away from the boardroom, keeping fit helps the psyche – Mr Philips runs 10km each night and is in training for a marathon. The cycling retailer Wiggle's chairman, Andy Bond, once cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats while he was Asda chief.

Sue Shipley, head of retail at headhunter The Miles Partnership, says: "It's important to stay fit and healthy. It can be hard to justify time outside the office, but you need to ensure you do not burn out."

Asda's boss, Andy Clarke, said last month that he still calls former Asda chief executives Allan Leighton and Archie Norman for advice.

Anthony Thompson, the chief executive of the revitalised float candidate Fat Face, at last week’s Retail Week Live conference said: "If you treat every day as if it's your first day then you remain open-minded and you have plenty of energy. It's important for people to believe that you believe that it's doable."

The headhunter Korn Ferry's head of retail, Sally Elliott, adds: "The most successful chief executives are energised under pressure rather than stressed by it. They demonstrate the ability to strike the right balance between self-assurance and misplaced over-confidence."

Resilience is a prized asset in a chief executive. Retail is one of the most competitive markets and with new propositions wreaking havoc with established business models, willpower remains vital. Just ask Lord Wolfson.

What's Next? Wolfson's worries

Lord Wolfson cast more doubts over the strength of the UK's recovery yesterday, 24 hours after George Osborne promised a Budget for investment and savers.

The warning by the Next chief executive, left, came as the FTSE 100 retail behemoth overtook Marks & Spencer with a 12 per cent rise in annual profits to £695m for the year to January. Sales at the UK's second-biggest clothing chain could rise by up to 8 per cent this year with profits hitting £770m, Lord Wolfson added.

However, the comments of the Tory peer, who is married to the Chancellor's adviser Eleanor Shawcross, poured cold water on Mr Osborne's efforts to kick-start investment yesterday. He said there "didn't seem to be anything that is going to dramatically change the course of the UK economy one way or another over the next year or so", and that, despite "encouraging signs" for consumers, "the economy is at a turning point but we can't be sure which way it is going to go".

He urged politicians to do more to encourage growth.

Russell Lynch

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

The benefits of being in Recruitment at SThree...

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: SThree, International Recruitme...

Test Analyst - UAT - Credit Risk

£280 - £300 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Test Analyst, Edinburgh, Credit Ris...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little