Sara Weller allows herself exactly 33 minutes between her alarm clock sounding and leaving her Basingstoke home. What would be an unsightly scramble for most, leaves the hyper-efficient managing director of Argos plenty of time to get not only herself up, but also to wake her teenage daughter, Sophie, and make her some breakfast and lunch.
Even this early in the day, time is at a premium to the mum-of-two who runs the country's biggest general merchandise retailer. "My whole schedule is about trying to cram absolutely everything I can into a reasonably structured day that enables me to also cram the rest of my life into what's left of the day at the end."
There are more calls than ever on her time right now because Argos is gearing up to be able to stand on its own two feet after being demerged from its parent company, GUS. D-day is on Wednesday, when shares in ARG, the group that is home to both Argos and Homebase, will trade as a separate company.
While her customers slumber on, Ms Weller's working day begins in her "mini-office" in the back of her car. It's an Audi A8 with a long wheelbase, which in English makes it not quite a stretch limo but spacious enough for her to get going on all the admin that comes with running a £5.5bn business. Despite living a good 90 minute drive from Argos's Milton Keynes headquarters, the Wellers have stayed put in their family home of 17 years, preferring to travel rather than uproot their lives for the sake of a new job.
She has worked in Milton Keynes before: her last-but-one job, as director of customer marketing at Abbey National, was based there, but whereas back then she would drive herself, now she relies on a driver. Indeed, she made it a stipulation of taking the Argos job. "I had a vision of me driving into the central reservation on the M1."
She attacks her post and her inbox and checks the previous day's sales figures during her morning commute, leaving phone calls for a more civilised hour. "It's become an incredibly productive way of working. I get lots of stuff done in the shoulders of the day," she says. More often than she'd like, she gets called by the retail operations director with the unwelcome news that one of the stores has had a break-in during the night.
The task this morning is to run through the demerger with the company's 21 area mangers, who run stores as far afield as Liskeard in Cornwall and Galloway in southern Scotland. The team gather in Argos's Marsh Leas distribution centre, one of three that Ms Weller will visit today as part of her weekly rota of store trips.
Warehouses are not normally the sexiest part of a retailer's operations, yet most of Argos's rivals would kill for a tour of its giant stockrooms. What they are after is an insight to how the group operates its "multi-channel" strategy of selling goods - the hot new trend in retail. Tesco, Woolworths, Currys, Mothercare: they are all queueing up to ape Argos's formula of making it possible for customers to choose exactly how, when and where they shop. The clunky, "multi-channel" terminology means offering shoppers both the option of ordering goods over the internet, by telephone or in stores and choosing whether they collect their orders or wait for them to arrive at home. Tesco is desperate to break into Argos's stranglehold on the general merchandise market, launching its Tesco Direct internet site to try to lure customers away from Argos.
"The thing the flood of interest in multi-channel tells me is that it's a great way to shop. That's the reason we're successful," Ms Weller says. "It's not all black clouds [that there is more competition] because this is our DNA. We do this and nothing else, but for the others it's just an add-on to their core model."
Her task of trying to explain the merits of leaving the GUS fold, where Argos has been ever since it was acquired in a hostile bid battle in 1998, has been made easier by the decision to hand shares to every one of its employees. "The beauty of the new system is that the share price will be about Argos and Homebase, not also about Experian [the financial services bit that is being spun off separately]. It will make the line of connection between colleagues in Argos and the share price much more direct."
She can rattle off the reasons it will be better to trade as a separate UK retail group because a fair chunk of her time has been spent on the investor roadshow, with ARG's chief executive, Terry Duddy.
One of the main benefits will be not having Experian on the scene to confuse investors. "We're about to create the biggest non-food general merchandise and home retailer in the UK. We'll be the biggest business in that space, yet we only have about 10 per cent share of our main markets because they are all very fragmented." ARG is expected to hit the acquisition trail soon after listing, granted that bigger usually means better in retail terms.
Should Ms Weller need advice on being near the top of the tree of a quoted retailer she has plenty of possible ports of call. She is one of the infamous ex-Mars crowd, which includes Justin King, now head of J Sainsbury; Richard Baker, who runs AllianceBoots; and Allan Leighton, the Royal Mail boss. (She and Justin started on the same day.)
After another hour's drive, Ms Weller arrives at their Corby warehouse, which stocks all of Argos's newest lines available only in its biggest Extra stores. By expanding the depth of its ranges and pushing into new areas, such as leather sofas, the group believes it can win round the 27 per cent of the British population who are not already customers. Adding new stores will also help - Argos expects to turn its estate of 670 into one of more than 800 over the next four to five years. A collection service in local post offices in areas that lack an Argos should give the retailer the blanket coverage of the UK it is seeking.
One hour further north again, she reaches Barton, just south of Burton-on-Trent. Another warehouse, this time one that handles its most expensive, electronic lines. En route she took a call from her trading director, who is already thinking about how many gazebos and sets of garden furniture to order for next spring's catalogue. But in Barton, the focus is entirely on Christmas, which begins in earnest for Argos towards the end of this month.
It's time to start the long journey down south if Ms Weller wants to make it back in time for dinner with her children. Given that she manages to juggle both the boardroom (she is a director of the pubs company Mitchells & Butler) and her family home so successfully, you'd think she'd make a natural spokeswoman for her gender in the City. But although she thinks she's got a FTSE chief executive position within her - as number two to Sir Peter Davis at Sainsbury's many thought she was a shoo-in for the job - she's not chomping at the bit. She thinks the reason so few women run companies - most of the men she started out with at Mars are running big businesses but none of the women are - is because they have made "different choices" about what they want to do: "Success is about succeeding and balancing, not just succeeding."
As for that dinner - if she's lucky it will be a night that Sophie has cooked. Inspired perhaps by the fact that her mum was the one who signed up Jamie Oliver for Sainsbury's, Sophie is taking food GCSE. "Last night we had sweet-and-sour chicken with egg fried rice and the week before it was Mediterranean courgette pie. With chocolate custard. Considering she gets the train back from Reading, it's a miracle they survived!"Reuse content