OUTLOOK: Sometimes, age does matter


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The Independent Online

Do you run a small independent retailer? Scared that the mighty Wal-Mart or its British mini me Asda is going to plonk one of its outlets on your doorstep?

Fear not! They could become the architects of their own extinction. Its chief lieutenant for Airstrip One Andy Clarke says big retailers are doomed if they fail to hire younger people.

“You’ve got to be prepared to open yourself up to realise you haven’t got all the answers, and in the growth channels that is going to come from a younger generation,” the chief executive of the Asda part of the Wal-Mart family opined.

If that, and the rest of what he said, is true, his employer is going the way of the Dodo and the Carrier Pigeon. The average age of those around the boardroom table at the family seat in Bentonville, Arkansas is 60.

But that’s the mean, and it is distorted a bit by the likes of Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, representing the kids at 38, along with her pal, the private equity magnate Gregory Penner (44). The Median comes in at 63.5.

Wal-Mart, it seems, isn’t exactly practicing what its hireling is preaching. Its habit of keeping former CEOs hanging around into their dotage doesn’t exactly help. They’re noticeably not giving way to “younger, talented people who have got experience for the future”.

In fact Mr Clarke is right, but it’s not just young people’s thinking and influence companies like Asda and Wal-Mart could do with a bit of.

Take the example of Mr Clarke’s Leyton branch, where I have had the misfortune to shop on occasion. It clearly operates on principles that would appear eminently sensible to the average MBA graduate, being designed to wring out the maximum amount of revenue per square inch of floor space.

As a result the aisles are squeezed (particularly by comparison to the Christmas winner among the big four supermarkets, Sainsbury’s). So going there is a horrible experience if you happen to have children in tow or if you happen to use a wheelchair (as I do).

Mums and disabled people are not well represented on Wal-Mart’s board. Ms Mayer is a prominent exception in the former category - but her pram is presumably pushed by her nanny who hangs out in the nursery she had built next door to her office to get around her edict banning staff from working from home.

The best of it is Wal-Mart’s board, which has four women, one of whom is Hispanic, together with two African Americans among its quota of ageing upper middle class white guys, is positively awash with diversity compared with most of those in our own FTSE 100.

So it’s perhaps a little unfair to strafe Mr Clarke here for saying the right things.

But talk is really very cheap, and there’s an awful lot of talk about the value of diversity in business and the dangers of groupthink right now, with precious little evidence of any real action or desire to alter the monochrome status quo. As Wal-Mart’s board demonstrates rather well.