Profile: Foot soldier on a straight line: Liam Strong: Reorganisation is proceeding with military precision at Sears. William Kay on the man in charge
Sunday 01 May 1994
The company is clearly responding to the dapper young Ulsterman who worships at the shrines of military history and marketing theory.
'I have been interested in military history since I was a kid, and I would love to be running an army in battle,' he says. 'Success in the 1990s will depend on how radical you are prepared to be.'
His commercial radicalism was tested to the limit at his previous berth as marketing and operations director of British Airways - when the campaign against Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic was at its height.
The rights and wrongs of that case are still being argued through the courts, and there is no suggestion that Strong acted improperly. But the anti-Virgin onslaught emulated Strong's hero, General Ulysses S Grant, who said: 'First find your enemy, then move in on him and hit him hard and then keep hitting him.'
Arguably, by 1992 Sears needed a radical touch. Bought by the late and legendary Sir Charles Clore as a property play, it had slowly transmuted into an agglomeration of shoe shops partly supplied by their own factory. To that was added such baubles as the jewellers Mappin & Webb and one of London's premier department stores, Selfridges.
Strong's predecessor, the urbane Michael Pickard, started to modernise the group, ditching Mappin and the bookmakers William Hill, and introducing Olympus Sport and Adams, the childrenswear chain. But Strong has taken the process further.
Out have gone the British Shoe Corporation factories, along with Galliford housebuilding, Fosters and Your Price menswear retailing and property investment.
In have come Richards, the stylish chain conceived by Sir Terence Conran, Pride and Joy maternity wear, and serve-yourself themes at Shoe Express, Hush Puppy and Shoe City. And, less impressively, the Dutch mail-order business ter Meulen Post has been closed at a cost of pounds 5.5m less than two years after it was bought.
Says Strong: 'We are looking to develop a smaller number of bigger businesses to really dominate and get on top of things. The issue is building up our retailing skills and constantly challenging our retail companies to ensure that they are as close to the line as they can be.'
Business is in Strong's blood. He was brought up in County Tyrone, where his father ran a lorry fleet for the local milk marketing board.
'He would stand about for hours negotiating the best deals for cattle or cars,' Strong recalls. 'He had two principles: never name your price first and never be ashamed to shock people with how outrageously you pitch it first time round.'
His parents apparently had a well-developed sense of posterity: as their names were Gerald and Geraldine, they called their only son Gerald. This must have been confusing for his three sisters, and most others in the village. At any rate, his nanny had no truck with such nonsense and simply called him Liam instead.
He had what sounds like an idyllic country upbringing, educated at a two-room village school and helping his father load and unload milk churns. He went on to Portora, a plantation school founded by James I, and from there to Trinity College, Dublin.
He read philosophy, climbed hills, explored caves and tried to fathom his career - a decision that by itself marked him out from the general run of students, even in those heady days when there were jobs a-begging for people with a degree to their name.
'I spent part of my final year working back to first principles and thinking hard about what I wanted to do,' he explains. 'I read a book on how companies work and thought I would like to try marketing. I'm not an ambitious person, in the sense that I did not decide at the age of 17 that I wanted to be chief executive of a company. I've simply done what seemed sensible at each stage and then redefined things in the light of what I've achieved.'
His embryonic career plan took him, with a little advice from friends, to the doorstep of one of the foremost marketing organisations in Britain - Procter & Gamble, the American-owned Camay, Persil and Fairy Liquid detergents group.
Loyally, Strong recalls: 'The best thing for any career is to have an early demonstration of what good standards are. P&G provided that. The level of detail, the rigour of their analysis, and how much they know about customers became benchmarks.'
But he was shrewd enough to realise early on that the UK end of P&G was never going to be more than an outpost, and prospects for making it to the top were extremely limited.
Instead, he opted for a long 17- year haul at Reckitt & Colman, the rather more gentlemanly mustard and polish group perched on the A4 in west London. His P&G credentials bore him onwards and upwards to the ultimate accolade of introducing the company to (pause for dramatic effect) . . . air fresheners.
But Reckitt also taught him a thing or two. 'In those years Reckitt was characterised by a slow-growing sales line, an increasing margins line, a declining cost line and a strong cash flow,' he says. 'That is exactly the kind of profile we want to have here at Sears.'
In 1984, he spread his wings by becoming president of Durkee French Foods. But five years later he leapt at the chance to join British Airways when it was still in its first flush of life as a privatised company.
'People forget how recently BA has been privatised,' Strong says. 'I had to learn regulatory and environmental issues. I was dealing with a service business for the first time. It took a lot of effort. It was a pressure chamber, a very aggressive company.'
Quite how aggressive became clear when Virgin began to be a thorn in the airline's side, especially on the lucrative London-New York run.
BA had seen off similar pinpricks from Sir Freddie Laker's Laker Airways and Harry Goodman's Air Europe. So in 1989, after Strong had been at BA for less than a year, Sir Colin Marshall briefed him to put in train a reasonably well-oiled plan of attack.
According to the recent controversial book Dirty Tricks, by Martyn Gregory, Strong set up Virgin Project: 'Its brief was to examine how best to tackle Virgin's product - a much wider brief than simple number-crunching.'
A close observer of the drama said: 'Liam runs a tight ship, but he's hard to get to know. He's cautious. As far as Virgin was concerned, he couldn't make up his mind whether to back Marshall or Lord King, BA's chairman. In the end, he fudged it.'
Others say he upset people by throwing his weight around and trying to do too much. But, as marketing and operations director, he was bound to be at the heart of events - and, as a relative newcomer, he would have been keen to make his mark. And Strong is no quitter. When asked why he stayed so long at P&G, he defined his philosophy succinctly: 'You don't necessarily just decide not to do something because you don't like it very much.'
Nevertheless, it was with visible relief that he said yes to the chief executive's job at Sears.
'It is much more like the maturer consumer goods market I had operated in at Reckitt,' Strong says.
'There is not going to be a lot of inherent growth, and we are really going to have to work hard to get the products right and make sure we make as much money as we possibly can on them.'
Rowan Morgan, retail analyst at the stockbrokers Nikko Europe, says: 'Strong's strategy is to build on the group's already strong market positions. But fundamental change is necessary in the way the business is operated. Execution must be improved.'
That, combined with Strong's military leanings, makes it inevitable the emphasis is on training and people-management. His buzz- word is alignment.
He explains: 'That means, from the top to the bottom of the business, from the back to the front, ensuring that everybody is moving in a straight line, on the same line, that the line is pointed where you want to go and, finally, hopefully, that there's a satisfied customer at the end of it. If you can get that line working then you're going to be very powerful.'
But beware anyone who gets in the way of his vision. 'I work quite hard to get a clear set of priorities and communicate them,' he insists. 'Sloppiness annoys the hell out of me, as does waste and just badly executed work. I like giving a clear lead.'
While results move in the right direction, Geoffrey Maitland Smith, the courteous chairman of Sears, will be content for his young Turk to take that lead. But Strong may yet feel the need to move on to a still greater challenge.
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