A View from the Top: Gillian Drakeford, head of Ikea for the UK

After a lull, Drakeford is overseeing the opening of three new UK stores over the next year – in Greenwich, Sheffield and Exeter – adding another 1,300 new jobs 

Margareta Pagano
Friday 14 July 2017 19:34
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Growing up near Liverpool, Drakeford started in the Warrington branch – the first Ikea store in the UK – as a department manager in her twenties
Growing up near Liverpool, Drakeford started in the Warrington branch – the first Ikea store in the UK – as a department manager in her twenties

How the tables have turned – of the flat-pack variety that is. Usually it’s us going to Ikea for inspiration for the home, but now it’s the Swedes who have been spying on us to find out about our changing lifestyles.

And the result? Back to back sofas so that grumpy teenagers on their smartphones can sit alongside their parents – who are also glued to their phones – but not too close. Smartphone and iPad-holders that look like cookery book stands, laptop supports for our laps and laptop desks that emerge from shelving.

All very smart, but then there’s an old saying that what Sweden does today, the world does tomorrow. Just as Volvo is going through its electric revolution, so Ikea is having the biggest rethink in home design in 30 years, says Gillian Drakeford, head of Ikea for the UK.

“How we live in our homes is changing fast because of new technology which is having as revolutionary an impact on our lives as when TV was first introduced.”

The living room is back as the heart of the home, she says.

“Smartphones and other devices mean that teenagers who used to hide in their bedrooms stuck to their computers are back downstairs with their parents. Social media is bringing people together again – even if they are not talking.”

Oh, and the death of dining room is much overdone. And how do we know this? Because Ikea’s designers have been digging around in people’s houses on “home” visits watching how we live. Drakeford has her own personal spies to report back to her – a 10-year-old son and two children in their twenties.

“We are adapting our designs to suit smaller rooms too. Millennials are renting so don’t want to spend too much, the new houses being built are smaller, more people are downsizing and fewer people are buying cars than before.”

With more people shopping online – and fewer owning cars – she says Ikea is also looking at new distribution channels in shopping centres and high streets as shoppers are less inclined to visit the warehouse stores.

Who can blame them: we have all heard of (and some of us have suffered) the horror stories of retrieving the right flat-pack packages and lugging them back home from Ikea’s giant stores – like the one in which we meet in today, the Wembley superstore on London’s horrendous North Circular Road, a nightmare to get in and out of.

Inside the store on an early Friday morning, though, it is a haven of peace and Drakeford is the perfect guide: jolly and warm, she clearly has the Ikea initials running through her like a stick of rock.

Growing up near Liverpool, she started in the Warrington branch – the first Ikea store in the UK – 30 years ago as a department manager in her twenties. She moved on quickly, first to the Birmingham store and then on to London’s head office. But after the birth of her first child came the childcare crisis and one of those life-changing moments.

“I didn’t know what to do, find a nanny or a child-minder. Nothing seemed right.” So she left, studying economics and business studies at Brunel University, and going on to take her PGCE to teach secondary school children.

But she never made it to the classroom.

“A friend from Ikea called and asked if I missed them, and would I consider going back.” Quick as a flash she was there, moving with her family to the Hong Kong operations. Then in 2002 she was posted to Beijing.

Three months after returning to work after her third child, she was promoted to head up China. This time childcare was sorted. Her husband, Simon, a businessman and now author, took over. “We decided two of us couldn’t both work flat out. I know I couldn’t have done this without Simon becoming the full-time carer.”

He still is: during the week Drakeford lives in a small flat a few minutes’ walk from the store, returning to their home in Kirby Lonsdale at weekends.

They have been doing this since she took over running the UK’s 19 stores and four order-and-collection points five years ago after coming back from China. She says it works well for the family, and for Ikea. Sales have grown every year since she took over, hitting £1.7bn last year.

And after a lull, she says Ikea is expanding again. Three new stores are opening over the next year – in Greenwich, Sheffield and Exeter – adding another 1,300 new jobs to the 10,400 UK workforce. It’s also experimenting with smaller shops in shopping centres and on high streets.

Ikea is already the biggest furniture retailer in the UK, accounting for 8 per cent of the market, but she reckons it still has far to go – providing she can keep costs down.

“Creating low-cost goods is critical to the Ikea philosophy and goes right back to when Ingvar [Kamprad] founded the business [in 1943],” she said. Currency, she admits, is her biggest problem.

The pound has fallen around 13 per cent against both the dollar and the euro since the UK voted to leave the EU in June last year, making it more expensive to import goods.

Keeping costs down is key to her strategy and is one of the reasons why she wants to ensure that as many products as possible are made in the UK after Brexit. That includes sofas and mattresses, which, by the way, are now also available in UK sizing.

Ah, the dreaded Brexit. How did she vote? “Ooh, I don’t think I am supposed to tell you.” She laughs. “Of course I voted to stay in. We are a big global company, and we want to trade as freely as we can everywhere. I spent so much time in Asia with my family that we have a global outlook.”

Paying above the minimum wage is another priority, as is giving co-workers – as all employees are known - maximum flexibility to work the hours that suit them.

Last year Ikea started paying the Living Wage to all and became an accredited Living Wage Foundation employer. It cost Ikea £11.5m to do so, but it was money well spent, she says.

“We are incredibly proud of the investment we are making in the Living Wage, particularly as our co-workers have told us about the positive impact it has on their lives. It also makes good business sense – happy co-workers will bring happy customers. Investing in our people is crucial to motivating co-workers as well as attracting new talent.”

As you might expect of a Swedish company, it bangs the drum for diversity. More than half of co-workers are women, nearly half of the 200 managers around the world are women and a third of the top management is also female. Her boss at the Swedish HQ is a woman, and so is the head of Northern Europe.

Yet despite all of this, she admits they haven’t quite cracked the childcare issue yet.

“We’ve tried with a crèche here but people don’t want to bring their children to work with them. They want them close to home.” she says, adding: “But I am working on it. I'll get there. ”

The answer, to me at least, seems obvious. Ikea should open its own chain of crèches. The furniture would be perfect and just think of the lunches. Don't all children want to live on a diet of meatballs and Daim bars?

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