There won’t have been many people beyond those in the loop to have predicted John Lyttle’s appointment as Boohoo’s new chief executive.
It’s already been noted how the decision for a pureplay retailer to hire an executive from a purely bricks and mortar brand defies normal convention. Yet when you scratch beneath the surface, there are compelling arguments why the move could be a masterstroke by founders and current co-chief executives Mahmud Kamani and Carol Kane.
Kamani and Kane clearly feel they already have sufficient technological know-how within the business to keep Boohoo ahead of the digital curve. They have calculated that the operational expertise Lyttle brings will more than compensate for any lack of online experience, while his background in growing a bricks-and-mortar business both at home and abroad gives them instant access to a wealth of knowledge as they look to grow internationally and should they choose to follow the likes of Boden and develop a physical presence at some point in the future.
What interests me, in particular, is the relationship dynamic. Retail history is littered with examples of outstanding leaders who struggled to work in partnership with a founder or founding family member (look at John Browett’s brief tenures at both Monsoon and Dunelm for two cases in point).
Managing the change involved in an outsider coming in to run a business built by entrepreneurs is notoriously difficult. Personality clashes and differences over the strategic direction of the business can all too frequently result in a terminal breakdown in relations.
The positive for Lyttle is that he already has a personal relationship with Kamani and Kane who he has known for a number of years. This will clearly be of benefit. They will know each other’s personalities and what makes the other tick, albeit working side-by-side to lead a multibillion-pound business changes the friendship dynamic significantly.
Lyttle now has a six month period to develop a forensic knowledge of the Boohoo business before his starting date in March. During that period, Primark will still want full value from him and I fully expect them to get it. Senior executives, particularly those that have been with a business for a long time, generally want to be seen as a good leader and will often double down on efforts to ensure their successor doesn’t inherit the kind of mess that could damage the previous incumbent’s own reputation.
The way in which Lyttle handles the move will provide a fascinating case study in a retail executives leadership transition from a bricks to a clicks environment that, if successful, could see other businesses follow Boohoo’s bold example.