The appointment of Henry Birch as the new chief executive of Shop Direct shows the changing face of retail.
Birch has no retail experience to speak of; his background being almost exclusively in leisure and entertainment. Even a decade ago this would have been near unthinkable, but nowadays it causes barely a stir.
Retailers, and particularly digital leaders like Shop Direct, increasingly prioritise skills over sector experience. That’s because the qualities that make businesses such as Shop Direct great are not exclusive to retail – its razor-sharp customer focus and the way it generates and leverages data are traits to be found in many of the 21 st century’s most successful companies.
And Birch’s CV suggests he has the skills to maintain Shop Direct’s reputation as a digital pioneer forged under the leadership of outgoing CEO Alex Baldock (another newcomer to the sector when he arrived in 2012).
Birch joins Shop Direct from Rank Group, which owns and operates Grosvenor Casinos and Mecca Bingo alongside several European gaming and casino businesses. In just four years he has created the UK’s largest multichannel gaming operator by focusing on a digital core which has delivered soaring revenues and profits in the past year.
Prior to joining Rank, Stanford graduate, Birch spent four years as CEO of William Hill Online, where he launched the company’s mobile business, driving 170% growth in revenue and more than doubling operating profit. These are achievements that would make any business sit up and take notice.
Shop Direct’s chairman Aidan Barclay gave an insight into the company’s recruitment strategy when he cited Birch’s “track record of reshaping businesses to become more customer-focused, data-driven and technology-enabled while simultaneously driving outstanding financial performance” as a reason for his appointment. Revealingly, retail was not referenced once. Shop Direct is not the first retailer to prioritise skills over the sector. Last year, House of Fraser hired Goodwood Group chief executive Alex Williamson as its new boss, in part because it wanted to bring more experiential events to bear in stores. Williamson, who oversaw events such as the Festival of Speed and Goodwood Revival, fit the bill.
From a search perspective, the shift in focus towards skills requires recruiters to think more creatively about prospective candidates. And while the likes of Shop Direct and House of Fraser remain the exception rather than the rule by hiring from outside of their immediate sector, I can only see more retailers following their example as businesses look to gain any kind of edge in a ferociously competitive market.