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Retail therapy

Helping revolutionise Selfridges gave Peter Williams a reputation as a turnaround expert. Christian Doherty finds there’s more to him than corporate paramedic – but in an economy that refuses to recover, his lessons are valuable to all FDs.

There aren’t many FDs who are described as a “junkie” by a major newspaper. Peter Williams was, though he’s at pains to explain the Evening Standard had him down as a junkie for change – a reference to his habit of arriving at stricken companies and playing a significant role in their recovery.

“It’s inevitable that people are going to want to pigeonhole you,” he says, pointing out that turnaround work forms only a part of a thriving portfolio of roles. He now combines board roles at Cineworld, Silverstone Holdings Ltd, the Design Council, fashion retailer ASOS (a serious success story) and football pools company Sportech. That’s a pretty diverse roster.

But Williams’s most high-profile engagement recently was as chairman of Blacks Leisure, the outdoor retailer that hit the buffers in the middle of 2011. Managing that kind of decline isn’t easy. It takes a certain kind of resilience to take the helm of a company so clearly in trouble. (His role ended in January when JD Sports was secured as a buyer for the chain.)

Still, his work with distressed businesses gives him particular satisfaction. “There are plenty of people who do this work, who come along to bury the dead,” he says. “My aim is to heal the wounded, not read the last rites to the dying.”

Act quickly for the patient

These “casualties” have been, for the most part, consumer-facing businesses. Following a stint as CFO and latterly chief executive at iconic department store Selfridges, Williams carved out a niche as something of an emergency surgeon for distressed retailers. In the last ten years, JJB, EMI and most recently Blacks have all had the Williams treatment.

Taking a deliberately vague job title – “director of strategic development” is a favourite – Williams usually arrives at a company when the banks and investors have lost confidence in the incumbent management. His first aim? To shift the direction of travel away from administration.

Take sportswear retailer JJB. As an executive director working alongside Sir David Jones, Williams calmed investor fears of an imminent collapse, then restored the business’s credibility with analysts – a crucial step. A series of strategy changes were announced, including the closure of unprofitable stores. Williams’ tenure was seen by many observers as critical to the chain’s subsequent survival.

That decisiveness is the key: tending the wounded means making a series of quick decisions to stop the bleeding. But as Williams points out, there’s more to it than simply parachuting into a crisis, slashing costs and buying time with the bank.

This is an extract from the Business & Management Magazine, Issue 199, May 2012.

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