Friday 24 November 2017

‘I’m one of our beauty counter’s best customers’, says Boots Ireland boss

With the cost of doing business in Ireland now more favourable, Debbie Smith, the Manchester-born chief of Boots operation here has been busily expanding the footprint and income of its Irish stores. By John Mulligan

"I'm the best customer," jokes Debbie Smith after delivering an oblique sales pitch for a new Boots product. She concedes her north Dublin home is bursting with the chain's health and beauty lines.

As head of Boots Ireland, that's hardly surprising.

Since 2010, the 47-year-old Manchester native has led the Irish arm of what's increasingly becoming a global brand. A daunting time to be brought in to run a retail business, you'd be forgiven for thinking. But even as the high street struggles to make ends meet, Smith has been busily expanding Boots' Irish footprint.

"The people living in Ireland have less disposable income. People are spending less, but there are still opportunities," she says over coffee in the sedate surroundings of a Dublin hotel that's all but cocooned from the economic reality outside its doors.

"The cost of doing business is getting more favourable, so it's the right time to invest in expansion in Ireland to get the better property deals and to get to the right locations," she adds. "We've learned a lot in the last two years about what those right locations are -- big towns and cities right across Ireland."

That's a fairly broad sweep.

But Ms Smith has succeeded in getting parent Alliance Boots to keep the purse strings open even when there are plenty of other things to divert its attention.

The business is owned by chairman Stefano Pessina, private equity group KKR, and US pharmacy chain Walgreens, which acquired a 45pc stake in Alliance Boots during the summer for $6.7bn (€5.2bn) in cash and stock.

It has an option to buy out the business in three years' time. Boots, meanwhile, has just cemented its presence in China by buying a stake in a major pharmaceutical wholesaler.

Within the past few months Boots, which first set up shop here in 1996, has also deepened its position in Ireland and an online store should be ready for Irish consumers in the next 12 months.

Flagship outlet

It recently opened a 20,000 sq ft flagship outlet in Blanchardstown, Dublin, after dispensing with two separate stores at the shopping centre and securing a single premises. It's the biggest Boots outlet to be opened in Ireland or the UK this year. It has 73 stores here.

"Coming to Ireland gave me an opportunity to grow the business," says Smith. "In the UK we have so many stores already that expansion isn't the core of that operation."

Smith cites the somewhat circumspect economic "lipstick effect" as being in full force at Boots. The phrase refers to the much cited phenomenon of make-up sales remaining resilient or even rising during a recession as female shoppers maintain spending on little luxuries.

Only, at Boots, it's not lipstick, it's nail varnish that Smith says is doing very well. By how much? She can't say, but insists the trend is a reality.

"In any recession, we used to see sales of lipstick rise. We now see sales of nail varnishes. I wouldn't know the exact number, but evidence proves that in a recession smaller priced items get a boost," she claims. "People may be trading out of other things," Smith admits.

In the financial year to the end of March 2011, Boots revenue was almost static at just over €267m, while pre-tax profits rose 44pc to €15.9m.

The company, which employs close to 2,000 people in Ireland, wouldn't divulge a profit figure for the financial year that ended last March, but its turnover here climbed to €283m.

And with a whopping 97pc of Boots customers in Ireland being female at the last count, it's little wonder that the chain's "Here come the girls" adverts frequently saturate TV breaks, especially in the run-up to Christmas. The current quarter is, unsurprisingly, the retailer's most important of the year.

That virtually all -- not just 70pc, or even 80pc -- of Boots customers are women seems a tad surprising, but Smith says the number is just slightly ahead of the UK.

"It's the whole brand. It tends to be the women who look after a family's healthcare needs and who use the beauty products," she says. "And it tends to be women who buy things for their husbands for the bathroom cabinet."

But you'd suspect she doesn't have to do that in her own home.

Her husband, David, is a healthcare development manager with Boots. The pair met while they were at university in Sunderland, where they both qualified as pharmacists.

The dinner table chatter surely strays frequently into Boots territory.

"We try not to," she laughs. "It happens occasionally. But we've one daughter still living at home and she'd get very frustrated if we spend too much time talking about it."

Management

Smith says she never set out to become managerial material at Boots, that she just slipped into the role. She joined the chain immediately after university and over the past 26 years rose up the ranks through various roles, including stints in HR.

But she baulks at the notion that she must have an ambitious personality and might aspire to rise further in the Boots ranks.

"I just enjoy doing what I'm doing. I don't think I am ambitious. I wouldn't use that term."

Really?

"I never set out to be a senior leader. I only ever wanted to run a shop. That was my ambition when I set out," she explains.

"Now, I just want to make a difference and play a key role in the business. It's more important to me to be happy doing what I'm doing and that I get the right balance as well because I have got three kids."

"I want to be a good wife, a good mother, a good boss. It's important to me to get those right."

She says her attitude to her work has changed over the years too.

"When I was younger I probably tried to do everything. I guess now I'm much clearer about what my priorities are. A few experiences in life -- one child was very ill for a while and another had a health scare -- and I think they make you realise what's really important.

"I feel much more grounded now in terms of what's important. I'd always encourage anybody who works for me to get that right from early on."

And do the staff quake when she arrives through a store door?

"I would hate that if they did. I spend my time in shops just chatting to people. I don't do announced royal visits. I try very hard just to wander in and wander out.

"What I hate most is the walk around with the manager," she says. "Did that happen in Boots years ago? Yes, it did. But I'm constantly trying to change that."

Smith says she tries to give her management team as much autonomy as possible.

"I have a very good leadership team. My job is to create direction. I trust they'll make the right decisions."

There's a lot of talk of values, helping people and such and it's admittedly easy to be cynical about a multi-billion euro business being so touchy-feely. Ultimately, what drives any business is profit. Without it, they can't exist. At least not for too long.

"I truly believe in Boots as an organisation and as a brand. Absolutely, it's an organisation that has to make profit because the profit is what enables us to continue to grow as a business," she says.

"But it's much more. Boots has a purpose beyond profit. What keeps me with Boots is that every time I get up in the morning it's a job I really love doing."

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