Monday 23 September 2019

Problem Solver: Ambassador's role is great way to take step back from firm

Feargal Quinn
Feargal Quinn

Feargal Quinn

Q - I am heading towards retirement from a medium-sized business I have built up. Although I don't want to fully leave, I don't want to stifle the new management team. Any advice?

A - You sound a little bit like me. I have now retired so many times from so many different things, and then keep re-emerging with some new challenge or other.

I understand exactly where you are coming from and certainly the last thing I wanted to do was nothing. I am sure my wife would have been perfectly happy with that arrangement but I need to keep active and involved.

On one of my many fact-finding trips to the States years ago, I remember being shown around the business by Fred Meyer, the founder of the famous retail chain of the same surname. At that stage Fred was 82, and as he escorted me from shop to shop and told me about their business, I noticed several things. He parked in the parking space furthest away from the front door, so as to leave prime spaces free for customers. He collected a handful of trolleys as he walked through the car park. He picked up papers as he walked through the store and, of course, he was constantly greeting customers and staff.

Later in the day as we enjoyed some food, I asked Fred why he was still working at 82. His answer was very clear. His role was to set the tone in the business, with others seeing his actions, and his direct dialogue with staff..

This isn't something that you can quantify. It is really the culture of the business living on within the founder. It is not really something you can write down or explain in a rational way, it is just the fabric that the business is built on. If you can continue to set the tone in your own business by taking less of a management role and more of an ambassador's role, then this would be a great place to spend the next number of years, and serve a real purpose for the business.

Q - Do you regret not being directly involved in the supermarket business these days?

A - I am probably going to give you a slightly mixed answer. Of course I miss the buzz of food retailing, particularly at this time of the year as the Christmas season approaches. Of course I miss the constant interaction with customers and the buzz of 3,500 staff. Food retail is a really exciting space and anyone who has worked there will typically tell you the same.

I also recognise that the food retail landscape has changed dramatically since I left Superquinn. There were no discounters on the landscape. Consumers typically shopped in one supermarket for the majority of their groceries and didn't move anywhere else. Staff tended to work for one company and possibly stayed there for decades, which meant a retailer could have a really strong pool of expertise and skill-set. A lot of that has changed and it could be much more difficult today for a company that operated as Superquinn did, to make all the changes that would be mandatory to adapt to this new marketplace.

When you create a model that customers really love, it is quite hard to preside over that model becoming something else. I was fortunate in that I did not have to lead that transition, which probably wouldn't have suited my style as an entrepreneur. However, if there are any retailers out there reading this, I would certainly encourage them to make food retailing a dynamic and vibrant place for people to shop and most importantly create a fulfilling environment for their teams who underpin the values of their business.

It can be a really exciting space to work and shop in. I have slight reservations that some of today's retail models, while smart in their own right, have lost some of the magic.

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