Speaking last night at the British Retail Consortium’s Future Retail Leader’s event, Asda chief executive Andy Clarke gave an account of his journey to the top – starting with the day he left school with just one O Level in English at 15.
Realising he had spent too much time on the rugby pitch in the scrum and not enough in the classroom, Clarke buckled down and found his calling in the retail industry, landing his first job stacking shelves at Fine Fare, the supermarket chain which has since disappeared.
In 1984 at the age 21 Clarke joined Morrisons as a grocery manager. But impatient to run his first store, an ambitious Clarke said he “was not prepared to play the waiting game” and left eight years later to run Asda’s flagship supermarket in Edinburgh.
A protege of retail grandee and former Asda boss Allan Leighton, Clarke climbed up through the ranks at the company but left in 2000 to join discount clothing chain Matalan as chief operating officer. After stints at McKinsey and then Iceland, he returned to Asda 2005 and was made chief executive in 2010.
Here are his top four tips on leadership:
1. “Leaders are born not made”
Clarke said that ever since he was young, he knew he had the qualities of a leader, whether that was at work or playing for his rugby and waterpolo team.
This is very different to being a good manager, which he said is a skill “you can develop over time”. But he also pointed out that good leaders don’t necessarily make good managers.
2. “Get yourself a mentor. And if you already have one, get another too.”
Clarke said he owed his career in retail to his first mentor – a man called Dennis Leaver – who was his store manager at Fine Fair.
Having just left school with just one O Level and lacking direction, Clarke said Leaver took and interest “and spotted the potential in me”. He also asked him a question that he still uses today: “What’s next? What’s the plan?”
3. Keeping pace with change
“If there’s been one constant throughout my career, it is change. Nothing stays the same and to succeed, you have to keep pace with it,” Clarke said, adding that gut feeling was very important in knowing when to change.
“You can’t run a business on just science. It needs to be a mixture of both art and science.”
4. Being a people person
Clarke said retail was ultimately a “shopkeeping business” and that spending time on shop floor talking to customers and asking questions was crucial to becoming a good retail chief executive.