Susanne Given is the Chairman of Made.com, a e-furniture retailer pioneering the world of retail. We caught up with Susanne to talk about her career, her business philosophy, her leadership style and promoting wellbeing in the workplace.
"It’s incredibly important to invest your time in business with a view to continually learning"
Susanne, would you mind starting this interview by telling us about what you have learnt from your mother?
I grew up with two sisters who suffered from extreme Autism, and to this day, my mother has dedicated her entire life to the care of them both. She taught me what it looks like to be dedicated, caring and compassionate towards those who are less fortunate in life.
Building on that, who would you say have been the biggest influences on your career to date and what have you learned from them?
If I go back to the early stages of my career, the two co-founders of Furniture Village, David Imrie and Peter Harrison, gave me a great opportunity to step into a role that exceeded my previous experience, all at a time when the business was growing rapidly. This gave me the opportunity to step-up and shine and they were very much instrumental in nurturing my move into retail.
Further downstream, I joined Harrods in 2001, just as Marty Wikstrom had joined the business as the new MD. She was a formidable female executive and really supported and sponsored female talent. Her encouragement of other female executives stands out as a distinct moment that made me realise the level of sponsorship required for women in business. Growing up in Scandinavia, I wasn’t familiar with the level of gendered hierarchy that was apparent in the UK at the time, and so watching Marty make sure these issues were addressed was a distinct moment of realisation.
Later in my career, Paul Sweetman of TJ Europe, an amazing retailer and successful executive at TJX, asked me to be MD at a point in time when I certainly didn’t think it was credible. He kept pushing me and outlining that my peers were sponsors of the decision and that he wasn’t terribly concerned about the external perspectives as he felt that I was the right person for the job. He was a real role model in investing in someone who perhaps wasn’t the finished article.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m very direct and set out a clear path and vision for the teams that I work with. Whenever I go into a new team, I spend the first bit of time deeply immersed within the group to understand their capabilities and ambitions. Following that, I like to foster the right dynamic, getting individuals into senior leadership positions to create a high-quality team that can deliver, whatever the opportunity or challenge. I am also a very supportive executive, so I spend a significant amount of time with people who are feeling stretched in their roles. Having benefited from similar support in the past, I think it’s important to pass that on.
Looking back, what has been your greatest business achievement so far?
You’re making me pick one? It’s between TJX and Supergroup (now Superdry).
At TJX, taking over from a larger than life, successful character and continuing to run the business during a period of very fast expansion was a special achievement whilst at the same time delivering the highest level of profitability that the division had ever achieved.
In terms of the most challenging, turning Supergroup around will definitely go down as the toughest opportunity I’ve ever stepped into. When I joined Supergroup the share price had collapsed. Turning that business around from an operational and business strategy point of view, while also regaining investor confidence was unbelievably tough.
What do you see as the key challenges in the world of retail, specifically fashion retailers, over the next 2-3 years?
I would frame the next 2-3 years in the context of 2023 being just around the corner. In 2023, 50% of the consumer base will be millennials or younger. This will be a seismic shift for an industry that’s already gone through a lot of change over the past decade. The biggest challenge over this time frame will be to face-up to these shifts by taking the time to truly understand what they will mean.
"At present, there’s lots of very successful businesses that haven’t got a complete understanding about how digital changes will play out"
Another substantial challenge is that we have a lot of fantastic boards around the country, however, these boards are made up of individuals with experience within the consumer era that’s drawing to a close. Unless changes are made to the general composition of boards over the next 2-3 years, they and their businesses are going to find it very difficult to confront digital change.
Do you think there is too much emphasis on big data?
I don’t think there’s too much emphasis on it, but rather there is too little emphasis placed on converting it into something meaningful. Because business leaders face so many different streams of activity when moving businesses into the digital era ….. it means that utilising data in an intelligent manner is up against a lot of competing priorities.
Do you think that there is a bright future for the physical retail store?
Yes, I do. However, I think there will be considerably fewer stores and that they will become a space in which you experience a brand to decide if it’s right for you. If you go back 15 years, somebody who was in their mid-20s or 30s would have looked forward to spending their weekends going out to search through stores. People don’t do that anymore, that’s gone. Now, customers want to be convinced that you are a great business, a great retailer and a great brand.
You have quite a portfolio career now actually, and that is something you have done by design, what is the best thing for you about this sort of career?
I set out on a portfolio career about 12 months ago and wanted to split my portfolio 50:50 between early stage digital business and maintaining a foot in my old world of corporate, larger-scale operations. I decided that the early stage digital space would be a crucial opportunity to stay current over coming years. The opportunity to get involved with a business like Outfittery, who is at the cutting edge of the personalised men’s shopping experience, is phenomenal.
In my view, it’s incredibly important to invest your time in business with a view to be continually learning. There are two reasons for this: firstly, you keep yourself fresh, and secondly, you are offering those businesses your experience of how you scale and manage resources, something which can be tough to manage. From a corporate point of view, the learnings that you take from an early stage digital business can offer a perspective of what digital change actually looks like. If you’ve built your portfolio in the right way, you can cross pollinate between the two, building up and applying relevant expertise to either type of business.
What advice would you give to Gen Z’ers starting out in business today?
Really think about how you are going to change people’s lives. There are so many innovative and smart concepts emerging every day, so you really need to think: ‘how do I make my proposition something that truly makes a difference?’. Whenever I sit down with early stage businesses, that is the first question I ask them. It’s very interesting because it really distinguishes the people who have a clear vision around their concept, business and brand from those who don’t.
"Only do things you feel passionately about"
Last year you climbed Kilimanjaro to raise funds for charity, what made you decide that this is something you wanted to do and why did you do it?
I had been very ill the year before, I was in hospital for a long time and had an extended recuperation period of 3 months. It is a very sobering moment when you suddenly feel you own mortality. Once I got back on my feet, a dear friend of mine, who has battled breast cancer for a decade, asked me if I would come and climb with her on behalf of the charity Breast Cancer Now.
I decided it served two purposes: one, my grandmother died of breast cancer, and two, it felt like a great way to mark the anniversary of a personal life-threatening situation. I’m actually planning on climbing Kilimanjaro once again next year for a child bereavement charity after attempting to climb Mont Blanc this year.
Physical and mental fitness is obviously an important part of how you live your life, is that something you demand of the people around you?
I don’t demand it, but I would say I encourage it. Again, talking about this 2023 switch, that’s what millennials will build into their lives and so we should all try to do the same. Ultimately, it will become part of the way everyone lives.
"It is increasingly important to make ‘health’ part of your life planning"