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N Brown CEO: How to future-proof a brand through digital transformation

N Brown Group’s digital transformation, fuelled by technology and driven by people, has future-proofed the organisation’s strategy, said its CEO, Angela Spindler

In a session titled ‘Why strong leadership is essential to successfully navigating through change’ at Retail Week Live in London, 8 March 2018, Spindler talked her audience through the change programme and transformation of N Brown Group that she led over the past four years.

“Technology has fundamentally improved the way we live our lives, by improving our access to people, to information, to products and services, and of course, it has fundamentally changed the way we run our businesses,” explained Spindler, who has recognised and responded to the changing and ever more demanding expectations of all customer groups.

“Five years ago we were a catalogue business with all our growth coming from our consumer credit proposition.” In its latest results, however, Spindler explains that the brand has “confidently described itself as an online fashion retailer, with 74% online participation and industry-leading online conversion.

“We still have a lot of work to do to achieve our goal of being a global, fast and flexible online retailer.

The principles of command and control driven by hierarchy are still prevalent in retailAngela Spindler

Spindler explained that the “magic change formula” is 10% about strategy and 90% about execution. “To execute well, you need great people who are motivated, engaged and totally up for the challenge and this can only be achieved if you have great leaders right across the organisation.

“Autocratic leadership has been out of fashion for a very long time”, she continued, “However, the principles of command and control driven by hierarchy are still prevalent in retail, and the inclination to revert to these principles, especially when times are tough, like now, still exists.” To be successful modern leaders of change, Spindler insists that one should stay connected and be as good at listening as talking, even when in the eye of the storm.

Agility is key

“N Brown was a business with all the critical components of success, but it needed to adapt to retain that winning formula and evolve from a catalogue model to a digital formula,” explained Spindler.

To realise its potential, indeed even to survive, the business needed to embark on a significant change programme.

On paper, the business was profitable, it was growing steadily, it was a robust survivor of the recession. The challenge was the relevance of the business model in the future.  

A team should be balanced; a group of diverse people playing to their own strengthsAngela Spindler

“Successful change starts and ends with people. I once made the mistake of recruiting people just like me, but a team should be balanced; a group of diverse people playing to their own strengths.” Spindler set out to recruit a winning team, with new leadership to evolve the business.

Keep things simple

In a complex world, said Spindler, it has never been more important to keep things, including strategy, simple. “If you can’t get your strategy on one page, then it’s too complicated.”

The toughest part of the change programme for Spindler, both emotionally and practically, was the re-structuring. N Brown had 1000 people in head office, many with over 20 years of service. “Around 450 of them have now left the business. It is very difficult and scary watching that amount of experience and talent leave, but it was essential to enable us to rebalance our skills, build new capabilities and secure delivery of our goal – to become a global, fast and flexible online retailer.”

As part of the restructuring programme, Spindler confirmed that around 300 people have joined N Brown Group.

An enhanced digital experience

“We’ve enhanced the web experience for our customers, we’ve reduced delivery times and added many enhanced service options including national click & collect and annual delivery subscription offers.”

We’ve also embarked on the biggest technical infrastructure project in the company’s history

N Brown Group has introduced new technology and created a proposition that works well for customers and works well commercially, Spindler continued. “We’ve outsourced our 1000 seat contact center and outsourced the service side of our IT function, leaving technology development and change delivery in-house as a real center of excellence. We’ve also embarked on the biggest technical infrastructure project in the company’s history.”

Spindler declared the key enablers for future growth to be flexibility, agility and pace, “and that’s what our new systems give us.”

To conclude, Spindler listed her learnings from navigating change:

  • Do not delay in building a strong, diverse and balanced team
  • Have a clear compelling mission for the business and a proposition for its customers and make sure it’s relevant to the world we now live in, that it’s economically viable and positively differentiated
  • Learn from your mistakes – celebrate them, just avoid making the same ones twice
  • Have fun