Interview: N Brown Group CEO Angela Spindler

The subject of the UK government's mooted Northern Powerhouse was on the agenda again this week as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)-backed Business North group held its inaugural meeting.

A group comprising senior industry leaders from across northern England met on Monday, with the programme focused on finding ways of fostering economic growth in their region.

New CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn reflected on the north's business prowess by highlighting how the Nissan plant in Sunderland produces more cars than the whole of Italy, as well as referencing a super-port in Liverpool attracting more than £1 billion of investment and Manchester launching the first direct UK flights to China outside London.

From a retail perspective, there are a host of online retailers in the north-west that, via their respective digital-first strategies, are providing tech-driven working environments and major international-focused employment opportunities outside of the London rat-race. Angela Spindler, CEO of Manchester-based N Brown Group, which owns JD Williams, Jacamo and Simply Be, beats the drum for the region as a place to live, work and develop, and she explains to Essential Retail there are "rich pickings" regarding the retail jobs pool and potential candidates for those roles.

"People talk about the north being difficult in terms of attracting talent but we're not really finding that," she said.

"We're finding that Manchester's very cool, it's not expensive to live here, there's loads going on and people come to live here and enjoy being here so they find roles which enable them to stay."

Reflecting on the growing online retail scene that has developed over the last decade, she added: "You've got Missguided and Boohoo – there are a lot of digital-first retailers in Manchester.

"There's also Shop Direct in Liverpool, which when combined with the others is making the area a cool place to be in terms of that digital career path. There are businesses like ours that have a really exciting development agenda and are a good prospect for job hunters."

It was 2014 when British chancellor George Osborne announced what he saw as the nation's need for a Northern Powerhouse, by which he meant cities in the north combining to create a joined-up economy to rival London and the south-east as a place where more businesses could flourish, helping reverse a clear north-south economic imbalance.

Spindler, who also sits on the board at Manchester Airport Group, which is active in its support of the powerhouse concept, believes a more-balanced economy will happen but it will be a natural evolution as London continues to become overcrowded – or “overheated” as she phrased it – and more people understand there are alternatives to living and working in the UK's southern bubble.

"I do agree we need to mobilise across cities but I don't see it as some evangelical agenda because I've always felt like that," she noted.

"People like me who grew up in Chester, went to Manchester University, spent most of my working career in the north – Asda in Leeds for ten years, The Original Factory Shop in Burnley for five years and here for two-and-a-half years – I know it's a great place to be and work and we have a great lifestyle."

The N Brown way

While there are wider talking points of economic evolution in the UK, there has been much said in the last two years of N Brown's own development from catalogue, mail-order retailer to digital-first operation, with website and mobile at the heart of its customer engagement strategy.

Total group revenue rose by 4.1% in the 18-week period to 2 January 2016, with a particularly strong performance reported over the cyber weekend at the end of November 2015 and the weeks directly following Christmas. The group's online sales increase by 13% year on year, with mobile shopping accounting for 68% of all of its online traffic during the period.

With 75% of new customer demand now being generated online, a new web platform is set to be released later in the year.

The culture of the business is changing too, underlined by values that focus significantly on customer insight and data-led projects, and cross-functional communication across the organisation, which is exemplified by the organisation's innovation lab and in-house social network. The latter functions as a way of offering staff discounts and promotions with local businesses.

In the two-and-a-half years since Spindler arrived at N Brown from The Original Factory Shop she believes she has helped foster a collaborative workforce with a big shift towards a technology-led skills base. The company's innovation hub, for example, allows anyone within the business to throw their ideas in for consideration, with rewards handed out if those concepts become reality.

"Data analytics is hugely important to the business because it really enables you to prove your return on investment," she added.

"We have a big marketing budget but we know we could use it more effectively if we understood more about attribution, understanding what is what. That is one of the ways we are getting more sophisticated as a digital retailer."

The N Brown CEO identifies one of the historical shortcomings of the catalogue retail model as its limited short-term trade capability, with strategies set from the beginning of the season and the remainder of that period effectively spent reproducing marketing material.

With the emergence of eCommerce as the platform of choice for so many shoppers now, there is more of an opportunity to adjust a retailer's offering based on short-term requirements. Spindler says that her firm's success over Christmas – which saw other fashion businesses' sales hit by unseasonably warm weather in December – can be partly attributed to having the capability to change pricing over shorter timescales if deemed necessary. "We're flexing our new-found skills," she commented.

Spindler says N Brown uses local education institutions such as the University of Manchester and Manchester Business School as part of its people agenda, tapping into these resources when developing new programmes and helping senior leadership stay engaged and on the path forward.

As Business North, which kick-started with its first meeting in Leeds on Monday, and other groups start to further shine a light on the northern economy and the potential commerce benefits of a decentralised government, there will arguably be more opportunities for Manchester and its neighbouring conurbations to prosper further and grow their reputations as international business hubs.

Although not involved in Business North, Spindler supports the concept of the CBI-led group. She suggests that geography is "becoming much less relevant", with people living, shopping and doing "what they want to do when and where they want to do it".

"You can run a great business up here and have 90% of your customers living in London. The industry is all about efficiency whether your customer is ten miles away or 200 miles away. The country and world are becoming smaller places."

And for business in general, she added: "We have to move the focus away from being so south-east centric. The economics don't work any more. We talk about the powerhouse which has Manchester at the centre, but we really need the other cities in the north-west and the north in general to engage and pull together.

"There will then be an opportunity for the area to become more powerful and in control of its own destiny."

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