Sir Ian Cheshire: The exit interview

  • Tom Idle
  • Founder at Narrative Matters
  • 5:24pm 25th November 2015

The departing group chief executive of Kingfisher, who gave birth to Net Positive thinking, reflects on 17 years with Europe’s biggest home improvement retailer. Interview by Tom Idle.

First, let’s dispel the myths and quash the rumours that have been circling ever since Sir Ian Cheshire announced he would step down as group chief executive of Kingfisher, Europe’s largest home improvement retailer. No, he will not soon be named chairman of Tesco. And he won't be going into politics for that matter.

Sir Ian Cheshire: The exit interview

The truth is, Cheshire (knighted as part of the 2014 New Year Honours for services to business, sustainability and the environment), has nothing to hide. As we sit down for a chat inside the rather characterless Kingfisher HQ, a stone’s throw from London Paddington, it’s clear that after more than 17 years with one business, he hasn’t yet made his mind up as to what to do next – although he does offer some clues. “I want to do something full on for the next six or seven years,” he tells me. At 55, he feels “too young” to become a full time chairman and he’s very excited about having “a blank piece of paper for the first time in 20 years”. He wants to continue some of the things he has started within Kingfisher (“to carry on with that connection to sustainability”) and he loves new kids on the block, like Airbnb and Uber. And while he’s adamant politics holds no interest for him, he admits to being fascinated by the workings of government and very much enjoys involvement at a non executive director-level. So, watch this space.

A graduate of law and economics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, Cheshire’s early career took him to Boston Consulting Group, Guinness and Sears, before he joined Kingfisher as a strategy director in 1998. The following ten years saw him in a number of roles, not least in heading up the UK’s leading DIY firm B&Q (one of five operating brands that make up the Kingfisher portfolio) as chief executive.

In 2008 he jumped into the hotseat as group chief executive and has continued to capture the imagination ever since with his vision for shifting the way business traditionally operates.

Net Positive – that buzziest of buzz words that entered the common sustainable business lexicon at some point during 2013 – came out of Cheshire’s thinking. What if his business could encourage people to rent their power tools, rather than buy them? What if his business could create a net positive and restorative impact on the planet and communities, rather than purely do ‘less bad’? I ask him whether he can pinpoint a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment of clarity that led to the creation of Net Positive as a business approach for Kingfisher. “It was more like a two-month period, rather than a Eureka moment,” he tells me, rather disappointingly. (I was hoping for some sort of dramatic and lucid explanation, I guess).

Instead, this happened. “There was an extended debate with the group exec, including people like [the then group corporate affairs director, now with the Co-Operative Group] Nick Folland, and Sally Uren and Jonathan Porritt from Forum for the Future. And we went through a relatively formal process of asking: what are issues in the world that matter, and what are the issues that matter to Kingfisher – and where are the overlaps.”

The group arrived at its current areas of focus (communities, timber, energy and innovation) “relatively easily because they resonated and made sense to our business”. But things started to click when they started to question the ambition of doing ‘increasingly less bad’. “We asked ourselves whether we could become a force for positive good. All of a sudden, everyone said, ‘Blimey that is so much more interesting than being moderately less bad next year’,” he recalls.

He and the exec team didn’t – and still doesn’t – know exactly how it will achieve its vision. But in taking a leadership position – one that will involve collaboration with people beyond its business – Cheshire has been able to unlock the ingenuity of his people to try new things. “Okay, it’s not ‘man on the moon’ territory, but we have created a wave of energy throughout the business.”

As I discussed during my conversation with the company’s sustainable business lead, Richard Gillies last October, embedding Cheshire’s vision across the various operating companies has been tough to say the least. But Cheshire is pragmatic about how quickly Net Positive principles have been adopted. “You’re structurally doomed to being frustrated because you will never get 80,000 people moving at the same speed,” he says.

The relative organisational inertia has enabled a three-phased approach, he says. The first phase is about thought leadership and setting the strategy and vision. “If you don’t get that right, you can’t engage people.” The second stage is about winning hearts and minds. “Getting people to effectively turn it into their idea, not your idea. That’s where Richard has been very effective in the last 12 months”.

If you have the right strategy in place and you spend the “right amount” of time in the engagement phase you can then get to the third stage: scaling things up. “I’m leaving at time when we have embedded Net Positive at board level and we have some fantastic examples of scaling,” he says, rather proudly, pointing to the likes of B&Q’s easyGrow and the work Kingfisher has led on developing sustainable timber sourcing. “Now, we need to see that scaling go faster.”

Creating safe environments that foster innovation and give people the freedom to test new ideas has been central to success, he says; the natural conservatism of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ thinking must be challenged. “It’s about creating tests, allowing people to try stuff and encouraging them to think differently – and doing that away from the main business.” But it’s not easy, he contends. “When the pressure is on for profit numbers, it’s easy not to do this stuff.”

Sir Ian Cheshire’s advice for today’s business leaders looking to turn their business around

  1. Connect your vision to your business model. “Otherwise it will just be lipstick on a bulldog.”
  2. Do some structured thinking about what your business will be like in 20 years’ time. “Get other people, from outside your business, involved. Outline the big risks and opportunities for your business – and how it will react to those.”
  3. Create space for people to try things. “You have to test, pilot things and give people a chance to get from theory to reality, before we get to the scaling part. That ability to safely innovate is one of the biggest challenges.”
  4. Spend time on engagement. “The toughest part is in industrialising the involvement of people. If you’re trying to get 200 buyers up to speed, it takes persistence. You feel like you’ve said the same thing a thousand times and it’s frustrating but the upfront explanation of how you see things working is crucially important.”

Collaboration is crucial too. One of Cheshire’s parting shots was to rally behind the Aldersgate Group’s An Economy That Works, the central premise of which is a need for businesses to come together in creating new models fit for the 21st century. Despite a “cohort of CEOs coming through that are more interested than was the case 10 or 15 years ago” he recognises the limits of joint working. It helps, he says, to rally around a specific cause. Take tackling illegal timber or the phasing-out of incandescent lightbulbs, for example – “both materially accelerated by a series of corporates banging on door of the EU”.

“There’s a power to collaboration. No one company can really stand up and drive legislative change like that – it will just look like special interest pleading. But joint lobbying gives permission for legislators to do something.”

Picking up Cheshire’s baton is Véronique Laury who has now stepped in as Kingfisher’s group chief executive having previously spent 11 years with the company, most recently as the head of the French business Castorama. What can we expect from Laury, one of just five female FTSE100 bosses, as ‘sustainable business visionary’? “Well, she was involved in the development of Net Positive and has publically reaffirmed that it will carry on. It will be crucial to what Kingfisher does in future, I’m sure. And she will come up with more ideas than I did.”

So, there’s no danger that Net Positive is seen by colleague as merely a personal pet project? There’s an interesting paradox when it comes to leadership in this space, he tells me. “If you don’t provide enough top-level encouragement then the sheer inertia of most machines and competing demands for attention makes it very hard to get the messages across.

“However, if it’s just the CEO’s pet project, you’ll never effect change. It’s the same with any form of change in direction for a business. You need top-level leadership, and then you have to take time to create mid and lower level leadership. That’s the only way it will cascade through the business.”

Cheshire’s Kingfisher journey has been a fascinating one. He inherited a business not in the best of conditions; the DIY boom of the 1980s and 1990s but a distant memory, recession baring its teeth. A series of cost-cutting measures and central-buying practices saw the business back on its feet (Cheshire doubled profits during his tenure, eradicating net debts of £1.6bn and creating a net cash position for the business).

Against this challenging backdrop, growth has largely been fuelled by a desire and motivation for the company’s people to innovate and move beyond business-as-usual. However much Cheshire protests (“I don’t buy the charismatic CEO stuff; it’s all about teams and leadership”), his reign over a company that has faced up to – and is winning against – some of the biggest business challenges of the 21st century ought to be celebrated and long remembered.

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