Interviews – Richard Handover

When Richard Handover took over as WH Smith chief executive in 1997, few people expected the 53-year old to last long. Handover, who had been with the retailer for more than three decades, was regarded by critics as a time-server ill equiped to lead WH Smith into the Internet age. But Handover has confounded the critics, taking WH Smith back into profit and launching a successful online retailing venture that has more than 250,000 subscribers. We asked Handover about his career and the challenges and opportunities presented by the growth of e-commerce

What career path led you to the chief executive’s chair at WH Smith?
I started at the bottom and worked my way up. I started working in stores at the age of 17, then joined a management trainee scheme about 18 months later. As a trainee, I worked all over the country and then got my first permanent posting at Heathrow airport, where I was a shift manager.

Latterly, I worked as managing director of Our Price, the music retailer, for six years, before setting up our business in the Far East, which took a year. I was then in charge of the distribution business for two and a half years, before taking this job.

What has been the secret to your success?
I think I’m good with people – I can lead them and I can motivate them. In a business which employs a lot of people, those skills can really help. I’m also very direct with others, clear what I want to do and determined about doing it.

Vision has also been important. I’ve always had a pretty good idea of the overall picture and what needs doing. I’ve always had a natural feel for the business in which I work.

You are reputed to keep in close contact with your customers. Is that true?
Yes it is. I have just been responding to a customer who sent in an email. It’s very important that people know that they can write an email to the chief executive of the group and that he will respond. It’s incredibly important to keep one’s feet on the ground and listen to what the customers say.

We also have a call center in Swindon and I like to go down there, put on a pair of ear phones and listen to the complaints or the compliments. I occasionally actually speak to some of them myself. I have just written back to a lady who wrote in a very nice compliment. I phoned the store and congratulated them, before ringing the customer. I told her who I was and said how much we appreciated the note, as it means a lot to our staff.

You must keep in touch with what people on the street are saying about you. It is very easy to believe that you know what people want. The key is making sure they tell you what they want.

How does WH Smith make the changes necessary to compete in the world of e-commerce and still manage to sustain a unique brand image?
It is a delicate task, because we must not damage people’s good perception of the brand. The sheer familiarity and trust is something we must preserve, but the downsides of our reputation – the perception that we are a bit of an old man, pedestrian business – must be changed.

One of the keys in successfully adapting is to deal effectively with people. If our own employees can change their attitudes to understand what it is the customer wants and needs in a modern world, we will be half way there.

How hard-fought a battle is it going to be between traditional and Internet retailers?
I think there is space in the market for us and them. I think WH Smith is very well placed to provide an integrated offer, because we have a very good technical team and we also have the retail base in place.

If retailers actually think about their strategy differently – and I think the key is customer relationship management – there is absolutely no reason why a traditional retailer with a strong brand cannot compete successfully.

When you do business via the Internet are you aiming for the global or the UK market
We start on the basis of our UK market because the priority is to get that right. However, we have representations all over the world and are continuing to develop globally. How far we go down that track just depends on how successful our initiatives are.

Do you still think retail offers exciting opportunities for young people starting out in their career?
If you accept the refocus towards customer relationship management, irrespective of which channel or routes a customer chooses to shop in, then I would say it’s a fantastic business to be in.

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