The last decade in business was arguably characterised by one word: disruption. While the internet behemoths had already begun building serious fortunes in the 2000s, most would agree it was after 2010 that things really started motoring.
Heralded as the great democratiser of information and services, the effects of a burgeoning online economy ended up posing a serious – even existential – challenge to some sectors. None more so than retail.
But look hard, and you will find examples of companies whose bosses do not bemoan the changed landscape, and whose financial statements make for very encouraging reading, at least for their shareholders.
Today, the BBC has run an interview with its founder and CEO, Mark Neale, whose experience of the high street in recent years has been anything but negative. He says there is “a lot of life left on a lot of high streets”.
Neale’s firm is expanding, to the envy of many of his retail peers. He opened six new shops in Wales last year, taking him to a total of 350 across the UK, and the firm has enjoyed continuous, uninterrupted growth for 22 years, with total sales last year up 13% to over £225m.
He tells the BBC rather pointedly that he is not a “hired-in three-year CEO trying to make a fast buck” – and one wonders if that’s where the secret lies. The corporatised approach to retail, where hot-shots enter the business tasked with ‘turnarounds’ and ‘finding efficiency savings’, all in the service of a quarterly financial statement to please the shareholders, undeniably leads to short-termist thinking.
But Neale sees things differently. He insists he is not all about driving down prices for suppliers, he’s not about selling cheap rubbish. Instead the firm is extremely diligent about where to put new shops, and obsesses about providing good value for customers.
He also sees the effect of the internet differently: when Mountain Warehouse opens a new shop, online sales rise in the local area. Those who think that expensive retail premises are increasingly used as “showrooms” for sales which take place later on with a different online retailer have got it wrong, if Neale is to be believed.
A quarter of his firm’s sales come through the website, and big spikes in local areas which are directly attributable to the opening of a new shop are to be celebrated.
In any period of great change, there is indeed going to be disruption. Those who cannot move and adapt fast enough will fail, as the last two years of retail and restaurant bloodbath stories have confirmed. But while the Mountain Warehouse story may be rare, it is not the only one, and it is proof that change can mean opportunity.