Reflecting on 2014

2014 has been a year of great reflection for me, marking as it has 25 years of The MBS Group. It has been a time to think, in particular, about the journey that I have taken with clients as well as candidates in this time. Thinking back on the year as it draws to a close, I’m struck by the number of major changes we’ve seen at the top of businesses right across the consumer sectors. These changes uncover broader trends that have affected 2014.

I must of course start with my great friend Justin King, who so kindly spoke at our anniversary party at the Serpentine Gallery back in April. The promotion of Mike Coupe to CEO and the lifting of responsibilities across the rest of the management team was testament to the long-term approach Sainsbury’s takes to succession planning and its dedication to developing bench strength with a constant talent pipeline throughout the organisation. Such a smooth transition has put the supermarket on a strong footing as it faces up to continuing structural change in the UK grocery sector, including the on-going march of limited assortment discounters and a shift towards convenience shopping.

But Aldi and Lidl aren’t the only discounters making headway. Single-price retailer Poundland was one of the stars of the season in a resurgent IPO market, as we wrote about extensively in a research piece – Sink or Swim: Lessons Learned from the 2014 IPO Season – in September.

Elsewhere in grocery we saw Dave Lewis take charge at Tesco. A Unilever lifer, Dave’s appointment was a bold, though not unprecedented, move. As it turned out, the supplier’s perspective he brought to Tesco couldn’t have been more appropriate as its accounting crisis unfolded. Looking ahead, it will be fascinating to watch how Dave and his new team fare in their effort to turn Tesco around.

In the US, A. G. Lafley, who returned to consumer giant Procter & Gamble from retirement last year, put in place a new succession plan in a significant management re-shuffle this autumn. Combined with a radical rationalisation of P&G’s brands this year, he hopes these changes will bolster the company in a climate where some of the world’s most recognisable brands – including McDonalds and Coca-Cola – face declining interest in their core products across developed markets.

Brave appointments always impress me. The ascension of Christopher Bailey into the top spot at Burberry was one of the most exciting and daring appointments of the year. Christopher’s instrumental role in Burberry’s transformation under Angela Ahrendts earned him his place and, underpinned by a technically strong executive team, his creativity will surely continue to flourish. It will need to, as Burberry adapts to the new global consumer, where Chinese customers are set to make up a third of fashion and luxury sales in 2015 but are beginning to reject big-name Western brands.

The doldrums of the recession seemed further away this year and the economic outlook is brighter than it has been for a long time. But significant headwinds are still afflicting many businesses.

New and existing geopolitical tensions and the tumbling price of oil have weighed on the macroeconomic climate. Retail stalwart Kingfisher is one of many companies affected by renewed concern in the Eurozone and wild currency fluctuations. While Kevin O’Byrne’s B&Q performed well with profits up 11%
across the UK & Ireland, the impact Kingfisher felt in France must surely have played a part in the appointment of Véronique Laury, who hails from French division Castorama, as successor to Sir Ian Cheshire.

Currency issues also impacted Thomas Cook’s latest results, dimming the glow of Harriet Green’s remarkable turnaround at the world’s oldest travel agent. Her departure was undoubtedly one of the biggest shocks of the year but, having sat on the judging panel that awarded her the Veuve Clicquot Women in Business prize in the spring, I await to see where she lands next with huge excitement.

Of course, it was a shame to lose both Harriet and Angela from the rank of female FTSE chief executives, but Véronique is a welcome new member. One entrepreneur who continued to inspire me this year was Jessica Herrin, whose business Stella & Dot empowers women in a digital age, and it was a great pleasure to have her speak at one of our breakfasts this summer.

Affirming the importance of digital, we saw yet more CDO to CEO moves in 2014, including Art Peck who made the transition at Gap. It has been another exhilarating year in digital with the closing gap between forward-thinking multi-channel operators and pureplays renewing competition and innovation across the board.

In the technology sector, Steve Ballmer, the ebullient successor to Bill Gates at Microsoft stepped down as chief executive after 14 years at the top. The tech world has continued to innovate and Microsoft-owned Skype’s announcement of its real-time translation feature this week is just one exciting example with huge potential.

We already know we have the launch of Apple’s smartwatch to come and I cannot wait to see where technology takes us in 2015! That said, wasn’t Google Glass supposed to be the big thing in 2014?

Thank you to everyone who made 2014 such a special and memorable year. There is more to come in 2015 and I am as always excited to see where it takes us to. Let me know who you think will be the winner next year at, I’m reckoning it’ll be something in digital!