Tech Q&A: N Brown CEO Angela Spindler on the rise of data-driven ecommerce, the Northern Powerhouse and women round the boardroom table

In the latest interview in the Tech Q&A series, MBS’s Stephen Rosenthal discusses the future of retail, the part technology and data will play, the rise of the North West and senior female executives with N Brown CEO Angela Spindler.

Readers of my previous columns will know I have a particular interest in data-driven digital innovation, the rise of the North West (disclaimer – I’m a Mancunian) and the need for greater female representation in tech. There simply isn’t a better person to discuss these topics with than Angela Spindler.

Her stellar career has seen her successfully lead verticals as diverse as pet food, grocery, department store retail, homewares and now fashion in her capacity as the CEO of N Brown, one of the most exciting and dynamic digital “brand of brands” companies in Europe.

Meeting at N Brown’s buzzing campus-like head office in Manchester, itself the centre of the rapidly-scaling Northern Powerhouse, it’s abundantly clear that she, N Brown and the North West in general are at the centre of something exceptionally exciting. 

What moments have defined your career?

You learn something from everything you do, but I’d say my job moves have provided the biggest learning opportunities. Moving through business models and ownership structures, from the private equity set up of The Original Factory Shop to public companies like Asda and FTSE 250s like Debenhams and N Brown, you learn invaluable lessons from each one.

The shift I made from FMCG into apparel within Asda, moving from the grocery side into fashion, was a big step-change moment, and one that has defined my career. I’ve stayed within fashion – and loved it – ever since.

How important do you feel career shifts such as yours are in business today?  

Very. The higher you get in an organisation, the less important the specifics of your previous roles become. Hunger, loyalty and people skills are far more important.

Cross-functional movement is something forward-thinking companies like Asda and Mars have always done. They make you develop across before you can move up. I think it speaks to the philosophy of a company and its willingness to take risks in order to gain fresh perspectives.

What is your vision for N Brown?

We want to be globally-loved experts in fashion that fits. Our mission is to democratise fashion for customer cohorts who have historically been overlooked by retailers.

E-commerce is challenging bricks and mortar retail at a staggering pace. What sets N Brown apart in the marketplace, at a time where customer loyalty is harder to come by and choice is greater than ever?

One constant is that customers will always want a great choice of products that are properly priced and logistics that are in line with their expectations.

But you have to constantly ensure you have a point of difference. For us, that’s providing our customer with fashion product that fits and flatters. We have unique expertise in this and the barriers to entry are high. Customer journey is another differentiator of course, but that can be picked up; you can follow as well as lead.

Businesses need to be relevant, economically viable and differentiated. If you lose any of those, you won’t make any money.

Will traditional retailers be able to keep up with the faster-paced digital players?

High street retailers are going to have to work hard to make their in-store experiences pleasurable enough to avoid the whole world moving online. It’s important to always remember that shopping can be a leisure activity or a practical necessity – I think it’s essential that retailers understand the difference between the two.

We believe that fashion shopping should be a pleasurable, inspiring experience – in-store or on a device. The way we achieve this is by ensuring the e-commerce team are as passionate about online fashion shopping as our customers. It does help that many of our ecommerce team are women, they work incredibly hard to build the experiences our customers love – because they love them too.

How does N Brown use technology to drive customer experience?

Technology helps in so many ways. We have a voice of the customer tool that pulls in data to help us understand the wants and needs of our customers.

Equally importantly, we realise that even with new technologies, we can’t be all things to all people. We are differentiated by our fashion niche as a fit specialist and within that, we chose to go to market through a collection of focussed brands that target specific customer groups. For instance, our Fashion World brand tends to appeal to young mums on a budget, some of whom will take advantage of our consumer credit options and enjoy the fact they can browse fashion and homeware that excites them in a convenient way. Data allows us to really understand a very specific customer base in a way that wasn’t imaginable before.

How large a role does data play in your future planning? Are Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning on your radar, or are they just buzz words?

AI and ML are absolutely the future. Automation and outcome prediction will enable businesses to win. Given the market is challenging, there will, of course, be winners and losers. We are really working hard to use machine learning to determine next-best-action and ensure our marketing monies deliver a strong  ROI.

The North West tech sector is thriving. What is happening and why is it happening now?

There’s a new and exciting buzz in Manchester. Entrepreneurs, agents of change and young people with an idea can afford to live and succeed here. Manchester today is a  thriving, affordable, major city. Investors are recognising the potential here and are mobilising to support the development and growth of technology businesses.

The North West region has one of the biggest student populations in Europe. Education today begins with technology – as either the tool or topic. That helps in terms of talent coming through. Students who come here never want to leave. I’m a case in point, I was a student at Manchester University – I’m still here!

How ambitious can Northern companies be in terms of world-class recruiting now?

As ambitious as they like.

We tend to recruit people already in the North West – typically because they come forward and prove to be the best people for the job. I’m not desperate to move people up to Manchester. We don’t struggle for talent. I’m more focused on making sure we have colleagues who live and work where they want to be and who are happy and enjoying all aspects of their life.

Technology means you can work from anywhere – I’m much better at writing important documents from home, and I’m a big advocate of people taking advantage of tech to work where they work best. That flexibility retains people.

With only 9% of executive roles in the UK tech sector being held by women, you are part of an exceptionally small club. Why do you think that is, and can you see it changing?

It’s frustrating – we have been talking about this for ages, and whenever progress looks like it’s coming, it then seems to stall or go backwards. It’s absolutely true of tech, but also across most industries. Traditional sectors like legal and accounting seem to be doing better, skewing the numbers slightly, but appetite for risk in tough times has made it stall.

Unfortunately, I still think people who are now hitting their thirties and forties and could be going for top jobs still suffer from cultural expectation. As much as I feel for the girls and women, I equally feel for the boys and men who are expected to thrive at work and who may disappoint if they don’t make it.

Historically women aren’t expected to, so if they do, it’s not come from external pressure to succeed, it’s come from within.  It takes more inner determination because society doesn’t expect it of you. But that’s changing – boys and girls coming out of university now have exactly the same expectations. Hopefully, that’ll translate into the boardrooms of the future.

Angela Spindler: Quick facts

Born: Chester

What do you do when not working?: Family time – including the dogs. Cycling, running, tennis, socialising.

What excites you about technology?: Creating amazing, tailored, relevant customer experiences, enabled by tech but driven by consumers, is very exciting. Tech for tech’s sake isn’t. Exploiting the opportunity to do things better, driven by great customer insight is incredible.

Who is your mentor?: I have people I now consider friends that I’ve worked with for a long time and would always ask their advice on things on my mind, but no single mentor. I’ve always seen the importance of having good relationships and know a lot of people. Leverage that network and always be happy to help as well. | @SteRosenthal | @TheMBSGroup