Tradition, happiness and growth in established institutions

On Tuesday morning, just as the sun rose, my colleague Elliott and I drove together through the empty streets of central London to arrive at Fortnum & Mason. Let in by the side door, we wandered up each floor until we reached the boardroom for an English breakfast hosted by CEO, Ewan Venters and 20 of this country’s finest CEO’s who were keen to discuss and debate what it means to ‘restore relevance’.

Ewan’s journey through the retail world is an inspiring one and it became clear, as he told his story, that he really loves his job. Famed for transforming the Selfridges food hall, Ewan joined Fortnum and Mason three years ago and has set about making the brand founded in 1707, relevant again. Because of his achievements, Ewan recently secured a well-deserved spot in the Standard’s Progress 1000 .

Ewan’s greatest legacy  has been making the store relevant to Londoners again. For at least three decades, Londoners just did not want to shop there because it was full of tourists. Now, domestic consumers account for 60% of sales and the business is thriving.

Ewan’s account of the company’s capacity to spot opportunity and maintain relevance cited its long history. Crucially, when Ewan joined, he commissioned a piece of work to understand who their customers were and what they wanted. They arrived at the conclusion that the company is a business that is driven by pleasure: ‘Creating pleasure for our customers, collaborators and our colleagues’.

This focused the business on making every single interaction with any of the groups special and that they would apply it equally to all of those areas. Ewan told us proudly: ‘I am conscious that I am managing something in a period of its history’. This really resonated with the CEOs of other landmark businesses around the table.

This was an important juncture for our discussion, because at the highest levels creating a business renaissance is about more than charging through with aggressive trend-driven growth strategies. It requires understanding the central message on which a company revolves.

Basing a business model around pleasure and happiness might seem simple, but avoiding gimmicks and pastiche whilst capitalising on the appeal of something simultaneously exciting and steeped in a reliable history is perhaps the ultimate branding challenge.

For a business like Fortnum & Mason, whose illustrious history is based on one iconic store, growth is facilitated by rolling out new concepts. At Heathrow’s Terminal 5, they have created a wonderful smoked salmon and champagne bar, while their St Pancras location focuses is largely focused on tea.

Meanwhile, another CEO responsible for rolling out his business across Europe, said that the world can’t get enough of one of their brands. They simply can’t open stores quickly enough to meet customer demand for a replication of the brand’s original Fifth Avenue experience.

Come 9 o’clock, we left not only inspired for a day of work, but also wondering whether or not we’ll ever be able to eat salmon that has not been smoked on the roof of 181 Piccadilly again! As we left, we realised quite how lucky we were to see the magnificent store in all its glory before it opened for the day. I feel convinced that there will always remain a place for the magic of bricks and mortar retail – especially the landmark stores.