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From Cats to Catalogues – an evening with Angela Spindler, N Brown Group CEO

I enjoyed a brilliant evening at the University of Bolton this week watching Gordon Burns of Krypton Factor and North West Tonight fame lead a discussion with N Brown Group CEO Angela Spindler.

It was a fascinating insight into the career of one of the North West’s most charismatic business leaders and as an ex marketer in Home Shopping myself with Shop Direct Group, I found her views on the sector interesting and insightful.

Angela talked warmly about her early career with Cadbury Schweppes as a graduate trainee where she started off with the glamorous job of selling beverages to the pubs and clubs of Stoke. She was particularly positive about the impact of being given cross functional experience in HR, Finance, Sales and Marketing at Mars in her next role had on her future career prospects. In her role in the Mars pet food division one of her early claims to fame was rebranding Whiskas to its current purple colour scheme. She joked that it was hard to get the end user to promote the taste of the products to the purchaser so the rebrand was the next best thing to increase the perception of quality.

Her breakthrough role was at Asda where she was given the task of heading up ‘George’ as Managing Director, and integrating the brand into the Wallmart business.

A brief stop at Debenhams, where the credit crunch hit whilst on Garden leave, persuaded her that a CEO role at value retailer The Factory Outlet would be a better opportunity in times of austerity. After a successful 4 years stint which saw profitability and store numbers increase significantly, she accepted the role of CEO at N Brown Group.  

Spindler described the move as a great opportunity for her. She clearly feels at home in the fashion retail sector and expressed a desire to stay with the business for a significant term.

I was really interested to hear her talk about the role that Executive Search consultants had played in her career and the due diligence she carried out as part of her decision making process when moving businesses.

She believes that any business needs to be three things to be successful; Differentiated, Relevant and Economically viable. Differentiation at N Brown comes in the form of fashion aimed at the larger sized consumer. The business is relevant to a core of older shoppers who are increasingly using the online channel and a demographic who appreciate the convenience of being able to pay in instalments on credit. And the economic viability of N Brown isn’t in question as the business currently trades as the 5th most profitable retailer in the UK.

Spindler spoke at length about the importance of managing change, and having a proactive approach to making sure the business maintains its relevance and doesn’t rest on its laurels. She’s a strong believer that the ‘best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining’.

So it’s not surprising to see the movement of the business towards rationalisation of many of its brands, where multiple traditional brands that were still relevant to the business’s catalogue shopper, become confusing to new customers in the online space.

The business is also opening a small number of retail stores for the Simply Be and Jacamo brands, and it was interesting to hear the business has experienced a 5% halo effect online in locations where they launched on the high street.

The biggest factor in the current success of the business comes from the most simple of strategies; making people more aware of the JD Williams brand. Spindler felt that this is an area the business had neglected historically and as a result has commissioned two big budget prime time advertising campaigns. The adverts starring Lorraine Kelly have driven a growth in customer numbers of 26% and at peak times following the broadcast of the advert the business has seen traffic to the website spiking by as much as 2000%.

Spindler described Lorraine Kelly as credible, likeable, aspirational, accessible and a great fit with the JD Williams customer. The business hired Spindler’s former ASDA colleague Ed Watson to deliver the TV campaigns and the biggest challenge was apparently getting Lorraine to dance!

I’m sure there will be bigger challenges ahead for the business, but it certainly seems in great hands to continue its growth. The business will continue to be an interesting and challenging destination for North West marketers.

Steve Thompson is an Executive Search consultant and Managing Director at Forward Role. He started his own career in Marketing at GUS Home Shopping (now Shop Direct) and recruits at an Executive level in the Marketing and Digital disciplines, with many key clients in the pure play, home shopping and retail space.