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Insights on money, career and trading

How your career can be improved by retail therapy

Posted on December 26, 2012 by Daniel at 1:06 am


A part-time job in a supermarket led Andy Clarke to become the CEO of a major British company, he tells Marcus Leroux

He runs a business that serves 19 million customers a week and has annual sales of more than £22 billion.

As a teenager, however, Andy Clarke was more interested in breaching the opposition try line than the upper echelons of management. And the Asda chief executive’s formative years were not spent at Oxford, Cambridge or a prestigious business school.

“I spent too much time on the rugby field and not enough time studying,” says Clarke, whose hulking frame suggests he would still be more at home at the back of a scrum than in a library.

“I came out with one O level. So from an employer’s perspective I came out with a fairly short list of qualifications.”

Luckily, though, he had a part-time job stacking shelves at a Fine Fare supermarket. After leaving school he did stints in a factory and a service station, while retaining his part-time supermarket job. It was during one of those supermarket shifts that he was called in for a chat by the boss. “The store manager — a man called Dennis Lever — asked what I was going to do: ‘What’s next? What’s the plan?’

He started telling me about his own career in retail.”

That chat was the stepping stone between a part-time job for extra pocket money and a role that would put him in charge of 175,000 people.

He was put into a traineeship at Fine Fare, which in turn led to a three-year management programme. By 18 he was running a fresh food counter: “It was well out of my comfort zone. That was my first piece of real retail experience.”

He then joined Morrisons and by 22 was running a store, before joining Asda in the early 1990s — in time to see its turnaround and sale to Wal-Mart Stores in 1999. A taste of life on the shop floor is essential for any aspiring retailers, he says.

“The advantage I had was working part-time at school, gaining some work experience in shops with customers and colleagues. It played an important part in helping me to decide it was a good career to take post-school. If I look back, of course, working in a retail environment is about serving people, and unless you’re a people person it’s not an industry you’re going to flourish in.”

He believes that perceptions are beginning to shift among teenagers and their parents about the options available for school-leavers. Leaving school to work in a shop does not have to lead to a dead-end job as a “shelf stacker”. The introduction of top-up fees and the onset of the economic crisis have also contributed to this shift.

“I had two letters sent to me last week from school-leavers who have done their A levels and don’t want to go to university, preferring to choose a career in retail. Retail has had a perception in the past as an industry that didn’t necessarily give people the growth opportunities that they got in other industries.

“I think that’s changing. It’s an incredibly logistically complex industry where the skills required are very different to 30 years ago when I started. We’re a nation of shopkeepers and there’s a recognition now that retail is a career that you can develop skills in.”

He argues that the worlds of commerce and education ought to work more harmoniously, but stops short of echoing the former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy, who said a few years ago that school standards were so “woefully low” that pupils were underprepared for the workplace. “Business can do more to get closer to schools and colleges and schools and colleges can do more to get closer to business, helping youngsters to prepare for the next stage of their lives, which is a career.”

He cites as an example a scheme that Asda ran with the Prince’s Trust. Twelve applicants were chosen for a short course. “At the end of the four weeks they all got up on a stage and presented to 50 people on their story and what they had gained from the programme. Whether they got a job or not [out of the scheme], they had developed a set of skills that would be life-changing.”

Asked what advice he would give his 16-year-old self (or a school-leaver of today who was not keen on taking the higher education route) his counsel is straightforward: “There is no substitute for hard work. Nothing comes easily and hard work is something that is in all of our gifts. I don’t mean physically working hard, but applying yourself to developing your own career and not limiting your own ambition.

“Find mentors you respect and can learn from. That will help anybody of whatever level to move forward.”

Work placement opportunities
The Times has teamed up with Barclays to support its LifeSkills campaign. By 2015, LifeSkills aims to equip a million young people with the skills they need for work and to connect them with opportunities to experience work.

During the campaign, 50,000 work placements for 14 to 16-year-olds will be offered this year, with employers such as Centrica, McDonald’s and Barclays. LifeSkills will give teachers access to resources to help students develop the skills that employers seek, including writing CVs, managing money and building self-confidence. There is also a service to link students with local work experience. Businesses of all sizes can sign up to offer these opportunities. Visit barclayslifeskills.com

Insights on money, career and trading