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Retail News South Africa

EXCLUSIVE: Pick n Pay's turnaround guy, Sean Summers - Getting Pick n Pay back in love with what it does

Ten months ago Sean Summers was appointed CEO of retail giant Pick n Pay, as its turnaround guy. Summers, who has worked all over the world in retail, says South Africans are the most remarkable and beautiful people in the world. In this exclusive interview, he explains how this is what will get Pick n Pay back in love with what it does and so lead it to be the best of what South Africa can be.
Sean Summers Pick n Pay CEO. Image supplied
Sean Summers Pick n Pay CEO. Image supplied

With growth a key item on your agenda, the intention to close underperforming stores seems a contradiction. What are the deciding factors in closing a store and after the cutting back where are you expecting the new growth shoots to start from?

Pick n Pay has a total of 1,007 outlets today, 722 franchises. So in total as a company, we're 2,279 outlets! You know in retail, it's not necessarily a race to see how many stores you can have, it's more about the quality of your retail real estate than the quantity. There are also 477 Boxer stores, of which 296 are supermarket stores, 150 Liquor and 31 Boxer Build.

Repurposing potentially takes three routes. One of these is when a store is terminal because the demographic of the region might have changed completely or major transport nodes have moved and the whole nature of a town has changed. We have examples around the country of some 35 or 40 stores in this category.

When closing or repurposing stores, we may get a little bit smaller in the beginning now as we become more beautiful again.

I came up with the slogan ‘Our people make the difference’.

In many of your recent interviews you have been quoted saying one of your major goals is to ‘get Pick n Pay back in love with what it does’ again. Tell us how you aim to achieve this.

We need to be upfront about our shortcomings and if we’ve let our customers down in some areas and need to excavate the basic principles on which Pick n Pay was built.

In 1995, when I was first appointed we were in a really bad way. It was after 10 or 15 years of strikes and a revolution was happening in the commercial space in South Africa. Revolutions in regions such as Zimbabwe or Namibia were fought in the bush, ours were via strikes and withholding labour. The first major labour strike in South Africa happened right within the walls of Pick n Pay.

When I was given the company to run in 1995, it became apparent even after the halcyon appointment of Mandela, just as the social fabric of South Africa was broken so was the social fabric within the company. We needed to celebrate our diversity and create a situation within Pick n Pay that represented the best of what South Africa could be and what it could become.

When I came up with the slogan Our people make the difference, I'll never forget Martin Rosen, our marketing director at the time, saying "What are you crazy, look where we are, we just had all of these strikes and everything?" I replied exactly Martin, people make a difference, good and bad. We needed to instil a culture in the company that we fully believe, live by and understand what we stand for.

If you talk about what made Pick n Pay then, we were one of the first companies in this country to really embrace our people, to put the company back together and put the country back together. There was a sense of ownership, passion, and belonging - that injury to one was an injury to all.

We are going to be putting these values back into the company again. It's difficult because for the investors, when you talk to them like this, they get a bit frustrated. They like to have something they can run their thumb over - give us a number they say. But I can't give them a number for everything. The things that make the companies get their North Star are not purely by what is in a number but by actually putting in long-term real strengths that keep companies sustainable for the long term.

The only way to achieve that is by genuinely and sincerely putting back into your people more than you want out, it’s not a commercial transaction. It’s not linear and it's not binary. I would love people to understand that that's where Pick n Pay always was in the community. If there was a flood, if there was a tragedy, if anything happened in the community, Pick n Pay was there. To a degree we have lost a bit of that over time.

In the same way as there is an art to retail, there is an art to retail marketing

One of the things that might be particularly interesting to the Bizcommunity marketing and media audience is how this might inform Pick n Pay’s brand marketing going forward?

I come from an advertising background. My father was the founder of Hedley Burn Agency, and he eventually sold half his business to McKinstry Schonfeld and then the rest when Young and Rubicam came along.

In the same way as there is an art to retail, there is an art to retail marketing. It's not your traditional brand marketing, it’s more of an accumulation of an embedded experience on behalf of the consumer engaging with the company and the values the organisation represents to them over time.

If we have a look at where we were before, we had a national marketing team who sat in Cape Town with scant regard for the geographic exigencies in the rest of the regions. Now we have more national input and targeted marketing which has already seen an improvement in the recent sales.

In a recent article, you were quoted that one of your goals is to identify how Pick n Pay as a company fits into and contributes to society. Can you comment on this key objective?

Reviving the ethos of the company and the values that Wendy and Raymond Ackerman put in place in terms of their founding philosophy - of truly giving back to the community, and being part of the community and standing up against the things in the community that are wrong and having a voice.

Raymond was never afraid to stand up for what was right - creating more of a sense of belonging, more of a sense of ownership and pride. If we do all these things, we think we are on track to revealing more of the raison d'etre of the Pick and Pay brand’s reason and purpose in society.

About Terry Levin

Brand and Culture Strategy consulting | CCO at large. Email az.oc.flehsehtffo@yrret, Twitter @terrylevin, Instagram, LinkedIn.
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