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Ian Moir

What keeps Woolies’ CEO awake at night – interview with Ian Moir

Ian Moir, the CE of Woolworths since November 2010, talks to Moneyweb about his career, his move to SA, his relationship with chairman Simon Susman, the group’s unwavering dedication to quality, transformation within Woolies, and what keeps him awake at night.

GUGULETHU MFUPHI, Moneyweb: Welcome to this week’s Upper Echelon feature where we speak to a very interesting guest, Ian Moir, who is the chief executive of well-known clothing as well as food retailer in South Africa, Woolworths.

Now, Ian, you are the current chief executive of Woolworths, you took over there from November 2010…. after heading up ventures such as Country Road and introducing that brand into the Woolworths market in particular. But let’s go back, take us to your childhood, you are Scottish, if I’m not mistaken, you did your MBA in London and have finally made your way to South Africa but what brought you here?

IAN MOIR: What brought me here was quite simple, it was a phone call from the board of Woolworths to say would you like to come and run Woolies and who would say no to that.

GM: True, true, interesting enough but before that what were you doing based in London, as well as countries like Scotland?

IM: Look, I left Scotland a long, long time ago, so I left Scotland 30-odd years ago. So I’ve been in London I spent approximately ten to 15 years, Australia I spent 15 years and then I’ve been nearly four years in South Africa. So I’ve been around.

GM: It’s not exactly every child’s dream to wake up in the morning and want to be a CEO of a retail company, would you say you’ve planned your career or just responded to some of the things that happened along the way?

IM: I don’t think that’s true at all, ever since I was three years old I used to dream of being the CEO of Woolies…

GM: Oh, wow, you’re one of the lucky ones…

IM: …[Laughing] I’m only joking. I think you take different paths as your life progresses. It was never…even at the age of 22 in leaving university I didn’t necessarily see retail, I was ambitious, I wanted to get on, I loved commerce, I could have taken a number of routes but thank goodness I eventually took a route that ended up with me being the CEO of a brand that I love dearly.

GM: Let’s talk about your introduction coming into Woolworths, you were initially brought in, if I’m not mistaken, to head up the brand Country Road, walk us through that process.

IM: Well, I was with Country Road for nearly 12 years and I came into Country Road initially as the chief operating officer and then within two years took over as CEO. That was a business that was during that period acquired by Woolworths, it was a business that was in need of a turnaround, it was in a very difficult situation. In fact, you couldn’t get closer to bankruptcy than Country Road came in those times. So I learned a lot, it was a very tough job, we came through, we turned it into a profitable performing business, and I guess that helped my reputation. I’ve always had a great relationship with Simon Susman, our now chairman, who was then the chief executive of Woolies and one thing eventually led to another and here I am.

GM: Let’s touch on that brand Country Road in particular, having already established it as one of the most recognisable brands within the Woolworths fraternity must feel like having watched your child grow?

IM: That’s exactly what it’s like, I do feel it’s like my baby and I still feel like it’s my baby now, it’s just I’m also responsible for a much bigger, larger child that fortunately is behaving itself, that’s Woolworths by the way. I still look at Country Road and how well it’s done and where it’s come from and I look at the people who are now running that business, how they’ve developed and how they’ve changed and how they’re now driving a great brand, a great business and very successful business. So I’m very proud of what that business has become but I do often look at it and think there’s my baby.

GM: Let’s touch on your relationship with Simon Susman, who you did mention is the former chief executive of Woolworths, what would you say your relationship with him is like?

IM: I think I’ve got a first class relationship with Simon, we’ve always got on, were quite different people and I think our skills and our personalities are complimentary. Simon has an incredible knowledge and understanding of the South African marketplace, of the Woolworths brand, it’s so deeply entrenched in his psyche and that really helps me. I think together we make a great team, so as chairman and chief executive I think we’ve done really good things with Woolies. I think the whole, if you want to describe the whole as Simon and I, is actually better than the sum of the parts.

GM: Let’s touch on your baby, the big baby, which would be taking care of Woolworths as whole, it’s often in the South African market when you say the word Woolworths it’s synonymous with quality, something that isn’t really very easy for a lot of retailers in our local space to maintain, what is that little magic? What’s that little secret that Woolworths has that ensures that there’s quality across the board?

IM: It’s a deep long-term commitment to quality, nobody else can do quality like we can because we’ve had years and years and years of passion towards it, commitment towards it, our systems, our processes, our supply base, all of them are aligned to our values around quality. It doesn’t come easy, you can lose it easily and you must hold it precious and dear and every single day make tough decisions on quality. Sometimes it can cost you a lot of money but in the long term it’s absolutely right and fundamental to the long term benefit of the brand…..

Moneyweb: Read/listen to the full interview here


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