From restaurants to retail: how the world of work is changing
Debbie Hewitt MBE is Non-Executive Chairman of Visa Europe, a role she holds alongside non-executive chairmanships of The Restaurant Group, fashion retailer White Stuff, and comparethemarket.com owner BGL. Here, she shares her unique viewpoint steering multiple businesses through the pandemic, and what she expects the future to bring.
Visa Navigate (VN): You hold roles spanning retail, hospitality and financial services; which sector has been impacted most by the pandemic?
Debbie Hewitt (DH): The impact on hospitality has been the most extreme. I chair The Restaurant Group, which operates brands including Wagamama and Frankie & Benny’s, around 70 gastropubs and concessions in all UK airports. For them it has been a double whammy. It is not just the consequences of people not being able to eat out from home, but also of people not flying. The most difficult aspect has been the unpredictability of what has happened and the frequent and short notice of changes. The nimbleness and agility of my colleagues there has been outstanding.
Opening any business back up after a lockdown takes time, but in hospitality in particular, there's a perishable food supply chain and additional health and safety challenges to consider. When you layer Brexit on top of that, you could not have made up the extreme nature of the trauma that the sector has gone through - and I use my words carefully: it has been a trauma. That said, there will be those that come out of this stronger, and that's been the North Star for all of the executive teams that I work with: how do we make sure that we're in as good a position as possible for the recovery?
VN: Has there been anything that’s surprised you about how consumers have responded?
DH: What has been reinforced for me is how quickly consumer behavior can shift. It’s also been pleasing to see how consumers have started to more proactively support local businesses, which is why Visa’s ‘Where you shop matters’ campaign has been such a positive initiative. In terms of the online transformation, some of our customers at White Stuff would never have gone online to shop before. Now they've found out it is a safe way to shop and it is easy to make returns. They will now likely continue to shop this way, at least for some of the time. Similarly, prior to the pandemic it was not the norm for customers to ‘click and collect’ food from restaurants. But necessity is the mother of invention, and many of our Restaurant Group customers have taken up our click-and-collect service. What we take for granted about the way consumers behave can change overnight.
There has been as much channel shift in the last seven months as the previous seven years in many retail and hospitality businesses. This is also such an opportunity for businesses.
VN: In terms of new working patterns and behaviours, what do you expect to stick?
DH: What we've proven is that flexible working is manageable. However, I'm in the camp that believes that the office is not dead. As always with extremes, the way we work currently is likely not sustainable. We're social creatures at heart, and any kind of business process that requires discussion, interaction, and input is – in the long run – probably better if the people that are debating it are physically present in the same room. Also, flexibility must have some boundaries, both to make it clear when people are accessible and available; people need a work-life balance and flexible working should not mean ‘always on’.
Of course, the pandemic is also having a significant impact on mental health, across all sectors of society. There has been so much change for people to adapt to and so many unintended consequences of being in a state of full or partial lockdown for so long. I do think it has genuinely helped organisations to be much more mindful of the fact that a mental health challenge can happen to anyone – and organisations that have responded well to help colleagues will be much desired places to work in the future. People forget what you say but remember what you do.
VN: Do you think the change in working patterns will mean businesses will hire in different ways?
DH: I do. First and foremost, video calls are an efficient and effective way to see people at an early stage of recruitment, rather than just looking at CVs. Secondly, technology opens up access to talent, particularly geographically. I think we'll be much more open-minded about how and where we can recruit people. It's been proven that someone doesn't have to be 100% in the office to get the job done so you can effectively ‘fish’ in a much wider pool of talent. Also, I think we can be much more inclusive in bringing people into the recruitment process to get a diversity of views. Recruitment in a more traditional way can often limit the number of people involved. This has become much easier to do virtually.
VN: Where do you see opportunities for business in the next 12 months?
DH: The most significant opportunities are likely to be driven by the digital transformation that is happening across every sector. With the opening up of delivery channels for restaurants, many of our Restaurant Group brands have recruited a significant number of new customers who have never tried these brands before.
So it's not at all doom and gloom – this is where agile businesses work out how they can do things differently to optimise their business towards these new consumer behaviours.
Take the airport concessions business as another example: you can conceive of a situation when we get back to travelling where customers will book ahead to order food to take onto the plane. The digital revolution is a seismic shift for businesses, creating new customers, new processes, new payment methods – and it is doubly hard if you have minimal resources. White Stuff is a relatively small lifestyle and fashion business, and the resourcefulness needed to shift online sales from 20% to 35% has been huge.
VN: How have you seen businesses manage that shift in focus from the High Street to digital?
DH: When the shift happens rapidly, although it creates significant opportunity, it also brings complexity. The introduction of lockdown tiers across the country increased that complexity. For example, if you're a bricks and mortar and a digital retail non-essential business, you need to make a call about where stock sits during lockdowns, as you want to move it as few times as possible. It’s costly having stock sitting in stores that are closed, but if you knew that the closure was only for a short period, then you might not move it. Just prior to Christmas, in the space of four weeks some retail stores found themselves starting in lockdown, re-opening, moving through two different tiers and then back into full lockdown again. You can imagine the operational complexity that leadership teams have to deal with and the challenging decisions that need to be made with thought for all stakeholders – particularly colleagues who are at the frontline in retail stores.
VN: What have you learned from how the businesses you work with have adapted?
DH: The sheer determination and resilience to make things work has been inspiring.
The key thing is to make sure that we don't lose that sense of ‘it can be done.’
I have heard so many hero stories about colleagues across all of the businesses that I work with – from getting these businesses working fully remotely in a matter of days, to making sure customers and colleagues are properly looked after throughout. It’s been a privilege to be part of those teams.
VN: How has the experience changed your priorities as a leader?
DH: Some businesses have had very challenging days, where it feels almost impossible to think that there could be any upside to this situation. It’s reminded me that it is normally things outside of your control that come along and change everything, but it is also how you respond that often makes the difference between those who find and deliver the upside and those who don’t. Whilst it hasn’t changed my priorities, it has reinforced how crucial strong and effective leadership is.
VN: And what have you learned about yourself?
DH: The most challenging thing for me, without any doubt, has been homeschooling. We have 11 year old twins (a girl and a boy) and fitting in the demands of that, alongside a very busy work agenda required some juggling and some particularly early mornings and late nights. But even that has had its upsides. As I’ve travelled less, we've got to spend a bit more time together and I have seen first-hand how they’ve coped with the significant transition to senior school in these most unusual times. Although I doubt that they would give me a great reference as a teacher, the experience of being close by at such a critical stage in their lives has been priceless.
VN: Who's been the biggest influence on your career so far?
DH: First and foremost, my mother. She worked full-time for the Inland Revenue. I was born in the early 1960s, so I grew up in a household where a working career woman was not the norm. I really admired her drive and can-do spirit. Then, Sir Trevor Chinn, who gave me my first line role and then my first board role at what became the RAC. He taught me to take risks on people who haven't necessarily got the experience but show that they are willing and hungry to learn and determined to deliver. Lastly, one of the things that's super about being a portfolio director is you get to pick and choose a little who you work with. It’s a privilege to work with people that I respect and admire, and that I learn from.
VN: Outside of work, what do you enjoy?
DH: I'm an absolutely massive football fan. I follow Liverpool Football Club with great pride. As a youngster, there were no girls’ teams, so I had to play football with the boys and occasionally be better than the boys, as it was the only way they’d keep me in the team! It was fantastic for me when Visa started to sponsor women's football, becoming the first ever dedicated UEFA sponsor.
Outside of that, I’m a taxi driver for my kids and a parish councillor for our local village. More recently, I've been what they call a ‘viral kindness’ helper in lockdown, helping to keep an eye on the welfare of 60 elderly and disabled residents, including some pretty vulnerable people. That's been such a motivating thing to do.
Debbie Hewitt MBE is Non-Executive Chairman of Visa Europe, a role she holds alongside non-executive chairmanships of The Restaurant Group, fashion retailer White Stuff, and comparethemarket.com owner BGL.
All brand names, logos and/or trademarks are the property of their respective owners, are used for identification purposes only, and do not necessarily imply product endorsement or affiliation with Visa.