Retail Species – the operational turnaround man

The Person:Chris Yates

The Company: Jessops

The Job Title: Retail Director

The Story: Chris Yates describes himself as ambitious with a small ‘a’. New jobs seek him out rather than the usual way round but he’s been head-hunted from pillar to post in the last few years and now finds himself on the board of directors at Jessops. Turnarounds are becoming a bit of a speciality in his life but it all started at good old Sainsbury’s. Man and boy he was there 22 years ending up as a regional business manager looking after 24 stores with a half a billion pound turnover and in all honesty if you had asked him a month before he left ‘where will you be when you retire?’ the answer would have been, well, Sainsbury’s.

Now I’m curious – what happened? Someone rang him up and asked whether he would like to do the same kind of thing for Esporta – a chain of health clubs.

So, not another 22 years at Esporta then? Not quite. Two years and then off to Phones 4U which was a whole new ball game. He adjusted to managing much smaller spaces on the high street and then just as he was getting used to that, phew, another call.

Honestly, he must have been afraid to pick up that telephone. And then off to Jessops as Retail Stores Director – with a place on the board. And Jessops has a lot of work to do. Wound up in 2009 as Jessops plc and definitely in the doldrums. 212 stores and a business that is broke. So Yates joins up and brings out his three-legged stool.

You know you are going to have to explain that don’t you? This is the Yates mantra, this is what sees him through the tricky bits. The customer  sits on a stool – the stool’s three legs are a) processes  b) people and c) output. Most businesses focus on one or two of these  to the detriment of the third resulting in an uneven stool which the customer can’t stay on.  Jessops for example had no stool at all and made big losses. In 2011 Jessops made a profit of £5.7m – the stool works!

Was the stool at Sainsbury’s? The stool was everywhere. It came from the MBA which Sainsbury’s sponsored him through.  Incidentally it’s worth pointing out that Yates cannot praise Sainsbury’s highly enough as a training ground where he was exposed to everything retail has to offer. The ‘breadth of what I was taught was amazing’ he says.

Aah. Anyway back to turnarounds. There’s no chance to do it wrong and it’s all about the quality of decision making he reckons.

 What did he do? Yates built a plan – he looked at every single person and introduced 4-5 simple KPIs. Jessops had had no training for seven years. After investing 100,000 hours a year in training and development productivity has increased by 45%. Every time  Chris Yates gets a thank you letter from a customer he handwrites a thank you back and also writes one to the member of staff concerned.

Strewth. That sounds… Like hard work?. Yes but Yates is keen on the phrase ‘walking in the shadow of a leader’ and takes leading by example seriously.  They now have industry leading staff retention rates.  The major camera brands offer quality funded training that is delivered and trained to Jessops on their products.  His mantra with the brands is ‘best channel to market’ and on those grounds with super keen staff they are queuing up for ambassador training. And then he turned to leg number two.

Processes?Correct. Each store previously did whatever it pleased whenever it pleased in terms of operating procedures. No longer. The whole estate has undergone the same processes of logistics, stock taking etc by 10am each day and can spend the rest of the day serving customers and selling. Yates calls 10am the moment of certainty and woe betide any shop that isn’t ready.

Jessops: London flagship.

A stickler?I think so. But he doesn’t accept that any personality has been lost in the stores by adhering to such a strict regime. In fact he claims that better trained staff are giving the customer much more retail personality. He brings the same structure to his own working week. Monday and Tuesday are for board meetings, reviews and office time. From Wednesday to Saturday he is on the high street.

And the output leg? 65 of Jessops stores are now revamped in the new ‘live’mode. This means that the customer is free to use and experiment with the equipment before buying. The store colour is now a more sleek black and arranged by Brands and clearly signed. Yates loves shops  and is itching for the Olympics to begin – Jessops has 31 stores close to Olympic  Events. Yates says of himself ‘I am a shopkeeper and that shop starts online’ but you can tell he is a bricks and mortar man at heart which makes him very happy that as much as 70% of online business ends up collected in-store.

Why so? Upsell.  They are offered all appropriate accessories and photo services to complete their purchase.  For instance 120 Jessops stores now have canvas machines able to turn a photo into a picture while you wait. You can have personalised mugs, bags, photo books and many personal gifting items are now available in store and within an hour.

Crikey. Is there any competition? Another player is Jacobs. They have had a policy of opening next door to Jessops since both chains were founded in Leicester 75 years ago. Jacobs’ estate was made up of 21 stores and each one of them was very close to a Jessops.

Now that’s just annoying. Yup, but the one opposite the flagship Jessops store on New Oxford Street is now closed. The turnaround continues. For the man who says life is a marathon not a sprint, he’s running pretty fast right now.