Allan Leighton and the ‘magpie’ approach to successful business

Uber non-exec and ex-Asda CEO Allan Leighton reveals his favourite ideas from a life at the top


Allan Leighton began his career as a salesman at Mars and went on to become chief executive of Asda in 1996, working closely with Piper Private Equity as he turned around the ailing supermarket chain alongside Archie Norman. Asda was ultimately sold in a highly profitable deal to US supermarket giant Walmart for £6.7bn in 1999.
In 2000 Leighton left to ‘go plural’ and took up non-executive positions at a wide range of companies, such as lastminute.com, Dyson, BSkyB, Bhs, Leeds United, and Selfridges, as well as a stint as chairman of Royal Mail. Today, he is chairman of Danish jewellery brand Pandora and fashion chain Peacocks.
Here, in the third article in an exclusive series published in association with Piper Private Equity, Leighton shares his approach to adding value to successful businesses.

Copy shamelessly!’ That’s something Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart told me years ago. I thought it was a great line and he meant it because there is no one who hasn’t thought of something before you. For that reason, I’ve always been a great go-and-have-a-looker.

It’s amazing what you see if you go around with your eyes open. Similarly, if you go around with your ears open it’s amazing what you hear. A lot of people don’t do that, they listen to respond, rather than listen to hear and they see to respond rather than see to hear. So, I’m always reading stuff, going into different shops and just keeping my eyes and ears open.

When I was at Mars I used to travel a lot and I always found a great way to get to know a place is by running. I’d just put my running shoes on in Hong Kong or Singapore because you see so much more that way.

The US has always been a great source of inspiration for me largely because it’s always pretty advanced from a business perspective. I remember seeing Southwest Airlines years ago doing lots of fun stuff. They used to sing the emergency card, they’d say ‘give us a tune’ and someone would shout Auld Lang Syne and then they’d sing it in that tune. They made a tedious safety announcement fun but it also meant that the retention of information was even greater. We tried to do similar things at Asda.

I’ve also learned from other people. I will always remember something the former England rugby captain Martin Johnson said. He was asked whether there was a lot of pressure on the England team in the 2003 World Cup because they were viewed as favourites. His response was an emphatic ‘No!’ I’m paraphrasing but he said: ‘We got ourselves in the mindset of dealing with the next thing that came in front of us – whether that was a game or a training session – that was the focus.’ That resonated with me because, while strategy and everything else is very important, most of your life is just dealing with the next thing that comes in front of you and then moving onto the next.

So, instead of sitting there and thinking in five or 10 years’ time this is where I want to be, you are a) more self-satisfied and b) more successful. I try to do it all the time. I think that is why I can do plural – have many non-executive positions – because if the next thing is Peacocks or Pandora then I just deal with it because you’re able to strike a balance. Ultimately, I suppose it’s about how do you trade for today and build for tomorrow.

It might sound clichéd but there are three rules when it comes to running a company. The top one is do the right thing for the business and its people and be driven by that. Sometimes you’ll be criticised for it and sometimes you’ll be wrong but the most important thing is you can look at yourself and say: ‘Well, actually at the time I made that decision it was the right one’.

The second thing to remember is companies don’t die – they don’t feel suicidal one day – people kill them. The third is to surround yourself with the best people. That is fundamental. The Mars brothers told me 30 years ago: ‘Always remember two things in life Allan – 50% of the brains in the world are female and brains have no colour. Your job is to get as many brains as you can so don’t restrict yourself.’ And that has always held through.

It also helps if you don’t take yourself too seriously because somebody, somewhere has got a picture of you looking like an idiot – and it’s just a question of time before it comes out.

This is an extract from ’25 Years, 25 Insights’, published by Piper Private Equity to mark its 25th anniversary. A specialist in consumer brands, Piper founded Pitcher & Piano and has helped grow businesses such as Boden, Las Iguanas and Maximuscle. To order a free copy of the book go to www.piperprivateequity.com

 

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