INTERVIEW: Anna Blackburn, Beaverbrooks

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On the route from shop floor to becoming company chief executive.

Meet Anna Blackburn, not only the first female chief executive in Beaverbrooks’ history, but the first non-family member to be appointed to the role. She speaks to Rachael Taylor about working her way up to the top and why her sex has never mattered.

The appointment of Anna Blackburn is fundamental on two levels: not only is she the first female chief executive at the retail group, she is also the first non-family member to take up the role.

When the departure of Daniel Brown was announced on September 6 this year, after just 17 months in the role, it came as somewhat of a shock, both internally and externally it would seem. Brown was the typical Beaverbrooks boss: a veteran of the company with 18 years service and a fourth-generation member of the family that founded the store group. What was less typical were his plans to revolutionise the store.

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His vision from the off was to transform the group by moving it more upmarket and introducing a US-style model of customer service that would deliver a “mind-blowing experience for our customers”.

His vision came complete with an eight-year development plan that would enable the business to become a “better employer, more profitable, and able to do more for our community by focusing on staff training, in-store experience and customer service” to create a “world-class shopping experience” by 2020.

The reverberations that should have been felt from such a seismic change never quite rumbled through. And when it came to announcing Brown’s departure, Beaverbrooks chairman Mark Adlestone described it as a mutual agreement “that he will move on from his role as chief executive of Beaverbrooks, to pursue new ventures”.

Brown has since set himself up as a business consultant from a base in Manchester. He tells Professional Jeweller that he is “loving doing his own thing” and is on the verge of launching a new business that will focus on “senior executive coaching and mentoring, supporting businesses across any industry with improving workplace engagement, and supporting businesses across any industry with improving customer service”.

While the appointment of Blackburn is surprising for the reasons stated earlier, the decision to put her in charge is not a radical one. While she might not be related by blood, Blackburn has been fully ingratiated into the Beaverbrooks professional family since leaving university in 1998, where she studied sociology, psychology and social sciences.

She has spent 15 years quite literally working her way to the top of the tree; a journey that started when she spotted an advert in the Trafford Centre for one of the group’s trainee programmes after returning from a year travelling the world after graduation. “I went to university because I wanted to study, but I’d always fancied retail management,” says Blackburn. “I’m an absolute shopper and I love the retail industry.”

She says that it was not just the opportunity to work with customers and the path for growth that attracted her to Beaverbrooks, but the size of the company. “I wanted to make a difference, not just be a number within an organisation. I felt I would get to do that in a smaller business.”

Blackburn was accepted into the programme and started her journey in the Trafford Centre. From there her career would go on to travel through the ranks – and the UK.

After her first role in Manchester she moved to Blackpool to take a position as assistant store manager, where she says she learned a lot about the operations side of the business, then on to Glasgow and the Braehead Shopping Centre where she was assistant manager before being promoted to store manager, and back down to Newcastle and the Metro Centre for another store manager’s role.

But after her Glasgow experience, Blackburn’s heart lay in Scotland – “I loved the people, they were just so open to someone coming into the store” – so when the role of regional manager became available she left one shopfloor to cover many as she worked across all of Beaverbrooks’ shops north of the border.

After five years in this role, Blackburn was ready for a new challenge.

“In 2003 I got the opportunity to come to the office and join the executive team and it was really about the office operations,” she says. “I worked with every department with the exception of buying. I got a really in depth knowledge of the business.”

For Blackburn, who is an obvious people person, the hardest part of the move to head office was leaving the shopfloor behind. “I always made a point of having time in the stores, to keep my hand in and sell. For me the reason for my initial move was to ensure that people in the office understood our retail side and the customer experience and bring the two sides of the business together.”

After four years uniting the two sides of the business, Blackburn stepped into the head of retail role and was there just 12 months when opportunity came knocking once more.

“I guess I was surprised by the timing,” she says, speaking of the day she was approached about the chief executive role. “For me it’s a natural progression, as I do know the business very well. But I certainly didn’t expect it.

I was very surprised, and taken back a bit because of the family element. I feel very privileged.”

Unlike Brown when he took charge, Blackburn has no radical plans to tout in order to make her mark, or if she does, she’s playing her cards close to her chest. “I think I’m very lucky,” she comments in relation to the state of the business. “We’ve got such a solid foundation and such a strong focus on our customer. It sits very solidly with who I am and I’ll work closely with Mark [Adlestone] to build on that solid foundation and make sure we’re giving them the right product and experience.”

And when it comes to growth, she is cautious with her answer to that question too. She says that she is happy with the retailer’s positioning as “upper middle” market, and that while she would like to see more stores added to the roster, we should not expect an expansion boom any time soon.

“We look at every opportunity as it arises,” she says. “We opened two stores in last 12 months [Birmingham Fort and Whiteley, Hampshire]. It’s not a case of we want to expand rapidly, but we will take every opportunity.”

While she might not be rocking the boat just yet with any major strategies lined up, outside of strengthening the chain’s diamond and wedding ring business and further developing its own silver jewellery brand, her appointment in itself is a memorable one.

When quizzed on his feelings about appointing Blackburn, Adlestone says: “Choosing Anna as the first non-family CEO of Beaverbrooks is quite significant on many levels. Firstly Anna is not only the first non-family CEO, but also the first female leader of our business. Secondly, when making the decision we couldn’t help think, what would the three brothers who founded Beaverbrooks in 1919 say?”

While Adlestone goes on to say that he is sure they would “be as delighted as we are to be working with such a talented and caring individual as Anna”, one suspects they might have had something rather different to say about a lady from outside the family taking charge.

But luckily for Blackburn we are not in 1919, but 2013 when she is working closely alongside a boss who respects her for her professional talents, not her sex or bloodline. “Anna started her career at Beaverbrooks working in our stores and due to her hard work, determination and clear understanding of our business and our people, she has progressed to CEO in 15 years,” says Adlestone. “I’m personally thrilled to be working alongside Anna, building on the successes we already are proud to have achieved, as well as creating exceptional experiences for our customers.”

But for Blackburn, while her appointment came as a surprise, she says that being a woman has never influenced her job, and she doesn’t feel that it should be something to note now she is in the chief executive role. In fact, when questioned about how she felt about being the first woman in the role, Blackburn chuckles. “It’s never impacted on me,” she says, adding that she was also Beaverbrooks’ first female regional manager. “It’s a non issue for me and everyone that’s ever worked for me.”

But despite her protests, it must be an undeniably inspirational move for Beaverbrooks’ female staff force, particularly the working mums, as Blackburn is herself a mother of two young children, one aged six and the other just two years old.

“I’ve got a very supportive husband who works in sports therapy so works part time,” she explains. “I work very hard but I’m good at getting the balance right, so I make sure that the time I have with the kids counts. A large proportion of our colleagues are mums and know I’m in the same position. I’ve had lots of calls and talks with different people about how to manage it and how to get the best out of it, and that I’ve been there and doing it every day is quite inspirational for people.”

Inspiring staff is one of Beaverbrooks’ strengths, and is why people like Blackburn stay at the business for years and staff retention is unusually high. “I think as a business we absolutely care about our people and really want them to be happy and do a good job,” she says. “The happier our staff, the happier an experience our customers get. I’d moved around the business and been able to contribute and that kept me engaged. The more you put in the more get out. “

While Blackburn has certainly put a lot in during her 15 years, she is now getting an unprecedented amount out of Beaverbrooks as the very first staff member to successfully work her way up from the shopfloor to the top of a company that had been led exclusively by family members for nearly 100 years. Inspirational stuff indeed.

This interview features in the November issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.
 

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