Brian McBride Q&A – ‘Where preparation met opportunity’

Former Amazon UK CEO and ASOS chairman Brian McBride says it’s the most adaptable companies that will survive, not the biggest

EXCLUSIVE: Brian McBride is chairman of Trainline and a non-executive director at Standard Life Aberdeen, as well as Kinnevik, a long-established Swedish company which invests in digital businesses.

Before that, Brian McBride was chairman of ASOS from 2010 to 2018 and CEO of between 2006 and 2011.

He began his career with Xerox and subsequently worked in senior roles at IBM, Dell Computers and as Managing Director of T-Mobile UK.

Today Brian McBride is also senior advisor to Lazard’s global financial advisory business and senior adviser with Scottish Equity Partners.

Brian focuses on helping companies develop digital strategies in consumer-facing businesses tackling rapidly evolving markets.

Here, Brian McBride tells Sophie Wheeldon that it’s the most adaptable companies which will survive, the importance of knowing your customer and why remote working means you have to more in touch with staff, not less.

What advice would you give to companies wanting to build a culture of innovation, and create a more innovative team?

I think for a company to be innovative, it really does need to have a purpose, and everyone needs to understand that purpose.

If you’re a long-standing 200-year-old department store and you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, it becomes harder to remake that traditional company into an innovative one.

I’ve been lucky in that most of my time has been spent with companies that are quite modern, like Amazon and ASOS. So they haven’t had the legacy and the baggage of the past. But I do think a lot of it is about having a sense of purpose and it’s about the sort of people you’ve got around you.

It tends to be younger people. It tends to be people who have good digital skills, to get good communication skills. They’re not hierarchical sort of people. So it’s about the approach of the employees as much as anything.

I loved Amazon because everyone fed off everyone else. I always thought that everyone was smarter than me. So it was really exciting and really challenging.

It is so important to have that sort of buzz about your company.

‘A lot of it has been luck, where preparation met opportunity’

How can businesses maintain their culture remotely?

I think it is really, really hard, and none of us have the answer to this yet.

The main thing is to maintain that communication with your teams. Team leaders must be in constant touch, more so than they were before. I think you probably need to almost over-communicate. You’ve got to put a lot out there and hope that the employees will take part.

It’s really hard because there’s no substitute for face to face. If an employee has an issue or a challenge, being face to face with them is a much more powerful way of helping them deal with it.

But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

Recently we have seen historic high street names collapse – what do you think will happen to the high street and where are these traditional retailers going wrong?

The high street stores have done a pretty decent job, but they never really knew the customer.

If you were Topshop or Debenhams in Oxford Street, you got a lot of footfall so a lot of people would walk into your store and then you’d get a chance to sell them something. But you weren’t really driving them to come into your store. Unless you had a great window display.

Whereas an ASOS or an Amazon are able to stimulate views. It knows what stuff you like and what you don’t like.

It sends you the right e-mails, in the right way, at the right time.

Know your audience, know where they’re going to be and know how they want to be communicated with. An 80-year-old person isn’t going to want to be communicated with via TikTok. They are probably going to respond perhaps to an email, more likely to a flyer coming through the door with the postman.

So it’s knowing your demographic, knowing your audience and reaching them in the way they will respond

What would be your top three tips about marketing the opportunity of e-commerce?

If you’re selling something and you don’t have an e-commerce offering, whether it’s through your own website or through using eBay and other marketplaces, I think you’re going to be existentially threatened.

I say to people, ‘You’ve got to evolve very, very quickly or you’re going to die.’ We’ve seen years of change happen in a matter of months and that shift is permanent. It’s about starting with the customer and working backwards because customers want to buy stuff online.

When discussing this area, I think back to Charles Darwin who wrote The Origin of the Species in 1859. He said, ‘It’s not the strongest or fastest of the species that survive, it’s the most adaptable’. So, those companies that are observing what’s going on around them and are changing accordingly, are the ones that will succeed.

This move to online has been happening for 15 years and yet there are lots of companies waking up today saying, ‘Oh, this Covid thing has come along, and my customers are now buying more stuff online’. Well, Covid-19 has accelerated these trends, but it didn’t create them. These trends have been going on for 10 years and too many companies have been asleep at the wheel.

What are the biggest threats e-commerce sites face in terms of cybersecurity?

The threat is there for all of us, but I think for online companies, the impact is much more damaging. If you’re ASOS or Amazon and your business stops dead, literally, you don’t have any way of making revenue.

Whereas if your Marks and Spencer or John Lewis, you’ve still got people in the store, you can still make money through the tills, you can still work.

If high street stores fix a cyberattack, they will end up with a problem eventually. But they at least have a grace period where their business can probably keep ticking along, whereas an online business stops dead. So the impact is more immediate and more serious with a digital company.

However, we are already aware of that. I would suspect that certainly the ones I know, digital brands have got phenomenal cyber protection capabilities, they’ve got chief information security Officers. They understand all of the latest tools, the techniques, they are regularly running penetration tests. So it’s all about awareness – cyber is a threat to all of us, and a lot of it is about common sense.

It’s just about getting down to basics, like password protection. It’s about employees not sticking USB disks into PCs all the way up to having different layers of cyber anticipation.

But I wouldn’t overplay the threat.

If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?

Looking back at my career, I was very lucky. I’ve been quite successful, and a lot of it has been luck, where preparation met opportunity.

I got into the forefront of lots of exciting companies and that was pretty lucky. But when I think of what I did within those roles, although I became a CEO, chairman and senior leader, I wish had been a little bolder.

I wish I’d moved faster, especially around people. As the chief executive at T-Mobile, I joined a mobile phone company and I’d never been in that industry before. And suddenly, you had a company that’s making over three billion pounds and it’s got 20,000 employees. You’re almost struck with the complexity of it.

I now realise that first impressions are quite important when you see the people around your table.

Sometimes, I spent too long hoping that people who are square pegs in a round hole would become the right shape!

Brian McBride is a business speaker who delivers talks on digital disruption, leadership, retail and more, as part of The Motivational Speakers Agency

Further reading

Simon Calver Q&A – ‘People are looking for purpose’

Related Topics

Business strategy