Transformational Leadership: An Interview with Ann Steer, CEO at online retailer Freemans

12th June 2023
Alka Gandhi
Associate Partner

Transformational Leadership: An Interview with Ann Steer, CEO at online retailer Freemans

In our latest Transformational Leaders Interview series, Alka Gandhi, Head of Retail at Berwick Partners recently interviewed Ann Steer, Chief Executive Officer of online  retailer Freemans, part of the OTTO group.

Only months after her appointment as CEO, the UK went into lockdown. Ann has been instrumental in driving the business transformation of the company resulting in many successes including the increase of customer numbers by 65% from 2 years ago.

During the discussion, Ann offered a fascinating range of insights into how to deliver a retail business transformation strategy during economically turbulent and challenging times. Ann shared her views on the key qualities she looks for when recruiting an exec team, the three key challenges facing online retailers today, and provided guidance for emerging leaders taking their first retail CEO role.

When you became CEO of Freemans what was your biggest learning curve and what were your key priorities?

I started as CEO on 1st Jan 2020 – 57 working days later we were in lockdown!

A successful catalogue business, Freemans needed modernisation with a focus on digital. In essence a plan for the future of the business.

My focus was to run the business and change the business – while we all learnt how to work from home. The external challenges have continued to come thick and fast, through economic uncertainty, political upheaval and global crises. Being able to set out a clear plan, execute the plan, while responding to new challenges has been critical. It takes courage and a positive outlook as well as abundant resilience.

In your opinion as a leader what are the key factors that you should consider when commencing a business turnaround?

  1. Do your homework – understand the core business, routes to profit and critical capabilities, and competitive environment.
  2. Start with the end in mind – where are we going. Then determine what skills and capability is needed to deliver the strategy (structure follows strategy) – have you got the right people, in the right place, with a mindset and capability to deliver the strategy, Transformation is ultimately about people – so ensuring that the right team is in place is critical.
  3. Communicate with clarity and frequently – aligning team and stakeholders behind the vision, and maintaining that focus (even when navigating uncertainty).
  4. Be prepared to modify, adapt and you move through change, course correct if you need to – but always moving towards the end goal.
  5. Business transformation is not for the fainthearted, its crucial to stay positive and confident in the plan

What is the best piece of advice that you have received in your career? And how has this shaped you both as a person and a leader?

I’ve had lots of good advice from many trusted colleagues, mentors and bosses over the years, which I have welcomed and put into action. Most recently I was told ‘you make good decisions Ann’. When dealing with an uncertain, unpredictable, volatile economic outlook and changing a business at the same time, being able to balance data and intuition is really important.

What are the key qualities you look for when building a board?

  1. Team – bringing together talented people, with low egos, who are committed to working together as a team is crucial.
  2. Resilience – being able to keep driving the business forward, bouncing back when things go wrong and remaining positive.
  3. Empathy – being connected with colleagues and customers.
  4. Courage and ambition – being willing to write a new script, to design a brighter future for the business.

Finally, what do you see as the key challenges facing online retailers and what advice would you give to emerging leaders taking their first CEO role?

Be clear about your strategy – your North Star. Listen to trusted advisors.

Prioritize – put together a team with the skills, attitude and a mindset to succeed.

Be prepared to modify your approach as you test and learn.

For more information, please contact Alka Gandhi Associate Partner, Retail & Consumer Practice at Berwick Partners. Alka specialises in leadership appointments partnering with businesses led by transformation, turnaround, or investment growth strategies. Her clients include blue-chip, family owned, private equity and SME’s.

Categories: Consumer