Head of Region - Northern Ireland: Marks & Spencer
Simon graduated in 2005 with a BSc in Retail Management. Having first worked for Marks & Spencer in his placement year, he now leads over 2000 people as the company's Head of Region in Northern Ireland.
I’ve always been a bit of a buyer and seller and was inspired by my granddad who was a successful dealer in antiques and collectables. I think I was inspired by his commercial curiosity and I started working at Boots The Chemist when I was 16 years old in my home town, selling cameras and CDs and processing customers memories on the photo counter.
I was looking for a degree course first and foremost at a university that offered me a chance to try things out in the industry before I decided if retail was the career for me – the great thing about Loughborough was the exciting new Business School on a buzzing campus and Retail Management offered a course with a placement.
I loved the campus, the halls and the facilities on the open day – I felt at home right away and knew I’d like it!
The lecturers and teaching staff had real life experience in the retail industry and could share first-hand experience. It felt like the degree course had real integrity and today I still think about examples and case studies that relate to things I’m working on now.
The placement year was a brilliant ‘trial run’ and set me up really well for my final year – funnily enough, it set me up well for my career over the years ahead, but I didn’t know that at the time.
Would there be one piece of advice that you would give to current or prospective students looking to study the same course that you did?
Retail is an exciting, dynamic and ever-changing industry. It involves so many skills and requires you to think on your feet and sometimes take risks, but it isn’t for everyone.
My advice would be; speak to those in the industry, ask lots of questions and be aware of where your career could go if you want it to – the possibilities are endless.
Did you take part in any extra-curricular activities during your studies? If so, how did this impact upon your Loughborough experience?
I was so lucky to be in Elvyn Richards Hall and in a building full of great people – it was so easy to make friends with students from a wide range of courses. The Students' Union always had something going on and was a hub of activity!
For the last thirteen years, since graduating, I have held a number of leadership roles in Retail and General Merchanting. I joined M&S in my sandwich year and trained in the busy Blackpool store before leading a number of stores across the North of England, moving around quite a bit to different roles. It is a great business and has upskilled me to be a leader in Food, Clothing, Hospitality, Financial Services and many more areas.
I’ve had some great roles at M&S, running some of the largest retail stores in the UK and feel that Loughborough set me up for true success from the start. I have been proud take my teams through huge projects to transform the business – it is never a dull day!
I moved businesses to lead my first retail region, working for Wickes DIY, a great business and part of the Travis Perkins group. It was a really great challenge to step outside of my comfort zone and work within the General Merchanting business with entirely new people and a very different culture – being directly accountable for the profit and loss of my stores was a huge challenge and I loved it.
Later, I had the opportunity to return to M&S as Head of Region, a role I have aspired to do for many years and I haven’t looked back - I genuinely love going to work every day.
If you’ve never been to Northern Ireland, the culture is amazing – my team would tell you that; “The Craic is 90!”. It’s my second regional appointment in M&S and I’m enjoying leading over 2000 colleagues over 21 shops to delight our customers, every day.
The role has so much to get excited about. Most of the time I’m talking to people about how we can be better for our customers, how we could sell more of our products and how we could grow our business in the longer term.
There’s a lot going on: I’m opening new shops as we grow our presence in the province and we are working closely with our local communities to understand what our customers want whilst giving something back – we have raised over £100,000 for charity over the last six months and we genuinely feel connected to our customers lives.
It’s not all plain sailing and I mean that literally, the logistics of getting our fresh products over the Irish Sea is sometimes challenging with weather getting in the way and we have to work differently in Northern Ireland with some subtle differences in the legal aspects of my job – it all adds to the variety and I’m really fortunate to have such a committed and talented team.
That’s simple – two things, my team and my customers. It’s great to do a job where you can make such a difference to people’s lives.
I love seeing my team progress and grow into new roles and I’ll often set myself personal objectives to do just that. I also enjoy nothing better than talking to my customers; listening to them and looking for ways to be better at what we do.
I was very proud to be part of a team raising £100,000 for Breakthrough Breast Cancer over a six-week period a few years ago. We organised an enormous regional event and held a Gala Dinner under the wings of British Airways’ Concorde at Manchester Airport. It was such a great feeling to reach that target and think about the huge difference it could make to many people’s lives.
Sadly, we had a number of women working in stores in our region who had suffered with breast cancer, but were brave enough to tell their story to others – it was so inspiring and made me realise the responsibility we have in large businesses to make a difference.
The world we live in today is volatile, uncertain, changing and agile and quite honestly – I don’t know what’s around the corner or if a role I will be doing soon is even invented yet! That’s what makes this industry so exciting and you have to be prepared for the unexpected.