Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Charles Tyrwhitt’s CFO and COO on building the multi-channel retailer

Charles Tyrwhitt is the embodiment of a modern retailer, selling a range of mens’s clothes and accessories across multiple channels and countries. Its CFO and chief operations officer (COO) Alan Martin has gained a broad experience working in companies as diverse as Amazon, Argos and Tesco, that is invaluable for understanding how to create value in such a data heavy sector.

That experience is being used to good effect in driving growth to around £220m for the current year, in the privately-owned business best known for its tailored shirts.

They can be seen in 41 shops in France, the US and UK, that sit alongside its online operation. The company was launched by Nicholas Charles Tyrwhitt Wheeler when he was a University of Bristol student in 1986, before he went on to open his first shop in London’s Jermyn Street.

Over time the firm has dabbled in womenswear, but is now totally focused on menswear, using technology to understand how men shop, says Martin. “Technology has a really important role in enabling us to offer our customers a simple experience that they can repeat and feel confident in, especially on the website which is two thirds of our business,” he adds.

Wheeler still owns 95% of Charles Tyrwhitt, some of which sits in a holding company Becton with The White Company, a homewear retailer of similar size launched by Wheeler’s wife Chrissie Tucker. Martin says the two firms are run separately “but Chrissie and Nick like them to share knowledge and expertise.”

“The website is the biggest window of our company, it has been for a long time, and one of the things Charles Tyrwhitt did wonderfully well, long before I got here was it stepped into that space much quicker and much bolder than some of its competitors,” says Martin, who joined three years ago.

Since his arrival, Martin has been keen to ensure finance plays a key role in supporting innovation and growth of the group, through three main planks. “The first is about helping the business make the best decisions possible. To do that you’ve got to be in those conversations, you’ve got to be a business partner, sitting with the merchandise team and the marketing team. We recruit people with personality and gravitas who can communicate, to help the business make the best investment decisions,” says Martin.

Another key role for finance is “being the conscience of the business”, says Martin. “You need to be able to say to the supply chain director or the merchandise director, that doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. I encourage the guys to speak up, to do that. But to do that they’ve got to have the relationships,” he insists.

The third aspect is the role finance plays when it comes to insight and data. “In a business where you have such geographical spread and a big portfolio of products, its important to say I have looked at and analysed and crunched data, and then say here is what I think we should do about it. If we can do each of those three things to the best of our ability, we will add value to the bottom line, no doubt,” says Martin.

Value of experience

“I always knew my life was going to be in numbers,” says Martin, who enjoyed studying maths at comprehensive school in Coventry, before taking a different tack and studying political science at University of Hull. From there he joined fund manager M&G as a graduate trainee but after 18 months he shunned a fund management career to do something he would have a passion for. “I wanted to be able to look my kids in the eye when I was a bit older and say I’m part of something,” he says.

Martin joined Big Five accountancy firm Arthur Andersen for half the salary “doing my fair share of photocopying, and making tea” but two years in, the scandal at US energy giant Enron soon led to the collapse of the firm. Fortunately, he was able to finish training with Deloitte that acquired much of the Andersens London practice.

After gaining qualification  “having won a prize or two,” the decision was taken to leave accountancy. Martin joined Tesco as financial controller in the grocery giant’s property division, which he describes as “a little bit more rough and ready, a bit more assertive” but where “the energy and pace was something that hit you like a train when you stepped into the place. That’s something about retail that’s stayed with me- I’ve always looked for businesses that have that energy,” he reveals.

From Tesco, that was growing fast at the time and would become the world’s second largest supermarket group, Martin joined another innovative retailer Argos- that was also a leading exponent of customer data capture. Under CFO Richard Ashton he had three roles over seven years- rising to become second in charge of finance in a £4.5bn revenue generating operation by the time he hit 30. “They always backed talent, they didn’t look at age and time served, all that sort of rubbish. That’s something that stuck with me,” he explains.

Roles at Argos, from trading finance “working with the buyers, down and dirty” to the more polished pure finance areas of FP&A, IR, forecasting, budgeting and cashflow, provided a broad mix of experience, but there were other ways to flesh out the skill set.

Doing deals and working internationally as a divisional finance director at industrial group Essentra provided the next leap forward. Although making widgets “was not the sexiest of products” his division had a mandate from the group to grow, grow, grow” so the next three years saw Martin travel the world buying businesses. On this he says: “No textbook prepares you for the challenge of integrating people, infrastructure, systems, ways of working.”

After completing his largest deal- he describes as a game changer in terms of scale- Martin joined online retailer Amazon in 2013 as the finance director of its UK operations- “warehouses, supply chain logistics, procurement, which is where Amazon is absolutely exceptional.” The relatively short experience- he left after a year after deciding it was not for him, still proved to be hugely valuable.

Compared to other companies he had worked with, Martin says the way Amazon thought about its customers “was on a different level”. He says “other businesses do similar stuff but they’re always making trade-offs, but Amazon says if that’s right for the customer we will do it, even if it means we won’t make any money. Even if that means that our colleagues suffer sometimes, everything is for the customer,” he adds.

A different kind of challenge presented itself when the opportunity arose to become finance director of Mothercare, a retailer specialising focused on baby and infant clothes and accessories, that was experiencing a turbulent period. The role was to “run the finance team, and help stabilise,” the group, fulfilling career advice to ‘build that portfolio’, this time by taking on a “hardcore turnaround”.

In a painful restructuring of the group’s UK business that was losing £25m a year, the UK chain of 270 shops (out of 1,500 worldwide) was almost halved, a £100m rights issue was undertaken. “We worked with suppliers, managed stock, payments, cash, all that sort of financial heartland stuff, where the finance team really shine.

Fit for purpose

Although the turnaround breathed new life into Mothercare, the sheer effort of stabilising the group was a massive challenge. “Turnarounds sucks the energy out of you,” says Martin. He was ready for a new opportunity that came with the combined CFO and operations director role at Charles Tyrwhitt.

He says he is relishing the scope that such a role offers. “As CFO and COO I get to do more, every day is different. You get the breadth and the insight into a business that no more than a handful of people get, so how can you not wake up and be excited by that?”

What keeps him up at night? “Not a lot because I tend to sleep well,” says Martin. “I’m usually knackered is the honest answer, with two kids and a busy job. But if there’s a problem which there isn’t an easy solution to, it will weigh on my mind,” he adds.

One potential headache is Brexit. “Our UK business will be exposed to that like everybody else’s, but fortunately its one third of our overall business so that’s helpful. However, London’s a very international place and how our colleagues feel about that, working here and the ease with which they can work is important.

“One of the things we’ve been doing is helping a lot of our colleagues register with the government and making sure they understand what their rights are and actively helping them to register so that they’re well placed if they do want to stay here,” says Martin.

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