Navigating the Crisis

Michael Ward on leading Harrods through COVID-19

"It's important that we don’t focus too much on what the problem is, and make sure we are ready with initiatives to come through this with success - focusing on the future as well as the present is useful." Today's 'lockdown leader' is Michael Ward, the Managing Director of Harrods and Chairman of Walpole, who discusses how he is preparing to reopen 1 million square feet of retail space from nothing, as well as why investing in people is essential to achieving one of the key pillars of sustainability.
25th May 2020
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Navigating the Crisis  Michael Ward on leading Harrods through COVID-19

How are you navigating your business through the current COVID-19 crisis?

One of the key things we’ve learnt is the importance of operating your brain in several different directions, so we have several teams working on different propositions. For the first phase, one of our teams is working on how we get 'back to work' and how we comply and make sure everything is safe for our staff and our customers, and how we create an effective plan to open a million square feet from nothing. That involves everything from the physical opening to liaising with our concession partners, to making sure signage is up for social distancing.

The second phase is making sure we don’t get too stuck into looking at what the problem is and we are ready with initiatives to come through this with success; being able to focus on the future as well as the present is useful. We are very fortunate that we’ve worked with Farfetch to re-platform our website so we’ve got an exciting piece of work on our digital strategy that will help us in terms of the offer in the next 12 months.

We’ve also know that the Chinese customers will probably repatriate to China and we’re fortunate that we will be opening our first private shopping suite in Shanghai in August/early September. That allows us to focus on what we can do in China, and we will hopefully see several more of those appear in the country in 2021. We can become fixated with pressure and how you are going to do all the things you need to do to get open - but you have to think about the future at the same time.

What has the situation taught you about leadership?

I’m not sure that the leadership really changes, but a particular focus for the leadership team is making sure we get our staff through what is a really difficult situation. We’ve always had a great reputation with communication amongst the retail staff and we’ve set up – as you’d expect – self-help groups and buddy groups. It is not just thinking ‘Oh my god, this is the issue, what are we going to do with it’ - it’s about focusing on the real opportunities we will see in the coming months and we still have to press on with those.

And what has it taught you about your business?

The importance of making sure that our people are the future. We have been doing a lot of work for a long time to instill a collaborative spirit within the business, one where you put the people first - and in this situation it’s really paid off. We're not trying to push the workforce, the workforce is already a team moving forward, and that makes an enormous difference.

How are you – and the wider business – supporting your people?

It’s on a number of different levels. It’s making sure we are communicating regularly, of course, but it’s also putting in buddy systems so that people have someone to talk to. So if you’re on your own we will buddy you up with somebody else who is on their own. We're very fortunate that we have doctors and full occupational health in the business; we’ve got people who are furloughed, and vulnerable people in the workforce and our teams are constantly on the phone with those people to make sure they’re ok. But I think it goes back to the fact that we've not been an organisation that’s stayed still. The reason we have occupational health, even before this, is that we’ve focused on mental health: it’s the importance of having a partnership with your employee rather than just focusing on what can we save on cost. It’s about making sure you make the right investments in people.

The problem that a lot of businesses have had is that they don’t have these processes in place; if you try and start from scratch in this situation it’s almost impossible. One of the things we’ve pushed forward with Walpole is that having that relationship with your employees is one of the pillars of sustainability, and it’s about equality and treating people with respect. And if all businesses had invested in that pillar three years ago, they would be in a much better position today.

What do you see as the potential long-lasting changes to Harrods?

We have to look at how this evolves in terms of how life goes back to the ‘new normal’. What we’ve got to do is make sure we are agile enough to adjust to that new normal. And to be quite honest, I don’t think anyone knows what that is yet.

How are you, on a personal level, dealing with lockdown?

The best thing has been cooking: every night, I cook a meal for my wife and daughter and having fresh food every evening is just amazing. About two years ago I built myself an in-house gym from a brand we have in-store called Techno Gym - so every day I can spend an hour in my gym. It’s allowed me to get back into real healthy cooking and good, regular exercise - and as a result I have lost five kilos in weight!