When Charles Wilson left M&S in 2005 to become CEO of Booker everyone, including me, was surprised. His leaving was a blow to M&S but it was his choice of destination that was so unexpected. He had been a Director of Booker in the late 1990s before moving to Marks via Arcadia with Stuart (now Lord) Rose. Wholesaling has long been a shrinking element of the distribution chain and back then it was already significantly diminished. Booker was an unpromising vehicle even for the massive talent of Charles. Today, Booker is totally transformed and while he has built a team around him, there is no doubt that he was the catalyst for what must surely be THE turnaround or the past several decades.
Charles stands out on a number of levels. He is extraordinarily bright and a brilliant strategic thinker. Another key characteristic is his lack of ego. He puts the needs of the business before his or anyone else’s. This is extremely rare in retail as it tends to be in life generally. He identifies the shortest distance between where he is and where he needs to be, and constructs a plan to get there. That lack of ego allows him to understand exactly what he is very good at and what he isn’t, recruiting exactly the type and calibre of people he needs to get the job done. He is a very rare example of great leadership and great management.
Booker’s latest figures last week show further significant progress for the business. The acquisitions of Londis and Budgens will be a huge success, assuming it is allowed to proceed by the CMA. Paying £40m for retail sales of well over £800m and a significant increase in custom for its wholesale business will represent another very sound move by Charles Wilson.
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