Debbie Hewitt MBE is Chairman of Moss Bros Group, White Stuff, Visa UK and The Restaurant Group.
What is the secret to an effective board?
Having a clear and well-articulated strategy, a rigorous focus on execution, lead and lag indicators to measure progress and an approach which encourages open and constructive airing of issues and opportunities.
The most effective boards I’ve been on are the ones with cognitive diversity - a factor of having different ages, experiences and skill sets around the table. They handle conflict well, embracing disagreement and debate rather than shutting it down. And they regularly test the assumptions that drive the competitive positioning of the business. There is mutual respect too. I’ve heard some people say that different ownership structures make for a more effective board.
Having worked in PE, privately owned and listed businesses, there is no perfect model - I'd cherry pick from all three! Ultimately it’s the team of people and the way that they interact that makes a real difference.
If you could add one item to the board agenda of every company, what would it be?
What are we doing to stay relevant for our customer? To quote Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, "All businesses need to be young forever. If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworths.”
Boards should constantly be thinking about how they can reinvent their business and stay ahead of their customers’ needs. Innovation should be at the forefront of boards’ minds. I feel this will increasingly mean we need younger people on boards – the true digital natives who are immersed in technology and understand how it changes the way consumers behave.
On that note, I’m a big convert to reverse mentoring, where you pair up a younger person with an experienced director to share ideas and challenge.
How important is information in the boardroom?
It’s critical. And the very best boards are disciplined at reflecting on what reports they need versus which ones are heritage items.
An annual cull of the board pack forces a board to evaluate what’s actually important – and getting the right balance is somewhat of an art form. As part of my boards' induction process, I ask every new non-executive to share their recommendations on how they’d improve the board pack. It’s a great way to engage them right from the start.
And finally, I’ve learnt from experience that unless a report can substantiate good news and pinpoint exactly where its success has come from, it’s probably not good news! It's important to ask ‘how?’, ‘why?’ and ‘is this sustainable?’ when presented with a good news story.
What single government policy change would you like to make to support British enterprise?
I’d beef up tax breaks for start-ups and, more importantly, exempt them from some of the rules and regulations that apply to larger companies. We should do all we can to foster and encourage entrepreneurial spirit and innovation.
What’s your take on Europe: in or out?
Personally I think we should stay in, but I don’t think there’s been enough explanation of the facts to the general public.
We need to clearly lay out the reasons for and against, and we need to engage youngsters because their vote will be critical. The more of my colleagues who I talk to, the more I think it will be a much closer call than first expected.
What is the smartest business decision you’ve made?
Selling the Hugo Boss retail franchise back to Hugo Boss in 2011.
The business had been so focused on piling its cash into developing the Hugo Boss brand that we’d neglected our own Moss Bros brand, which had become old and tired.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make, particularly given the immediate loss of revenue. But it meant we could focus our attention on investing and developing our own brand – and it paid off. We transformed Moss Bros from near bankruptcy into a vibrant and growing business and the brand is the strongest it has been for many, many years.
What book is on your bedside table?
At the moment it’s Awful Auntie by David Walliams. I have 7 year old twins who adore his books. And yes, I am always expected to do the voices!
What is your golden rule?
Vision without execution is hallucination.