Profile: Reviving a golden oldie - Stephen Robertson, Marketing andstore format director, Woolworths

Few would own up to a love of 70s rock music. But Woolworths marketing director Stephen Robertson is not only happy to do so, he even admits to hosting a radio show on retro digital station Planet Rock. 'A friend of mine at the station asked me to do it,' he says. 'Before I got into marketing I used to do a hospital radio show.'

While he may be fond of the period, Robertson cannot afford to be nostalgic during office hours. Some argue that Woolworths' dated image is part of the reason the retailer no longer enjoys iconic status on the high street. Today, it is just one player in a fragmented market that has been land-grabbed by supermarkets and websites.

Robertson is unfazed by the challenge Woolworths faces. The battle for the back-to-school market is a must-win for the retailer and it has attempted to outflank the supermarkets by offering Ladybird school uniforms for £5. Robertson sees Woolworths as a specialist for children's products and it is something the store will continue to develop, with its Chad Valley children's toy range.

'Life is becoming more demanding and we need to make sure we respond to that,' he says. 'We are fortunate to have a great heritage of being a friendly and accommodating brand.'

At 51, Robertson has had experience at blue-chip FMCG and retail brands, but cites his early sales jobs as the most relevant experience for his current role. Despite picking up as many parking tickets as sales on his travels he describes it as perfect training.

'I remember one B&Q board meeting when a member said "the problem with you is you are a complete barrow boy". It is a bit strong for a board meeting but I thought "I guess those years of being a salesman rubbed off".'

The switch to retail was something of a culture shock, both in terms of speed of the market and the types of decision that needed to be made.

'Retail moves so much faster than FMCG and my experience with Unilever had been cerebral, whereas retailing is more visceral,' says Robertson. 'In some ways it is a purer form of marketing because you are nose to nose with the customer. At a retailer such as Woolworths, if we want to make a change to products or pricing, we are in control, but because of that we sometimes make more changes than are good for us. The great thing is you have the till - the best form of market research.'

Making the leap from FMCG to retail marketing can be treacherous, according to Alan McWalter, former Marks & Spencer marketing director and a friend of Robertson. 'There are many marketers who aspire to work in retail. But when they get there, they often find there is a lot more ambiguity in the role because the buying teams are king.

'There is a lot of tension and it is an ambiguous, brutal and fast-moving environment,' he adds. 'To survive and excel, a retail marketer has to be very adaptable. Stephen is very driven and aware of what is going on, and combines cerebral ability with trading ability.'

Those abilities will be put under the microscope again by new boss Tony Page. The former Asda non-food trading director is joining Woolworths as number two to chief executive Trevor Bish-Jones next month, in the wake of a 7.7% decline in the store's like-for-like sales for the 25 weeks to July 22.

But Robertson prefers to focus on the three groups of people he needs to keep happy: customers, employees and shareholders. 'They are central to any marketer worth his salt,' he says.

The big question hanging over Robertson is whether consumers can ever be convinced that Woolworths is not as old hat as his record collection.

Robertson himself measures his success by the 'drive-by' test - whether customers would drive past a competitor's store to get to his. His current seasonal priority means he has to encourage parents to make an extra trip to Woolworths for the clothes and stationery needed for the new term, even if they see these products on their weekly supermarket shop.

It is a good job Robertson will be able to rely on his music to relax him.

1976-1979: Consumer division marketing assistant, Dunlop
1979-1981: Group product manager, Ashe Consumer Products (Sara Lee)
1981-1985: Senior brands manager, Brooke Bond OXO Foods, Unilever
1985-1986: Market development manager, Alberto Culver
1986-1992: European marketing manager, Four Square Division, Mars
1992-1993: Marketing director, Mattel
1993-2000: Marketing director, B&Q
2000-2002: Group managing director, Kingfisher DIY Direct
2002-2003: Director, group communications, Kingfisher
2004: Interim marketing director, retail, WH Smith
2004-present: Marketing and store format director, Woolworths


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