Less than a year ago, Phil Smith was in one of those highly paid
European strategy jobs at Kraft Jacob Suchard.
Promoted twice in a short space of time and living the good life in
Zurich, Smith was clearly one of the company’s golden boys.
Although he is far too tactful to admit it, he was also quite clearly
bored of the one-dimensional world of cheese marketing. But there has to
be some other reason why he gave up the gluhwein and skiing to go and
work in mid-Wales. To take up the post of marketing director at ailing
Kwik Save - a job many would regard as a poisoned plastic cup if ever
there was one.
But then again, Smith is a man who likes to challenge the status quo,
which is why he accepted the job of relaunching Kwik Save, a retail
discount chain that has gone from being the darling of the City in the
80s to the sick man of today’s high street.
And true to his reputation for not accepting the equilibrium, he last
week called a review of his pounds 7.5m ad account, which has been in
the hands of incumbent McCann-Erickson for three decades.
’He’s an action man,’ says one person who has worked closely with Smith
in the past. ’He’s a hired gun; he’s not a company man. You can die in
these huge internal corporate structures and quite obviously Phil didn’t
Smith is prepared to admit to himself that the future of brands lies in
the hands of the retailers.
’For a long time, the action has been on the retail side and the water
has been rising for medium-sized packaged goods. But I wouldn’t have
taken the job for an easy ride,’ he says.
And the ride couldn’t get much rougher than at Kwik Save. Its share
price has plummeted from a high of 839p in early 1993 to a low of 291p
in May when it reported that not only had sales fallen by 6% but that it
was having to pay out pounds 20m - a third of its profits - to Andersen
Consulting for its work in advising the struggling food discounter.
Aside from the few rays of sunshine, such as the well-received launch of
an own-label range and a store renewal programme, Kwik Save as a stock
has the status of a pariah. Nine out of 14 top stockbrokers recommend it
to be sold.
The words ’professional suicide’ come to mind. Why did he do it?
’It’s a cause that deep down I really believe in,’ cries Smith. ’It was
a brilliant business and I believe that it will be once again.’
Smith’s enthusiasm for the business is almost embarrassing. Even in the
darkest days of last November’s results, Smith was still talking about
the business in terms of ’amazing potential’ and ’fantastic
But above all, he is ambitious. If he can turn round Kwik Save, he will
be crowned in glory. If he fails, then he can always throw his arms up
in the air and exclaim there was little he could do.
’Phil’s an ambitiously vain man,’ says one admiring agency head. ’I
suspect that if he had a picture in his wallet it would be of Archie
Norman (chairman and saviour of Asda). If he succeeds he’ll become a
So has he got what it takes? There is little doubt that Kwik Save thinks
so. Since his appointment in October, he has been promoted to the board
and last week he was given the additional role of buying director. The
full scale of his pay packet will not be disclosed until November’s
His sharp ascent at Kwik Save is nothing new. He was shooting up the
ranks at KJS and was set to go further before be decided to jump over
the fence. With his passion for outdoor sports, he looks at least five
years younger than his 42 years. Fresh-faced, courteous and
well-dressed, he is the very antithesis of Kwik Save man.
According to insiders, he is a listener who endeavours to bring out the
best in his team - many of whom are recruited from outside - preferring
to lead by example. ’Exercising the carrot before the whip,’ as he puts
Regarded as having a keen brain, Smith is assiduous in his approach to
marketing almost to the point of being a control freak - applying logic
to plot the next step.
As befits a classics graduate of Oxford, he likes to draw on his
knowledge of ancient history to help him chart a course.
Quite what Pliny has got in common with Persil remains a mystery but if
anyone can find a connection Smith can.
’You’re always presented with incomplete factual history, which is
usually biased as it is supplied by the provider. Just like in ancient
history where you are presented with the facts according to the
His aim is to ensure that Kwik Save avoids becoming a footnote in the
history of British retailing.
Let battle commence.
1979-1981: Brand manager, RHM Sharwood
1983-1986: Alberto Calver hair products
1986-1996: Various posts, ultimately vice-president strategy, Kraft
1996-present: Marketing director, Kwik Save.