Helen Weir: Bigger fish to fry

Thanks to a determined acquisition strategy, Kingfisher plc has become a leading player in the retail sector. Finance director Helen Weir spoke to Anna Walsh about the company that can't sit still

Kingfisher is the unseen force behind the retail giants visible on almost every high street in the UK. The group has over 2,900 stores in more than 16 countries and employs 130,000 people worldwide. The UK is home to the majority of stores with 2,164 based there, but the operation spans the world, with outlets in France, Germany, China, Brazil, Canada and Turkey, among others.

The company's operations can be divided into three main sectors - home improvement, electrical and general merchandise - all of which boast some of Europe's best-known brand names, including B&Q, Comet and (until recently) Woolworths. Kingfisher is Europe's leading home improvement retailer at twice the size of its nearest rival, and Europe's third largest electrical retailer. Sales for the group at yearend February 2001 exceeded £12.1bn, with profits of over £720m.

And all this in the space of less than 20 years - Kingfisher is the parent company and the brands under its umbrella have come together as a result of considered acquisitions since 1982. Thus you would expect Kingfisher, with its finger in so many pies, to have an impressive figure heading up the finance function. And Helen Weir, one of the youngest - and few female - FDs in the FTSE 100, has proved she is just that.

Learning curve

Weir grew up in Surrey and attended the local girls' grammar school before going on to study mathematics at Oxford. On leaving university, Weir joined Lever Brothers ( Unilever), going straight into the commercial function, which covered a variety of areas including finance, systems distribution and business planning. She embarked on the graduate training scheme, part of which meant completing her accountancy qualification with CIMA. Weir believes that accountancy 'is very good, basic business training that really enables you to understand the key drivers of a business. The CIMA qualification, because it didn't just focus on finance, also gave me an overview of other aspects of business, including the strategic issues - it was very good training.'

Following her stint with Lever Brothers, Weir decided her studying days were not over and travelled to America to embark on a PhD at Stanford University. Three years into the five-year course she reached the conclusion that 'a PhD was not for me', finding it too 'solitary and theoretical'. But she didn't just pack her bags and jump on the next plane. Instead she switched over to the MBA program, preferring a qualification that was 'very practical and commercial'.

Weir's next step was through the doors of McKinsey, where she remained for five years. The first client she worked with there was Ratners, 'and that was where I got the retailing bug. Most of the clients I worked with when I was at McKinseys were retail clients, and I found I really enjoyed it.'

Fast mover

But by 1995 Weir realised it was decision time again. She 'had got to a point where the next stage was to go for partner with the company. I sat down and evaluated what I wanted to do and decided that I didn't see the rest of my life being a consultant - I wanted to do something, to get my hands dirty, to be part of a team that was building something.' On examining the opportunities within the retail sector, Weir 'identified Kingfisher as one business I wanted to work for'. Thus she came to work for B&Q as finance director.

It did not take long for Weir to progress through the ranks and, as of October last year, she became the finance director for the group as a whole, which is no small achievement. So what does such a huge role entail? Weir explains: 'My focus is on the group as a whole, ensuring that the performances of our businesses are on track, that we have the financing to fund the initiatives in place in our individual businesses, that our capital investment is well spent and that we will deliver the returns our shareholders expect. I also have responsibility for strategy - this is a key role that involves challenging the businesses on their current plans, looking forward at what “might be”, and then working with them to develop a vision of the business for the future.'

Weir believes the traditional role of the FD is a thing of the past and most organisations have woken up to this fact. 'People are now appreciating that segmenting finance and strategy doesn't work - but understand that these two disciplines come together because your strategy has to deliver financial results. You might be able to deliver short-term financial results but if you don't have a long-term strategy, which is about what you are doing for your customers, then it's not going to last,' she explains.

'I don't have a lot of time for a view of the finance director as a sort of bean-counter looking back historically and coming up with monthly P&Ls. That is necessary, you have to do that as part of the job but actually it is history at that point. You have to be forward-looking, you have to understand not just what has happened in business yesterday but actually, more importantly, focusing on what that means for tomorrow.'

And this forward-looking approach, Weir claims, is inherent in the success of Kingfisher as a whole. 'I think Kingfisher is well placed to deliver superior growth in the future - it was one of the first retail companies to recognise the potential of internationalisation and embarked on that path well before most of our peers. So we made our first international acquisition in 1983, and since then our international presence has grown very significantly.'

Most of the businesses under the Kingfisher umbrella have been acquired. 'When we are looking to grow in developing countries, we will grow organically. So for instance in our operations in the Far East - in Taiwan, in China - we tend to start from a greenfield and build our own stores. If we go into a country in which the retail sector is more developed, then we will tend to make an acquisition. But we look to be either number one or a strong number two in the markets in which we operate. If you make an acquisition, it is very important to understand how you are going to be able to achieve synergy benefits, otherwise you just become a large conglomerate with lots of individual businesses.'

Divide and conquer

It is not simply a case, therefore, of buying as many related businesses as possible. One of Kingfisher's main aims is to be a business that operates, in every aspect, on an international level. It is this approach that has now led to Kingfisher's decision to sell Superdrug and demerge Woolworths. The deals were completed in August. The home improvement and electrical businesses had already proved themselves to be successful on a global basis, but the general merchandise sector simply had not got the same growth potential worldwide.

Weir says that 'if you look at the Kingfisher portfolio of businesses, we basically had three sectors - DIY, electrical and furniture, and general merchandise. The DIY and electrical sectors are very international in their focus, and we see a pan-European or even global strategy that is similar in both those sectors. There is also convergence between those two business sectors. The general merchandise sector, however, is different - it is a UK-focused business. Whilst there are growth opportunities there, the characteristics of these businesses are quite different from the characteristics of the electrical and DIY businesses, which is one of the reasons we decided to demerge. A key benefit of the demerger is that it will allow greater focus on the particular operating and strategic dimensions of each type of business.'

The demerger has been on the agenda for a while and was announced to the shareholders last September. Weir says the shareholders understood the rationale for the demerger and 'approved of the focus that it brought to the individual businesses'. Now the demerger is complete, over half Kingfisher's sales are made overseas. 'We are a truly international business,' claims Weir.

Strong belief

Judging by past successes, there is no reason to doubt that this is the right move for the company. But, according to Weir, it does not come down to being excellent crystal ball gazers. Rather she believes that a major contributing factor to Kingfisher's ongoing success is the attitude of its staff. 'One thing that I think is distinctive about Kingfisher - and that goes for the group as a whole - is that the people are passionate about what they are doing and have a very strong belief in what we are trying to achieve.'

She believes this is reflected in the decision to sponsor yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur at a time when her name was not widely recognised. MacArthur had written to about 7,000 UK businesses but received merely two responses - one of those was from Kingfisher. MacArthur met with Sir Geoffrey Mulcahy, group chief executive, who was so impressed with her determination that, despite the risk, he agreed to sponsor her - it turned out to be a very canny move.

Even before finishing her recordbreaking, round-the-world boat race, MacArthur had become very well known as a result of her determination and single-mindedness. 'The thing that struck me when hearing her talking is that she talks about her feelings. I think that is what captures peoples' imaginations - she is very open and she is a terrific ambassador for Kingfisher. She is also very motivational for our people and she is involved directly with a number of our businesses,' comments Weir.

'The example that she has set - a young person who has had a vision about doing something and then gone out and achieved that vision - is something that we would like to think epitomises some of the values that Kingfisher has. She also serves as a role model that our colleagues, across our businesses, can identify with, which is very important.' So pleased is Kingfisher with Mac-Arthur, that the contract has been renewed for another year.

Be the first to vote

Rate this article

Related Articles