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Business interview: Seb James - the selfie-loving boss with plans to nurse Boots back to health

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 24/05/2019 Laura Onita
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It’s a little after eight in the morning. The shops in Westfield’s White City haven’t opened yet but Boots is heaving with twenty-somethings who look like they’ve descended from the pages of Vogue magazine. They’re here for the launch of Fenty, singer Rihanna’s cult beauty brand, which has taken the industry by storm.

Boss Sebastian (Seb) James, who is down for the day from Nottingham, the pharmacy chain’s HQ, looks pleased as punch. Adding Fenty, which was codenamed “Rain” after the singer’s popular “umbrella-ella-ella” tune, to Boots’ stable, is a major coup for James as he tries to bring the wow factor back to a business lacking vitality.

Boots desperately needs it. “The stores are tired and a lot of them haven’t had investment for a long time,” says the 53-year-old Etonian, who made his career at Dixons Retail before he merged it with Carphone Warehouse in a £3.8 billion deal in 2014.

“The degree of consumer change in the last three to four years is like nothing I’ve ever seen in decades of retail. It creates an imperative for us to do something different and it’s existential.

“It’s been difficult to help the organisation to understand that, although we have lived through two world wars, actually this [change] could be the one that could be properly damaging to us.”

The numbers speak for themselves. UK profits at Boots, owned by American pharmacy giant Walgreen Boots Alliance, slumped by £100 million to almost £400 million for the year to last August. Revenues eased to £6.8 billion as the firm was caught in the crossfire of discounting from the likes of Debenhams and House of Fraser. Nimble online players are breathing down its neck.

Boots is sharpening the knife at HQ, with 350 jobs at risk, and store closures could hit some of its 56,000 UK staff. Stefano Pessina, WBA’s chief and the pharmaceuticals world’s biggest wheeler-dealer, warned in April of “decisive steps” in Britain to cut costs as the broader business suffered “its most difficult quarter” to date.

That makes it a tough gig for James, who takes hundreds of selfies with his staff and has tens of thousands of Twitter followers.

He is overhauling Boots’ three main businesses of pharmacies, vitamins and beauty, and pressing the accelerator. Despite its dominance Boots used to add only one or two new beauty brands a year to its store and online shelves. This year, it’s 36.

James wants Boots to be the one-stop shop for “the cheapest possible entry-level brand right up to the most glamorous”, as well as a “more democratic, friendly, and less posh” place than rivals Sephora (“a bit forbidding”) and Selfridges and Harrods (“haughty”).

He wants to close in on online-only rivals where brand choice is exhaustive. Its popular loyalty card is now digital too in a bid to turn around a 200,000 fall in users.

Boots is also taking over Marks & Spencer’s old shop in Covent Garden to turn it into a beauty flagship, paying an expensive £3.3 million a year in rent. “We think it will be OK. We’re planning for it to be profitable,” James says.

But there seems to be little money trickling down from the top to achieve those ambitions. James is evasive about how much capital Pessina is ready to pledge to help him attract the younger clientele Boots urgently needs. “I’ve had a conversation with Stefano about it… He’s rightly saying, ‘show me how it works’.”

James started his career at management consultancy Bain after he graduated from Oxford University, where he was a contemporary of David Cameron — a family friend — and Boris Johnson. Then he went to Mothercare, and he tried his hand at setting up a DVD business, Silverscreen, in 2003, which went bust three years later.

After that he joined Dixons Retail and climbed the ranks to run it. Following the merger with Carphone, bulking up to fight the competition, he led the expanded group until he stepped down in January last year.

James was linked to the coveted top job at ITV in July 2017, alongside victor Carolyn McCall, then boss of easyJet, and Direct Line’s Paul Geddes. One industry source said the speculation linking him elsewhere hit his relationship with chairman Lord (Ian) Livingston who “lost faith in him and wrote him off because of that”. But the pair batted off suggestions of bad blood between them when James’ departure to run Boots was formally announced.

Four months later his successor at Dixons, Alex Baldock, launched a blistering attack on James and his old regime, declaring he’d found “plenty to fix” at the retailer as he warned on profits.

To all of that James says flatly: “First, I’m pretty satisfied with the shareholder returns that I generated during my period with the business. I don’t have any insecurity on that front. Secondly, I think Alex was trying to show an appetite for change and that’s OK.”

Some City analysts said at the time Baldock’s criticism was unfounded and a classic example of kitchen-sinking. Then the company admitted the biggest data breach in UK history, nearly a year after it had started, which went unnoticed on James’s watch.

Baldock’s early accusations of underinvestment in IT, especially for a business whose raison d’être is to sell PCs, tablets and mobile phones, gained more validity. James rebuts the claims: “We spent a fortune on IT. We spent a fortune on information security, a fortune. Any business that doesn’t is crazy. No matter how many alarms you put on a house to prevent a burglar… if they get in and don’t steal anything then that’s OK.”

Around 10 million personal records and six million credit card records were exposed, but no bank details taken.

Did the suggestions he was asleep at the wheel bother him? “[The data breach] was annoying that it happened, but these things do happen. You have to take it seriously, but it wasn’t like we lost credit card details. I was there for 10 years. We did the impossible. We took something that was doomed and we made it really good.”

Bringing fresh polish to Boots in a climate of cuts would be just as impressive — if he can pull it off.

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