Inside This Issue - News
Gourlay named top global retailer
January 13th, 2014
DEERFIELD, Ill. – MMR’s Global Retailer of the Year for 2013 is Alex Gourlay.
Not for the tasks he has yet to accomplish at Walgreen Co., the retailer he joined last October, but for his impressive performance as head of the Boots drug chain, Walgreens’ strategic partner, in the six-year period preceding his arrival at Walgreens and, more specifically, in 2013, a banner year in the long history of the United Kingdom’s oldest and largest drug chain.
Gourlay has run Alliance Boots’ retail operations — a multi-country drug chain with stores in the U.K., the Republic of Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Thailand, and headquarters in Nottingham, England — since 2006. The vast majority of these drug stores — about 2,500 — are located throughout the U.K. And it is in this geographical arena that Gourlay has exerted an indelible impact on mass market retailing — and, in so doing, has established himself as among the world’s most valued and most valuable retailing executives.
In the six years that Gourlay headed Boots, the retailer’s profitability nearly doubled.
But performance is perhaps the least noteworthy of Gourlay’s achievements. More memorable have been his accomplishments as a leader. Among them:
Gourlay put in place and developed a senior management team that would compare favorably with any that today’s mass retailing community has to offer. The top five senior managers have been with Gourlay for his entire Boots tenure. The next 20 have worked for the retailer for at least three years. "What pleases me most is that every one of these people is more capable than me," he says characteristically, adding that he’s pleased as well with the results his top managers have achieved. "These are individually strong people who have worked well together because they respect and trust each other," Gourlay says. "I didn’t want to get in the way of that."
Today, as a result of the initiatives Gourlay and his staff have taken, Boots is the U.K.’s leading pharmacy and health-and-beauty care retailer. "That was our starting point," he says. "We began by recognizing the fact that Boots is a pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer, then asking this question: What do customers want from a such a company?"
From that starting point, Boots strengthened its relations with suppliers, customers and employees and began opening extended-hour stores while adding Wi-Fi to all stores. The latter initiative encouraged customers to use their electronic devices while they were shopping.
As well as introducing these initiatives, Gourlay began reemphasizing many of the programs around which mass retailing turns. "We hadn’t invested in new stores, new space, in some considerable time," he recounts. "So we embarked on an aggressive store improvement program, one that has seen us refresh almost every store and pharmacy in the past six years."
Responding to a flat market, he brought to the company a stronger marketing component. Then, too, he invested in more store people, a decision that helped Boots gain a decided edge in customer care. Consumers responded to the more personal shopping experience by visiting Boots more frequently — and buying more on each visit.
Along the way, Boots’ president adjusted his global strategy by expanding international sourcing opportunities. Additionally, he sharpened Boots’ brand strategy by emphasizing the leading brands in each product category and marketing the retailer’s extensive own-brand assortment more aggressively.
He also sharpened Boots’ approach to communicating with its customers. To that end, he changed the emphasis in shopper messages, replacing "feel good" with "let’s feel good." To support that statement, the retailer’s marketing campaign encouraged customers to take active steps to ensure good health. Boots helped customers along by adding several in-store examinations and broadening the benefits of the retailer’s loyalty program by linking rewards more closely with personal incentives to improve or maintain good health. The object of these initiatives? "To make customers more loyal to Boots," Gourlay notes.
And finally, in his last year at Boots, Gourlay and his team reformulated the retailer’s strategic plan by responding to changing conditions in the U.K. retail marketplace. To that end, Boots is quickly becoming a "digital champion."
Throughout this process, Gourlay never lost sight of the bottom line. "In retailing, as in any business, you’ve got to make a profit," he says. "So our belief in that reality grounded every step we took. We had to move forward in a responsible way."
Behind these initiatives was Gourlay’s willingness to trust his team. "I learned to listen more," he says, "primarily because I had so much confidence in the people around me."
This ability to listen also helped adapt Boots’ culture to the world today, one that revolves around the customer and the company rather than the individual. "In other words, people were there for the good of the customers and the company, not vice versa. Finally, recognizing that the Boots brand was among our most-valuable commodities, we used that brand to build trust."
Those activities came together as never before in 2013, as Boots’ performance placed it at the head of the chain drug industry in the U.K., while positioning the company at the forefront in the U.K.’s mass retailing community. So it was that, when Alex Gourlay agreed last summer to leave Boots to join Walgreens, as president of customer experience and daily living, he left behind a retailer that was envied on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, he left a happy man. Or not.
"I’m never completely satisfied," he says. "I never get too excited about what we’ve accomplished. And I’m never really frustrated by what we haven’t yet accomplished. Rather, I’m very close to the business, work very hard, and believe that hard work will ultimately produce positive results."
As he settles into his new duties Gourlay does so with a set of values that served him so well at Boots. He also understands that the U.K. and U.S. markets are different from each other. "I believe the U.K. market evolves more quickly, simply because it is smaller, with fewer competitors, and more flexibility," he says.
"I’ve also found that each has lessons for the other. As an example, I admire Boots’ front-end model, and believe it can contain lessons for Walgreens. However, the converse is also true: Boots can learn lots about pharmacy from Walgreens."
At the bottom of all this is Gourlay’s belief, gained over a career in retailing, that, perhaps comparing himself to Alliance Boots dynamic executive chairman Stefano Pessina, he never moves quickly enough, sometimes vacillating when more-immediate action is called for. Will that emphasis on thought over action change at Walgreens?
Only time will tell.