From tech to top dog - the rise of the digital CEO and what it means for retail

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The recent appointment of Hash Ladha, former multichannel boss of Oasis and Warehouse, as CEO of the fashion retailers is an example of a long-held vision about the future of the boardroom coming to fruition.

Since the advent of the digital era, some analysts have said traditional retailers will only be classed truly multichannel or omnichannel, or whatever the current term for ‘seamlessly connected across several sales channels’ happens to be, when someone from a digital background is at the helm.

With Ladha, a longstanding member of the senior team at the Aurora Group brands, he knows how operations run, and over the next few months in his CEO designate role he has a chance to shape a digital direction for the companies he oversees. As Liz Evans hands over the reins, before moving to Fat Face in the new year, he has a chance to focus on some of the projects he will have been close to in his senior tech position.

He’s not the first of his breed to be in this position, of course. Without embarking on an extensive research project to identify all techie people who have evolved into overall leaders of a retail business, there are some that come straight to mind.

Jeremy Fennell, the former Dixons Retail multichannel director, is now managing director of the Carphone Warehouse part of the wider Dixons Carphone group. Ex-House of Fraser multichannel director-turned chief customer officer Andy Harding, who was responsible for a raft of digital initiatives at the department store chain earlier this decade, is now leading the charge at stock photo business, Alamy.

Back in retail, Serge Bucher has made the not insignificant cultural shift from senior Amazon team member to CEO of Debenhams. You can already see the impact of his creative thinking in the new store designs, click & collect services, and changes to the Debenhams website since his arrival.

Retail consequences

Putting digital concepts to the fore will clearly be a lot easier in this environment of digitally-thinking retail CEOs and managing directors.

Historically, retail boardrooms are suspicious of technology and data – that has certainly been the case in the recent past, although the massive disruption the industry has experienced this decade has started to change these attitudes.

I have known executives who wouldn’t allow data to be presented on a screen; it had to be printed out. All of this is a cultural inhibitor at a time when there is so much opportunity presented by new and emerging technologies and techniques such as artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, visual search, and voice-enabled solutions.

As the forward-thinking businesses, which more often than not tend to be the digital native ones like Asos, Net-a-Porter or Farfetch, win customers partly thanks to innovative software deployments and technology investments, there is a danger traditional businesses will be left behind. As the industry agenda switches to AI and data science, there’s an argument that digital and IT teams should be holding sway and having a much greater influence in the boardroom.

The digital world is much more used to the test and learn philosophy required in this new era of retail, where new strategies will need to be forged and directions changed at a drop of a hat to keep up with fast-evolving customer demands.

In this situation, waterfall projects don’t make sense; there is a need for a rapid methodology. And who better to lead this cultural shift from the boardroom than the likes of Ladha, who have technology in their blood and have taken the path less travelled from the world of technology to retail top dog?

Simply through better implementation of technology in retail, in particular devices that connect them to information about wider business goals, analytics and head office matters, staff can be empowered to make decisions based on central company policy and know that their work counts. CEOs embedded in a tech culture will understand the benefits this can bring