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‘Back to the office’ plans and ecommerce are digital balancing acts: Kenny Wilson, Dr Martens CEO

Interview

Kenny Wilson
CEO of Dr Martens

Businesses must embrace the positive changes forced upon them by the pandemic and factor them into important transformations that were already under way, according to Kenny Wilson, CEO of Dr Martens.

For his organisation, that means harnessing the increased consumer appetite for online sales and digital interaction and giving customers an experience, both online and offline, that meets expectations shaped and accelerated over the past year. And the same will be true when it comes to welcoming colleagues back into the office after a year or more of working remotely.

At the heart of Kenny’s strategy for both will be understanding and accentuating the important role performed by bricks and mortar premises – the brand’s stores and offices – alongside highly effective digital channels.

“Even before the pandemic, we were committed to reaching consumers by digital first,” says Kenny, speaking to PwC for our 24th Annual CEO Survey. “That was a conscious strategy that started playing out in 2018, and I’m glad it did because when we hit the pandemic we were able to be flexible and adjust the company.”

“We were already shifting resources towards digital,” says Kenny based on a customer insight that consumers buy their first pair of Dr Martens in their teens. “Those consumers are all digital first.”

Omnichannel retail

The pandemic did not create the need for retailers and consumer goods businesses to be trading and engaging customers online, but it certainly accelerated things.

“You could see the market was heading that way, but the pandemic sped everything up. It meant we only had one shop and that was the website,” says Kenny.

But post-pandemic he sees a clear role for the brand’s popular stores as part of an integrated “omnichannel” approach, where stores are complementary to Dr Martens’ digital experiences and vice versa. This is borne out by the company’s data.

“I know that if we open a new store, digital sales in that area will increase,” says Kenny. The choice allows customers to get the experience that works for them, whether that’s trying on in store and buying online, or browsing online and buying in store. “Trying things on will still be important, for our customers and for us, especially if we want to manage the cost of returns.”

Back to the office

Finding the right balance in this evolving relationship between physical and digital will also be critical as Kenny and his team address another topic which has become front of mind for many business leaders – the return to the office.

“Do I think we’ll all go back to five days per week in our Camden office? No. Do I think people will want to come back to the office? Absolutely, they will.”

Again, Kenny doesn’t see this being a case of either or, but rather organisations needing to hit upon the right mix that works for them and their people, once the government has advised it is safe to welcome people back to the office.

“Most of my workforce haven’t been in since March last year,” says Kenny. “Do I think we’ll all go back to five days per week in our Camden office? No. Do I think people will want to come back to the office? Absolutely, they will.”

Kenny believes the length of lockdown and the impact it has had, starving people of human interaction and limiting their ability to collaborate, has made many people appreciate the vital role the office can play, both in terms of productivity but also supporting wellbeing and belonging.

“We had people last September saying ‘I can’t see myself coming back to work in an office’ but they are now telling us ‘I really want to get back to the office, I want to see my colleagues” says Kenny.

A shared culture

The growth of the Dr Martens’ business, whose January IPO proved as popular with investors as its boots are with consumers, has meant many colleagues have joined Kenny’s team in lockdown and as such have missed the opportunity to become fully immersed in what it means to work for such an iconic brand.

“We’ve tried our best to simulate that culture as much as possible online but I am still a believer that when I can bump into you next to the coffee machine a conversation can happen that will move the business forward in a way that doesn’t really happen if we’re on a Zoom call,” says Kenny.

“All those people who wished for more time working from home have realised after a while it gets a bit boring when you’re at home the whole time, not seeing other people. Lockdown and home-schooling may have pushed that realisation along, but the office is a centre of culture, creativity and belonging and people really want to come back.”

“The office is going to be really important post-pandemic as part of a mixed model of work,” said Kenny. “We’ve learned we can be more flexible around that mix, but we’ve also learned that we really lose something when we don’t have people coming together and collaborating.”

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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