A CEO's Bumpy Road to Success: Turning Around a Retail Chain

Turnaround: The Bus Tour That Changed a CEO's Fortune

turnaround use case Mar 10, 2023

A CEO's Bumpy Road to Success

When a new CEO takes over a national retail chain, he knows he has to face the challenges of maintaining the trust of the family and employees, transitioning to omnichannel marketing, and competing with online shopping. With the company’s future at stake, he assembles a task force of managers and change agents to turn the chain around. How to kick off the task force in a way that would yield significant results? Follow the CEO and his task force's journey to gain a new perspective on their company, broaden their minds, and ultimately steer the company towards success.

The Case

When my client became the CEO of a national retail chain, he was the first outsider to manage the family firm. However, he knew the company intimately and felt he had built enough trust with the family to get the chain out of its downward spiral.

He entered the company when omnichannel marketing was hot and happening, and consumers had their first experience with the convenience of online shopping. Consumers soon found it easy to compare prices on the Internet and find the local shop with the cheapest product.

So the CEO faced three challenges:

1. How to maintain the trust between the family and him;

2. How to turn the company towards omnichannel marketing;

3. How to compete with online shopping and its price pressure.

Or so he thought.

Here's what he did. Firstly, he moved the staff to a modern, open-space office to raise transparency and accountability. He initiated an open-door policy to keep the family and co-workers as close as possible.

Then, he recruited the best omnichannel specialists and let them redesign the marketing department. Soon, this department became the largest in the company.

At the same time, he started a task force to explore possible answers to the competition of the online channel and its price pressure. He asked all the top managers and critical change agents from the company's lower levels to join the task force.

He thought long and hard about the best way to kick off the task force. His job and the company's fate depended on the task force finding the correct answers, so this decision was high stakes.

What would you have done: how would you have ensured the task force would hit the ground running?

  • Would you have invited an expert to discuss the changing retail landscape?
  • Or would you have started with shocking P&L projections and other data?

In this case, the CEO saw no future in these options. Considering the seniority of his task force, he doubted that an expert could bring much change. Moreover, the P&L and key revenue indicators held no secrets. It had been looking bad for a while already. Another thunder speech would not help.

The matter of the proper kick-off caused several short nights of looking at the bedroom ceiling, mulling over options repeatedly.

One morning, he called me about this dilemma at breakfast. He had to fill me in first to keep me from suggesting the usual expert/shocking data/thunder speech approach. When he explained why that wouldn't work, he heard himself saying:

”They think they know everything but can't even tell me where the stores fall short regarding consumer expectations."

Cue the drumrolls and the swelling music...

By explaining the primary barrier to turning the company around, he voiced a fourth challenge underpinning the three listed at the beginning of this case.

And he found the answer to the matter of how to kick off the task force at the same time.

Here's what he did:

When everybody was present in the meeting room, he asked them to get their coats and smartphones. Then, he guided them into the tour bus he'd rented the day before. And they drove from shopping mall to shopping mall. They walked the streets and visited their shops and those of the competitors and substitutes. Had them take pictures of everything that caught their eye as possible threats and opportunities. Had them talk to shopkeepers and consumers. Videotaped some man-in-the-street interviews of managers asking questions.



During the bus ride back, he stood up and addressed his task force. When the bus bumped along the rocky road, he used that metaphor.

”We're on a bumpy road to an unknown future. We can go on and on about how we got there and get nowhere. Or we can load our bus with all kinds of perspectives. Every perspective is part of a map. And when we have cobbled together every perspective in a working map, we will find the best route forwards together".

It was silent on the bus after that. Heads were buzzing.

But most importantly, every time the task force came together, they did so on the bus to yet another set of perspectives.

Some managers thought this was a waste of time and thought he was a CEO who was more in love with omnichannel than with stores and became even more closed to new ideas. These eventually left the company on their own accord. The others made the turn with a flourish and learned how to feed the marketing department with the proper positioning and content.

And this is how the management team got ready to make major executive decisions about the future of their company.

There are many more ways to get managers to broaden their minds, but most of them depend on the situation. If you're wondering what you can do, please call me (just not during breakfast, please šŸ˜‰). Or select a date and time on my calendar link that suits you, and I will call you instead. Who knows, you might surprise yourself with a flash of insight too!

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