In this interview with the head of the Australian Retailers Association Paul Zahra, McNally explains how she started her career in retail and some of the key lessons she has learnt along the way.
Paul Zahra: Let’s talk about your career. You joined the business in 2017. Where did it all begin?
Jane McNally: I actually went to nine different schools. People used to ask if I was continually being expelled, or if my dad was in the army or a spy or something exciting like that. But in truth, he was a retail pharmacist working for Boots, and it was at a time when the company thought it was important to move their management every three years so they could bring fresh thinking into the stores and the regions.
Those constant moves were a bit painful because no one wants to leave all their school friends behind, but what it did do was have the positive effect of making our immediate family group very close and supportive of one another. My sister is still my best friend today, and it also made me very adaptable and resilient to change. As a side note, it also gave me a good introduction to the world of retail. I actually remember doing my homework in the staff canteen above the Boots store in Guilford in the UK, and having all these people walk past talking about space optimisation and sales per square foot, and that was all much more fascinating than my biology homework.
I also think that that traveling childhood helped in my own career because I was never afraid to relocate for the right opportunity. That probably explains why I loved it in Sydney eight years ago, having never been to Australia before, except for the interview, and knowing absolutely no one here except my gorgeous, long-suffering and wonderful husband and sons, whom I dragged along with me.
PZ: Were you naturally an ambitious person? Did you always have ambitions to get to the top of your field?
JM: I definitely didn’t have a grand career master plan. After a history and politics degree, and the sponsored post-grad in retail, I spent my early career in buying, which is an amazing job because you actually get to bet with somebody else’s money. On the back of that post-grad, I had a fortunate early break. Aged around 22, I was given my own office, my own secretary, a company car and responsibility for 12 regional managers. I had a really wide buying remit encompassing everything from accessories to cosmetics to fashion jewellery. I’m not sure if that would happen today – probably almost certainly not – but I think if someone’s prepared to trust you, then swimming in the deep end is almost always the best way to learn. It was a steep curve, but a really amazing opportunity.
I never started out thinking I really wanted to be a CEO, but I love a challenge, and it has always [led] to an even bigger challenge, and I personally enjoy seeing how all the bits of the business jigsaw fit together, so I think that’s probably how it happened. I’m not ruthless, but my team will tell me that I’m a bit competitive, and I apply that competitiveness on behalf of my teams and my businesses – although I encourage collaborative teamwork internally. I suppose I like to set the bar high, and as a result of that, many of my team members have stretched their own targets, and a lot of them have gone on to be really successful in their own fields.
PZ: Have you always been in fashion in your retail career?
JM: I’ve always been in fashion, but in different types of businesses. I really enjoy the ones that are in high growth mode or in need of transformation. What I enjoy doing is identifying what’s unique about a business almost irrespective of the category, and working out how we can own that USP and make it best-in-class for the consumer.
I spent some years in department store mid-market fashion, and I was really incredibly fortunate to be one of the early movers in the UK’s value fashion sector. I actually headed up women’s clothing for Primark during the period where we grew revenue from £300 million to £1 billion, and we switched our image from ‘cheap’ to what became known as ‘Primani’. I really enjoyed that – putting the fashion credentials into a value retailer.
Probably my biggest career challenge was my first CEO role. I could have done a bit more due diligence beforehand, but it was a quick MBA in [being a] CEO because I took up my first CEO role in the middle of 2008 at the start of the GFC. It was a struggling, multi-brand, cash-hungry, listed business, and as a result of a pre-pack lease bounceback just two weeks before I started, I realised that I actually had a £28 million underlying loss. All the executive board had left at the same time, and I had no committed banking facilities, so that was a bit of a roller coaster.
Up to that point, I thought if you get the right proposition, you get the right team, you get the right product and you get the right marketing, you can rule the world and solve everything. That was the humbling point at which I thought, actually, cash is king. By month three I didn’t know if I could afford the payroll for over 2000 staff, and we definitely couldn’t spend on things like a hole in the warehouse roof, but I think what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I taught myself cash flows; I taught myself everything there is to know about retail leasing, and some of those British leases are 35 years long. I recruited a relatively inexperienced but highly talented – and mainly female – executive board, and together our wins included turning that business back into a small profit. We built a significant online business from a £5500 second-hand website, and we ended up being nominated by Barclays Bank for Business Turnaround of the Year.
PZ: I think most people would talk about their first CEO role as not being an easy one. It’s not like one step up, it’s more like 12. We spend our careers moving from one management position to the other, [where] you just have to learn something new. But as a CEO, you have to become the jack of all trades, don’t you?
JM: Exactly, a jack of all trades, master of none. What comes with it that you don’t think about beforehand is just that sense of responsibility for others. Prior to that, there was always somebody that you could blame – not that I did – but suddenly it’s all on your shoulders.
PZ: Particularly with cash flow and knowing you may not be able to pay staff their wages, that would come with high stress.
JM: It really did [but] it ended up in a good place and that’s the main thing.