Swinging out of the world of professional golf and into the role of Managing Director of a major retail company on the other side of the world may seem like an unlikely career move, but Paul Gibbons didn’t find it unusual. Paul spent years as a pro golfer in the UK, then sidestepped into golf retail in Germany before travelling to Malaysia to manage golf resorts.
What was to be a 12-month stint in Malaysia has turned into 27 years, and Paul has moved from golf resorts to sports retail as Managing Director of UK sports retail giant SportsDirect’s Malaysian operations.
A professional sportsman’s naturally competitive spirit works well in the equally competitive retail world, and Paul has found it a comfortable fit, enjoying working and socialising with sports-minded people.
“I enjoy being around like-minded people who like to get out and not just sit in front of the TV,” he says. “I came from a golfing background, my father was a professional soccer player in his time, and I think the camaraderie that exists in sport got me engaged. People are energised and engaged around sport, and it’s an integral part of so many people’s lives. I love to be a part of that.”
Malaysia was largely a spectator nation with legacy sports from its history as a British colony, but that is changing rapidly with the ubiquity of television and online sport. Football (soccer) rates as number one, badminton is second, but cricket and rugby are still played.
“In recent times a lot more people understand that they need to get off the couch for their own benefit. We see tremendous growth in the amount of people doing group walks, hiking, trekking and cycling, and that’s great for the country,” says Paul.
That’s a catalyst for a boom in sports retail. MST Golf took the Malaysia SportsDirect licence about 12 years ago and brought value and variety to the local environment.
“Sports retail was just plodding along, and we felt that larger format stores with the widest choice and the best prices was good policy,” recalls Paul.
“SportsDirect as a group owned 28 brands, so we were able to bring some of those directly to market, create amazing retail price points and then blend our own brands with major international brands to create the widest choice in the market. That in itself has fuelled what we’ve had now for the past few years – 22% annual compound growth. Choice and value are the two keywords that have helped us transform our business.”
SportsDirect Malaysia now boasts 33 retail stores, with close to 900 employees. In the UK, online business is a big part of the Group’s business – it provides roughly a quarter of its overall annual income – but in Malaysia it is no more than about 4% of sales. Paul thinks the Asian online presence will grow to about 10% in the next couple of years.
So, bricks-and-mortar retail is still king in Malaysia, according to Paul, and will be for the foreseeable future. “It’s the experience of coming into the store, and we offer something for everybody. Sports equipment is now so time sensitive, with seasonal change, player endorsements, colours, products and technologies. So we are very mindful of the consumer journey. That means the service and support they receive in store, the LED communication outside the store and the selling-up on technology,” Paul explains. “It’s all about the consumer experience and their journey through the store.”
“It’s all about the consumer experience and their journey through the store.”
SportsDirect is undergoing a major refurbishment of its look and shop aesthetics, led by its UK headquarters, with close to 50 new SportsDirect stores in the UK and Europe featuring “elevated designs”.
In 2020, there will be more consumer interaction, brighter layouts with mirrors and local content for particular markets.
This renewal changed Paul’s expansion plans in Asia. “We pulled back from expanding into Singapore by a year to get our elevation right,” he says. “Eight new stores have opened here, and we have another five to eight in various stages of development. Our plan is to move into Singapore later this year, and we are talking to potential joint venture partners in another two or three South–East Asian markets, where this new concept will become our norm.
“It’s relatively cost effective to do business from Malaysia, which is not so much the case from Singapore, and there are complications in language in Thailand and Vietnam. So Malaysia is the ideal regional base for us to grow from, and the Malaysian government’s InvestKL initiative is providing advice and support in that regard.”
Paul likens SportsDirect’s corporate culture to a sports team, playing together to win in the competitive sports retail market. He might be the team captain, but he counts on all the other players to perform their part.
“I’m definitely just one of the team,” he points out. “We don’t have levels of hierarchy in our business. I have an open-door and open-dialogue policy, and the staff give us a lot of very good feedback. We continue to evolve the business by making the staff feel empowered. That also helps to keep them motivated and engaged with the business.
“We’ve always tried to promote from within, and a lot of our best recruitment is word of mouth. There’s no substitute for somebody coming in as a raw, entry-level shop assistant, learning the business and then seeing their career advance quickly. That has helped us with a much higher level of engagement and retention in our staff, to be honest.”
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