From his retirement seat while on the cusp of turning 60, Stuart Bird reflects on previous decades working with the Mr Price Group (MRP), a career that spanned 25 years, nine of which were as CEO. In January this year, he handed over the reins to his successor, Mark Blair, the Group’s CFO.
“In quite a tough climate, we still managed to do okay,” Stuart remarks, modestly. But it’s clear this is quite an understatement, for he continues, “In that time, we’ve managed to double sales. We’ve quadrupled HEPS. Share prices have gone up nearly six times.”
Stuart has played an integral role in seeing the fashion value retailer grow into one of the top performers in South Africa, listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange with a market capitalisation of ZAR58 billion (€3.66 billion). “As a business, we’re proud of what we’ve managed to achieve,” he says. “We are early adopters of technology.
For example, from day one of our online launch seven years ago, we were executing ‘click and collect’. We offer 24-hour delivery and have multiple online payment options. We were also quick to adopt mobile payments and our app has had fantastic take-up by our customers.
We are very much about making sure that whatever we do ultimately delivers exceptional value, which is a combination of quality and price, for us and our customers.”
Over the years, Stuart has been particularly proud of the Group’s commitment to its CSR. The MRP Foundation has invested about ZAR153 million (€9.66 million) since 2006, striving to empower the youth and teachers of South Africa through its education and skills development programs.
“We’re immensely proud of what we’ve achieved. It’s very important for us and we approach it with a business mindset and a focus on sustainable solutions,” Stuart explains. “The work we do in upskilling teachers so they can give their best is important because if you have the right leadership in schools, you can accomplish amazing things.”
The MRP Foundation also works to prepare young people for their careers in a program called Jump Start, which has upskilled more than 22,000 unemployed youth, and has provided retail and manufacturing jobs to more than 10,000 young people.
Stuart attended the graduation of the Jump Start class in 2018, reporting “it is amazing what they have done”. MRP has had ample success with Stuart at the helm, but rather than taking the credit he praises the people in all departments of the business.
“We have a strong culture of performance at our core. It’s not a ‘performance at all costs’ kind of environment; it’s a team environment. And that starts with management.
Our leaders walk the talk – they are the example and they set the tone.”The company’s approach to building and maintaining strong business relationships with partners has also played a key role.
“You have to be fair and if you can build those kinds of relationships, you will attain success. I believe you’ll achieve much more by having a cooperative approach. You can’t do it alone.
“I believe you’ll achieve much more by having a cooperative approach.”
Reflecting on his time in the hot seat, Stuart says he has fond memories of his time with MRP. “I’ll certainly miss the team and the pure retail side of things,” he shares, adding with a smile: “Some of the corporate stuff I certainly won’t miss. I’m definitely going to take a long holiday. I’ve got a lot of exciting things I want to do.”
He then offers a word of advice on leadership, giving a glimpse into his management style. “It’s about being able to inspire your team to execute your vision and strategy.
If you’ve got the right people, they’ll do fantastic things. You can have the best strategy in the world, but unless you get the team to buy into it, you’re unlikely to get anywhere.
“I’ve tried to apply the leadership style that appealed to me when I was being led. I like to have clear direction, but I also like to have a lot of space to move in achieving my targets. That’s the way I’ve managed my team. Give them a bit of space and it’s amazing what your team can do; providing they know the direction, your team will deliver for you.”