They are self-made millionaires who have built their businesses from scratch and always like to have the final word. They may be arrogant and dictatorial, but their gut instincts often turn out to be right. They can be hell to work for, though they manage to inspire admiration from those who pass through their frequently revolving doors.
Autocratic, uncompromising entrepreneurs may be reviled as much as they are revered, but their numbers are swelling and their powers increase with every venture that falls into their clutches.
Without doubt, working for a brand entrepreneur is a world away from life in a global corporation. But there is one similarity: in many cases, marketers recruited by these strong-willed owner-managers don’t last long in their jobs.
Only last week, Phones 4U, the 350-store mobile phone chain founded and run by ebullient trader John Caudwell, announced the abrupt departure of its four top marketers.
Marketing director Paul Hamburger has left after just over a year and the executives he employed – head of brand communications Suk Grewal, customer relationship marketing chief Chris Hale and communications boss Damien Peachey – are also leaving.
The reasons behind the exodus are far from clear: a statement from Phones 4U says the company has made “detailed investigations into the purchase order process but has decided not to take action against any individual”. It adds: “We would like to thank Paul Hamburger for his full and open co-operation in this matter.” The statement says that, separately, Hamburger has decided to leave the company.
Hamburger says: “I was not sacked: it was my choice to leave. I just felt there were other things to do. I worked for the company for six to seven years. I was very loyal to Caudwell, and he was very loyal to me. Not many people have been asked to go back to his company.”
He is less forthcoming about his relationship with Caudwell Group managing director Tim Whiting. “You can speculate what you like. I don’t have any ill feeling to anyone, and that includes Tim Whiting,” he says.
Hamburger adds that working for an entrepreneur such as Caudwell certainly enhances business experience: “The trouble for many packaged goods marketers moving into this kind of environment is that they struggle to bring a bottom-line perspective – or even a sales perspective, for that matter.”
Phones 4U refuses to discuss the nature of its investigation and dismisses any link between the investigation and the exit of the other three marketers, saying their departure is down to “a decision not to open a London marketing office”.
The elliptical statements from Phones 4U have provoked considerable speculation. But whatever the truth of the case, this is yet another example of the precarious tenure of marketers who venture into tightly controlled companies.
You’re either suited or booted
Caudwell prides himself on being a straight-talking, inspirational boss and a tough taskmaster. He once told Marketing Week: “If anybody leaves me, it is either because they are incompetent or because someone has offered them a better job. The latter is extremely unusual, because anybody that is good will be looked after well enough to ensure they aren’t going to go anywhere.” But he has been unwilling to further discuss the present situation.
It should be mentioned that Hamburger had previously been Phones 4U marketing chief until 2000,when he left to join T-Mobile. He was brought back in a board-level role last year and his arrival sparked the departure of then head of marketing Julian Neal, who is now in the same job at Samsung.
A fast turnover of marketers is typical in owner-managed businesses. Companies such as Harrods, the Knightsbridge store owned by the mercurial Egyptian Mohamed Al Fayed, and Swatch, founded and run for many years by Nicolas G Hayek Sr and now managed by his son Nicolas Jr, have seen a stream of marketers coming and going through their doors.
There are exceptions, of course: Jordans Cereals, run by Bill and David Jordan, and alcopop maker Halewood International, managed by John Halewood, have achieved more stability in their marketing departments.
One source who has worked with a number of brand entrepreneurs says the relationship between marketer and boss is simply down to whether their personalities gel. He adds: “Sometimes you get people in marketing who last a long time because they know how to handle the entrepreneur. But it can be a total shock for someone coming from a big multinational company.”
Harrods has been through five marketing chiefs in the past four years, and one former insider says: “Al Fayed is a one-off. If you work for him he is mercurial and quite demanding, he changes and churns and challenges all the time. As a marketer, you have to remember that he is your target market. I saw marketing directors and managing directors flying through the door, but some of the good ones lasted because they stood up to him.”
Many entrepreneurs abhor “yes-men” and respect those who will argue their case, he claims. “It is about being truthful and not trying to play the corporate marketing man. If you don’t carry him with you, you won’t get very far,” he adds.
Al Fayed quit the UK last year to live in Switzerland following what he calls “establishment attacks”, but observers believe he will still exert a powerful influence over Harrods’ marketing. Ronny Helvey, brand director of high street chain Principles, worked as Harrods marketing director for two years and previously spent four years working with Anita Roddick as retail marketing director at Body Shop. He says: “All roads lead to Roddick at Body Shop and Al Fayed at Harrods, but it is the most creative environment a marketer could want to work in. They are naturals at talking to consumers, passionate traders who are prepared to deliver a message to get a result. It is a stimulating and challenging environment, but it is volatile and you have to deal with all of that. Sometimes it can be frustrating. If you don’t thrive on that, then it is not for you.”
Time to share the driving
Getting the boss on your side right from the start is vital. Quentin Higham, marketing director of King of Shaves (KoS), the shaving oil manufacturer founded and run by former telesalesman Will King, says that entrepreneurs who hire experienced marketers have to be willing to relinquish some of their control over the business. “The question for a marketer coming in to work for an entrepreneur is where to set the boundaries. The first six months are very important. If you are strong and deliver results, they are usually willing to relinquish power. If you are weak, you have to go back to the boss and ask for support,” he says.
Before joining KoS, Higham worked for multinationals Revlon and Coty and also spent some time at Swatch as brand director. The watch company has had a high turnover of marketers over the years and some have pointed the finger at the autocratic management style of Hayek Sr. A separate source says: “People come and go all the time; Swatch never keeps marketers for very long. There is simply no power in the UK, it all seems to come from Switzerland. A lot of companies which are family-owned, like Swatch, don’t want to give any power to outsiders. That restricts marketers, so they quickly move on.”
Another frustration is that many entrepreneurs have little respect for the “craft” of marketing, which executives may have spent years studying. Having built their businesses as salespeople and deal-makers, a lot of owner-managers are sceptical about marketing techniques they see as the preserve of grey, bureaucratic corporations. They can be reluctant to pay for consumer research and are suspicious of advertising agencies. They will, however, jump at the chance of obtaining free services – such as audience research supplied by ITV – and will often try to get advertising on the cheap, often by doing joint promotions paid for by suppliers.
Don’t knock the knack
Another source says that, while entrepreneurs appear to make things up as they go along, they have an uncanny knack of getting it right. “If they say: ‘I want a picture of the factory in the ad,’ you probably think: ‘Oh no, that’ll be a disaster.’ But then it turns out to be right. They have got where they are on gut instinct. Marketers ignore that at their peril.”
Not all brand entrepreneurs conform to the stereotype of the bullying barrow boy, bawling out staff and using their position of power as a means to bolster their own ego. Even so, some find it hard to accept different ways of doing things and can be reluctant to give up their hold over marketing.
However, it is said of entrepreneurs such as Amstrad boss Alan Sugar and high street king Philip Green who owns Bhs and Arcadia, that once you get on the right side of them – preferably by making them even richer – they will make it worth your while to stay around. They might even come to respect you.
Marketers should not be put off by the fearful reputations of some entrepreneurs, says a source who believes their antics need to be taken with a pinch of salt. “They are funny when they strut around shouting at people,” he says, recalling one entrepreneur who would burst into meetings with suppliers and demand rudely: “Who are you? What are you doing in my office?” The source says that some of them play up to the image of the dictator “for a laugh”.
Maybe it is not so funny if you are shown the door, but this colourful cast of characters are so well-publicised through the media that marketers should know what to expect. You can’t say we didn’t warn you.