Ex-Tesco marketing boss Robin Terrell on what it takes to be non-exec director

Portfolio management is not retirement, it’s just a different way of working, former Tesco chief customer officer and full-time non-exec Robin Terrell tells Marketing Week as part of the Life Beyond Marketing series.

Robin Terrell

Robin Terrell has made portfolio management a key aspect of his 26-year career, which includes high profile roles at Amazon UK where he was vice-president and managing director from the late 1990s through to his most recent role as Tesco chief customer officer.

Accustomed to balancing portfolio commitments with corporate life since his first directorship in 2008, Terrell took on non-executive roles full time after leaving Tesco last October. His current list of projects spans homeware retailer Wilko, betting specialist William Hill, homeware ecommerce site Amara Living, home security startup Cocoon and fashion retailer Karen Millen.

Here, Terrell explains how he selects his different projects, the importance of finding a values fit and why he has no plans to slow down.

I enjoy change and variety

I have had a variety of roles over the past 18 years, starting at Amazon in the early days when it was 50 people in the UK, through to Figleaves, John Lewis, House of Fraser and latterly Tesco. Everything I’ve been involved in has had digital at its core or a key digital element to the business challenge going forward. When I look in the marketplace, I feel like there are lots of businesses struggling with that challenge.

Being a non-exec I’m able to mix my desire for variety with the fact I can work with a number of companies at the same time. I’m on the board of bigger companies such as William Hill and Wilko, and equally involved in smaller businesses like Amara and Cocoon, an early stage-tech business.

READ MORE: Life Beyond Marketing: How to master portfolio management

I always enjoyed having non-exec roles in addition to an exec role

But you’ve got to be careful that you don’t over commit as at the end of the day you have a massive centre of gravity, which is your day job. There is a lot of value to the business, and to yourself, to having broader experience, but you can’t get involved in too many things. Either it distracts from your day job or the other businesses you get involved in and you run the risk of letting them down because you’re not able to commit the time they might expect.

Leading up to leaving Tesco in October I wanted to make sure I stayed very active

I went out and talked to a lot of people about a lot of different businesses. Some of which were really interesting, some I have subsequently joined and some that looked like they would be a great opportunity, but didn’t work out. You’ve got to be prepared to get out there with an open mind and meet a lot of people.

When I went down the portfolio route, I deliberately wanted a mixture of large, medium and small businesses

Each opportunity I’ve looked at has gone through a number of filters. The first is people. One of the things I’ve decided through this new way of working is I only want to work with people I really want to work with. I want the choice to only work with great people.

I’m looking to be very busy, but with a number of concurrent businesses. So it’s just a different way of working.

Another filter is, do I believe in the opportunity? Do I believe in the people and with their help can we create a real business opportunity? The next thing, based on all of that, is how can I participate? At Cocoon, for example, they were looking for my experience of retail and direct-to-customer, as well as building customer propositions and scaling early-stage businesses.

I like to think of myself as more of a customer proposition person.

I’ve got a bit of a strange background because I’ve been a general manager at Amazon and other roles, then I ended up in Tesco with some fairly significant marketing responsibility. But I wouldn’t consider myself a traditional marketer. I would, however, say the element of customer focus and thinking about propositions – and a lot of that comes from marketers – is important. It brings an ‘outside in’ perspective, which is quite important when you’re in a non-exec capacity.

I love learning and new environments, so being a non-exec really lends itself to that

Some people get to a stage in their career where they start to slow down and might have one or two directorships, spending a couple of days a week in that environment. That’s not what I’m looking to do. I’m looking to be very busy, but with a number of concurrent businesses. So it’s just a different way of working.