Tesco’s Dave Lewis on how his marketing experience shaped him as a CEO

Tesco boss Dave Lewis, who announced his departure today, says spending 30 years as a marketer “understanding customers” helped him as CEO of the UK’s biggest supermarket.

Tesco’s outgoing chief executive Dave Lewis believes his experience as a marketer, which spanned three decades before he joined Tesco, shaped how he did his job as CEO because it gave him that “real curiosity” to understand his customers.

Lewis, who announced his departure from Tesco after six years this morning, spent almost 30 years at Unilever in a variety of marketing roles. These included launching the Dove brand in the UK and becoming president of Unilever’s personal care business.

“As a marketer, you spend all of your time investigating and understanding your consumers or customers,” he told Marketing Week on a press call this morning (2 October).

“That experience, and that I did it around the world for 30 years before I joined Tesco, it all comes back to that real curiosity of understanding the consumer.”

Lewis’s background in marketing means he has always put a strong focus on the brand as a measure of the success of the business. He said he is leaving a “significantly stronger” brand than when he started but admitted the “job is not done”.

He points to improvements in metrics including quality, value and NPS to show that trust in the brand has improved greatly over the five years since Tesco’s reputation was tarnished by an accountancy scandal in 2014.

“The business is healthy. We said we would rebuild the relationship with brand and consumers; you will see that in every measure of customer satisfaction we do that,” he said. “The business is healthy, vibrant and there is a lot of optimism of what we can do going forward.”

As a marketer, you spend all of your time investigating and understanding your consumers or customers.

Dave Lewis, Tesco

Lewis arguably leaves Tesco on a high, and certainly in a much better position than he found it and with the business turnaround mostly complete. Key targets around areas such as profit margins have been met and its latest results show major increases in profit and slight improvements in revenues in a touch market.

The company has a new strategy in place that includes a relaunched Clubcard, overhaul of its online business and expansion of its Jack’s discounter chain.

“That’s a good time [to leave]. We’ve completed the turnaround and the strategy is in place. [That is a] very exciting next phase but it is the right time for me to step off because you need someone who’s going to run through all of those,” said Lewis.

Lewis admits the job has been “challenging, rewarding, enjoyable but all-consuming” and he is looking forward to taking time out with his family “to recharge”. He has no new role to go to and will take time to consider what his next move will be and whether that might include another “big job”.

He will be handing the reins over to an external successor in Walgreens Boots Alliance’s chief commercial officer Ken Murphy, who started his career in FMCG at Unilever rival Procter & Gamble and also has experience in marketing.

His advice to his successor? “Listen to the expertise with Tesco, and listen to customers.”

Tesco CEO Dave Lewis is a headline speaker at the Festival of Marketing, which takes place on 10 and 11 October at Tobacco Dock, London. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.festivalofmarketing.com