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Holland & Barrett CEO quietly bucks downward trend of the high street with holistic approach

Whatever the secret ingredient is behind the global health and wellness retailers success, theres definitely something in the water at the companys Nuneaton headquarters.

Early on in our interview, I am keen to know how, while much of the retail sector has mostly struggled in tumultuous economic times, Holland & Barrett has managed six years of growth, with a reported turnover for 2014 of 368m

I am instantly corrected. Actually, we are just about to hit our 28th consecutive quarter of growth, but hopefully I havent just jinxed that,” Aldis pointed out with a smile.

In his 25 years with the business, hes held a variety of roles, including developing field sales, managing acquisitions and taking on responsibility for the retail property portfolio, reporting to a variety of different bosses and company owners in that time. Seven years ago he took over the CEO role and if you do the maths, that equates to the beginning of the 28 quarters growth milestone.

But like Aldis, theres more to Holland & Barrett these days than the retailers original core product category of vitamins, minerals, health foods and supplements.

Expanding into the “free from” market

A new Holland & Barrett More concept store in Chester, with plans for another to come soon in York, offers larger space than a traditional Holland & Barrett outlet (6,500 square feet plus) and a new category of “free from food products, responding to the growing incidence in the UK of food allergies and intolerance as well as diabetes.

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But it’s not just the wider commercial drivers that have dictated the entry into the “free from” market the original inspiration was a lot closer to home. Aldis admits he himself has diabetes and one of his four children has a nut allergy, and with some passion he shared a story about his buying director, who returned from maternity leave frustrated at trying to find clearly labeled, high-quality allergy free products for her new baby including in their own Holland & Barrett stores.

He said: This started a process about asking ourselves how do we become the best and most trusted retailer for consumers needing this kind of support. It typifies how we work as a company and how we constantly reflect the changing needs of our customers through what we offer in our stores.

Going global

But the journey to where the business is now with it’s 1030 retail outlets and new concept stores looking to meet changing health needs, and the subtle change in the company name to Holland & Barrett International visibly reflecting global ambitions, with retail activities in Europe and further afield in countries such as China is a very long way from the loss-making business Aldis joined in 1990.

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In his office, we are talking about that journey and his career and education. Aldis spent his childhood in his home city of Dublin and moved with his parents to the UK at the age of 16, the same year he was taking the then Irish equivalent of what are now GCSEs in the UK.

He explained: I ended up not doing very well at school due to the major differentials in the curriculums around all the subjects, and so I struggled with sciences, but English and maths I found easy.

During my A Level time, unbeknown to my parents, I was applying for all sorts of jobs. Originally, I wanted to join the navy, and then the police, but I was applying to various industrial companies and retailers; I just wanted to get out there and work and make my own way in the world.

My first job offer was as a trainee manager for Currys, the electrical chain, which was my first foray into retail. At the time my dad didnt want me to leave school, so he encouraged me to ask the school if they would accept me back after three months if the job didnt work out, which they agreed to. But I ended up doing four years at Currys, where I was an assistant store manager by 18, and then I joined Asda at 21 and spent seven years there.

It was probably the best retail apprenticeship for what was to come later in life, although I had no idea at the time where my career would take me. At Asda, I rapidly moved around and ended up in their Park Royal, London, store and at the time it was the companys only store that was unionised, and so nobody wanted to really go there.

“When I look back, it taught me a huge amount about working with colleagues with a variety of different demands and needs, and developing an understanding of a very diverse local customer base. It made me very comfortable in a store environment something that has stuck with me to this day, which is why now I like to get out into our stores as much as I can.

From his original field sales role in 1990, Aldis career development with Holland & Barrett led to him to joining the Board and taking on the role of commercial director in 1998, prior to which the company had again been sold to its current owner, the US food supplement and vitamin manufacturer and distributor NBTY,in 1997.

My first opportunity with Holland & Barrett was field sales management, which excited me at the time because I wanted to add that experience to my CV. Back then, the business was loss making with 168 stores and owned by the cash and carry wholesaler, Booker.

Then, later, when Lloyds Pharmacy bought Holland & Barrett, they didnt in fact plan to buy Holland & Barrett at all, they wanted the Kingswood Chemistchain, but Booker wouldnt sell Kingswood unless Lloyds also bought Holland & Barrett the original retail buy-one-get-one-free I suppose.

Natural Health Academy

Despite all the changes over the years, Aldis firmly believes that observing different bosses and owners, and serving the company over such a long period of time, combined with gaining a real understanding of the vitamins, health foods and supplements market, has been invaluable.

But what is the secret ingredient behind such a sustained period of retail growth For a man who freely admits to struggling with his own education, one of the answers to that question he believes as part of a more holistic approach to retailing has been the introduction of his own A Level equivalent qualification for company employees.

The company has invested 13m in a vocational training programme across its UK stores over the last five years, to enable staff to offer better advice to customers on a huge range of health issues.

The training is officially recognised by the government-backed EDI (Education Development International) which will see more than 3,200 retail staff awarded qualifications for the six, 18 and 36-week training programmes they have completed.

The top-tier qualification, entitled a “Level 3 Qualification Credit Framework (QCF) Award”, is equivalent to an A Level. The qualification forms part of the new Holland & Barrett “Natural Health Academy” and is the first recognised training scheme to cover health on the high street.

The company predicts that a further 3,000 employees will pass though the Academy in the next five years, learning to advise on conditions including migraines, joint pain, cholesterol and circulation.

Aldis points out many other new innovations that will continue to drive growth for the business, including continued, careful global expansion and investment in ecommerce. And personally, hes committed to see through the changes hes already started.

Ive seen a lot of change over the years, and who knows what the future may bring, but Im passionate about my job, and we still have much to do, good success to build on and the need to continue to cultivate our own unique, valuable role within the retailing community.

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