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Half a century in retail: Des Flynn

  • Who's Where
  • March 24, 2016
  • Sarah Dunn
Half a century in retail: Des Flynn

Flynn’s first job in retail was undertaken as a public service after the school tuck shop man died, leaving a tuck shop bereft of leadership and a lot of hungry students.

“I went along to our principal,” says Flynn. “I said, 'I'll run the tuck shop,' and he said, 'No you can't, you're a student.'”

The pair struck a deal whereby if the principal felt Flynn's tuck shop role was interfering with his studies, he could retire him. Flynn worked at the shop without pay for three years.

This experience stood him in good stead when he joined Hastings' first supermarket, Woolworths in 1965. He started as a student on the day it opened: “It all sort of happened from there.” He has spent a total of 37 years in the grocery industry.

Flynn was one of the first employees to be trained through the supermarket system. He was given his first store to manage at the age of 21. The store was in Whakatane. Flynn still finds himself coming back to advice given by a former manager upon his acceptance of the job: “Boy, if there's ever something you remember, it's these three words – people, personality and persuasion.”

As his career in grocery flourished, Flynn became involved with a team which worked to integrate 13 independent supermarket chains into the Woolworths brand following its 1979 purchase by L.D. Nathan. This involved a lot of travel, which ended when Flynn's wife became pregnant. In a bid to find somewhere to settle and raise his family, Flynn requested to manage the troubled Taupo store.

“I was told that that was the death watch. Nobody survives Taupo. So I said, well, let me have a go, and off we went and did it.”

Flynn turned the store around with a simple strategy - “because retail is simple” - of keeping the store clean; maintaining consistent delivery of stock; and offering the best customer service in town. This store was where Flynn first started to handle the supermarket's advertising and almost by accident, discovered a talent for marketing.

“I thought one day, this ad's not going to cut it. So I got scissors out and I literally cut it up.”

He started making up his own ads by literally cutting and pasting in images taken from photocopies of previous ads. The store's excellent performance meant nobody from the Woolworths head office had any cause to visit him for some time, but Flynn was eventually caught out.

“The newspaper boy came in and put the newspaper on my desk, and the new regional manager happened to be in my office. He picked up the newspaper and said, 'That's not our ad.'

“He flew into a bit of a fury and went to ring head office, and I put my finger on the phone and said, 'I've got to fess up here, it's my ad.'”

Flynn got a written warning for tampering with company ads. This deterred him for about three weeks, but when sales started to fall, Flynn returned to his old ways and sales recovered. This did not go unnoticed by the new regional manager.

“He rang me and he said, 'Are you fiddling with the ads again?'”

More warnings were served, but eventually the general manager got involved. He shifted Flynn and his family to Auckland, where Flynn ran Woolworths’ marketing department for some 19 years.

From there, Flynn went on to run Foodtown, before returning to Woolworths. When Progressive purchased Woolworths, the entire executive team was made redundant, so Flynn made a sideways step to Life Pharmacy, where he stayed for six years until its merger with Pharmacy Brands. Flynn then joined Mark Powell at Warehouse Stationery, and he has remained with The Warehouse Group ever since. Flynn is now TWG’s executive general manager customer support.

Flynn's favourite current project is his work with Massey University in building the framework of its Bachelor of Retail and Business Management degree. He also chairs the industry advisory group for retail and retail supply chain within ServiceIQ, and is on Retail NZ's board of directors. The industry's growing professionalism is important to Flynn, who well recalls the cost of less accessible retail training and education.

“One of the things that large retailers had to do in New Zealand over the years was masking the shortfall in retail education [here] was by annually, in most cases, going to the UK, South Africa, the US, and headhunting people, bringing them to New Zealand for specific roles... We didn't have the infrastructure within the retail sector to be able to support those types of initiatives and opportunities.”

Retail education initiatives have opened up opportunities to New Zealand businesses because these competencies are now covered within the curricum, Flynn says.

Over the course of 50 years in retail, Flynn has seen significant structural changes emerge. During the mid-1990s, he was at the forefront of the development of New Zealand’s first online supermarket – Woolworths online. This early model became Countdown's online store, which, apart from New World Thorndon in Wellington and fringe players like Dalson Foods, remains New Zealand's only online supermarket.

Flynn’s first crack at the project came to a disappointing end when he and the rest of Foodtown’s executive team were made redundant by a new chief executive who failed to see its value.

“He said... the internet was a here today, gone tomorrow, whim of someone's fancy.”

Undeterred, Flynn approached Woolworths with the idea. The then-managing director, Graham Evans, was full of enthusiasm, so Flynn and his team managed to get the site up and running.

Within two years of its launch in 1998, the Woolworths supermarket site was profitable. Flynn points out that at that time, the cost of building websites was so high that virtually no retailer was making money online. He highlighted Whitcoulls’ failed online project Flying Pig, which incurred development costs 10 times that of Woolworths online and folded two years after launching.

While Flynn feels online retailing to be one of the biggest changes he’s experienced, the economic deregulation seen in the 1980s also brought turbulence as inflation soared and relaxed restrictions meant the world was opened up to retailers.

Market restrictions prior to deregulation meant Kiwi supermarkets’ product ranges were severely limited. When Flynn first started with Woolworths, the entire chain stocked just 800 SKUs. Supernarkets could not sell bread, milk, beer or wine, and due to export regulations, it could also sell only a limited quantity of Watties canned fruit. Canned pineapples were one of the few imported products allowed.

“The special treat [was] at Christmas time, when the government used to bring in oranges from Rarotonga. We used to get an allocation of four oranges per customer. People used to line up at Christmas time to get their four oranges.”

The introduction of wine and beer into supermarkets was another landmark change in which Flynn had a starring role. He credits his former boss at L.D. Nathan, Saatchi & Saatchi global advertising chair Kevin Roberts, with encouraging his team to push boundaries as they sought permission to sell beer and wine. He described an audacious stunt they cooked up in partnership with Nobilo Wines:

“We knew that we  couldn’t legally take delivery of the stock under our name, so we left it under Nobilo’s name. We weren’t allowed to have it for sale in a public area, so we kept it in boxes under the checkouts. And we gave away, in an advertising campaign, a bottle of Nobilo’s red wine – which was just called ‘Red Wine’ in those days – with every two kilo pack of rump steak that we sold.”

The stunt earned plenty of media attention, with court cases to follow. Flynn spent weeks in court over it, but took comfort from Roberts’ assurance that he wouldn’t let him go to jail. Ultimately, the law was changed, and supermarkets were granted permission to sell wine.

Similar boundary-pushing tactics were used to break the monopoly of the milkmen. Flynn says supermarkets were only allowed to sell flavoured milk, until after a few beers one afternoon, a staff member hit on the idea of adding milk powder to milk and selling it cheaply as “milk-flavoured milk”. This followed the same pattern where the stunt attracted media attention, which was followed by official censorship and public support, and then a law change.

“It’s been a real privilege to have been able to be in a position where you can take the opportunity to push the boundaries and get backing from the leaders in the business to effect positive change for the consumers,” Flynn says.

He considers his knowledge of people and customer service to be his most valuable lesson from retail. The adage that “the customer is always right” remains very real to Flynn, who says that, barring theft and other illegal activities, the rule is foolproof.

Flynn feels that people skills are at the heart of management, and he emphasises the importance of valuing each team member. Building staff members’ self esteem and making them feel good for their contribution to the business has been an ongoing consideration of Flynn’s. He vividly remembers giving words of encouragement to a young man who introduced himself as “only the trolley boy”:

“I said, but you’re not only the trolley boy. You’re the trolley boy, and you should be proud to be the trolley boy… If we didn’t have somebody looking after the trolleys, keeping them clean and making sure the wheels go around and aren’t gunked up with string or rubbish; if we didn’t have trolleys, then people couldn’t shop, and the supermarket would come to a standstill. So, be proud of being a trolley boy.”

Flynn’s most crucial trophy from his many years in retail is the ability to articulate what retail is really about. It is, he says, the art of understanding the interaction which takes place when a retailer sells something that the customer desires to the customer, and then puts money in the till. Everything else is there to support that transaction.

Having reached the age of 65, Flynn has no intention of retiring, but he is cutting back to three days a week at The Warehouse Group. He is holding onto his favourite roles, including mentoring, and will continue his current work in investigating the most difficult of TWG’s customer complaints.

“For me, retail rocks,” says Flynn.

This story originally appeared in NZRetail magazine issue 742 February / March 2016

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