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Spar Managing Director Jerry Marwood

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Managing Director of convenience retailer Spar Jerry Marwood announced he was leaving the company in November last year.

Speaking to Retail Gazette for the first time since he revealed his departure, he says that his career is certainly not over after nine years at the top of one of the UK’s most successful retail outfits.

“I’m definitely not retiring - maybe I was too laid back about what I said I was going on to do.

“There’s another ten years of work in me and I’m keen to do something else.”

I put to Marwood that some of the top grocers may be on the phone to him as they look for industry expertise to continue the expansion of their convenience offerings - Waitrose and Morrisons in particular - but he dismisses the idea.

“I’m not sure they could afford me,” he jokes. “If you are asking is it feasible - I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want to say yes or no, but I think it is very unlikely.”

Marwood has always worked in retail, including stints at Gateway, Tesco, The Co-operative Group and Somerfield, and although he is set to leave the convenience sector behind this summer, it is an area of the industry that he naturally holds considerable passion for.

With the big grocery multiples set to continue their rapid ascent into the space in the next 12 months - in particular Waitrose, which is currently trialling its Little Waitrose concept in west London - does he see Spar’s market share being squeezed?

“It’s hard to say. It would be stupid to carry on regardless, but the positive sign is that we are in a growth market.

“Tesco and the Co-op have been two key players in reshaping the market in convenience, and when some years ago they bought One Stop and Alldays respectively everyone said it was the end of the sector.

“But we have still grown sterling, space and footfall over the years.

“You can be obsessed with your competitors if you’re not careful. You have to be wary of what they are up to but really focus on your own plan.”

Spar’s performance over the last year has been encouraging, with the most recently published results - for the three months to July 2010 - showing like-for-like sales increases of 3.1 per cent compared to the same period last year.

Trading for the 12 months as a whole is also expected to be strong although like many retailers’, sales figures will be affected by December’s snow.

Although convenience stores were supposed to be well-positioned to cater for customers during a frozen Christmas period, Marwood admits it was tough for Spar too.

“Traditionally we would benefit from snowy conditions. However, this year conditions were so extreme compared to the norm that we haven’t seen a typical reaction anywhere.

“There were some horrendous spikes and people rushed off to supermarkets to refill when they could and bought more goods than they otherwise would have done.

“Usually it companies such as ourselves that benefit from shoppers topping up, so the increase in sales we experienced was not as much as usual.”

But Spar continues to follow new strategies, and it intends to keep its position as the go-to retailer in local communities.

It has established itself as a respectable wine seller, ensuring its heads of buying in this category are always Masters of Wines. This has resulted in the company winning a number of awards for its own-brand products in the last 18 months.

The business has also grown its fresh food output in recent years, with Marwood citing hummus and olives, alongside fresh meats and vegetables, as examples of the goods now available at Spar that previously were not.

He states: “People have stopped going out for dinner as frequently and now stay in more regularly. We are in a position to provide them with more items for a stay-in night, with our selection of products.”

All of this will, of course, be set against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and in an industry where job growth may be difficult to sustain.

Last Thursday, the British Retail Consortium and law firm Bond Pearce’s Retail Employment Monitor showed that new store openings appear to be outpacing new job creation in the industry.

Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s are among the companies regularly announcing news of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of new jobs being created - so is there another side to this story?

“Superstores do not create thousands of jobs - they eliminate jobs. While one major grocer makes jobs available, others elsewhere will be lost,” Marwood says.

“If the government was creating employment strategies around this, things would be different, but I don’t think they are.

“At a time when the outlook is uncertain and there are inflationary pressures, added costs and the need to be competitive is more important than ever, I think it is hard to imagine that we as an industry will employ lots more people in the months ahead.”

Another trend from the last 12 months has been that of senior retail industry figures leaving or announcing their departures from top jobs.

You could conclude that an increasingly competitive market has meant that the pressures of running some of the UK’s most established businesses from the country’s largest private sector employer has proved too much for some.

Marwood does not see it like this though, instead indicating that there is only so much time one can spend in a certain position.

He argues that as Sir Terry Leahy, Andy Bond and Marwood himself have been at Tesco, Asda and Spar respectively for such long stints, their recent departure notices’ are relatively natural.

“I’ve just come to the end of my time. I think the average tenure of a CEO is a lot shorter than the time I’ve spent here,” he explains.

“I’m not sure I’d put myself in the same bracket as Leahy and Bond, but there is a logistical, practical point when you get to this point within a company and ask where do you go?”

That is certainly a question occupying the Spar MD’s mind right now, and one which the rest of the retail industry and the wider business community will be keen to hear him answer.

Published on Tuesday 01 February by Editorial Assistant

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