Big Interview: Paul McClenaghan, CEO, Victoria Plum

Victoria Plum chief executive Paul McClenaghan talks to Retail Gazette about how the online bathroom retailer has continued its management-led turnaround and transformation strategy amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Paul McClenaghan CEO Victoria Plum profile bathroom online retailer chief executive interview
Paul McClenaghan.

Victoria Plum calls itself “the UK’s leading online bathroom retailer” and overseeing the business is chief executive Paul McClenaghan.

Based in East Yorkshire, Victoria Plum’s mission has been to deliver “cost-saving” products for bathroom construction and renovations. The online retailer currently employs over 300 people, is headquartered in Hull, and has a distribution centre in Doncaster along with a national network of transport hubs.

Most importantly, Victoria Plum is not to be confused with competitor and fellow online bathrooms retailer Victorian Plumbing, the latter of which recently launched on the stock market with an IPO worth £850 million. In contrast, Victoria Plum is a private equity-backed business, founded in 1999 by entrepreneur Jason Walker.

Speaking to Retail Gazette, McClenaghan said Victoria Plum was now “one of the UK’s fastest growing online home retailers”.

“Victoria Plum was a business in transition when they were purchased by US private equity firm TPG Capital in 2014 for £200 million,” he said.

“They were very much a price and product retailer.”

Since McClenaghan took the helm of Victoria Plum in 2015 from discount store JTF Wholesale, he has witnessed major changes.

In 2019, Victoria Plum had a change of hands after TPG Capital sold the company to Endless, another private equity firm. The deal saw Endless acquire the entire business and issued share capital of Victoria Plum for an undisclosed sum.

Since then, McClenaghan said there have been vast investments in staff, digital and retail experience, as well as an expansion of Victoria Plum’s product and services offering.

“Endless recognised that they acquired a well-invested and well-managed business, with customers at our heart and key areas of differentiation,” he added.

McClenaghan said one of the changes that took place early in his career at Victoria Plum included developing a brand strategy.

Paul McClenaghan Victoria Plum
Victoria Plum employs over 300 people and is headquartered in Hull.

McClenaghan also noticed that the online retailer was selling products that were typical of what a bathroom retailer would sell, and was therefore at threat of losing market share to competitors.

“There’s lots of competitors because it’s an easy model to replicate,” he said.

“As a team, we thought how do you differentiate when you’ve got all these rivals? The strategy was how do we build brands to differentiate ourselves from the competition in a market that is full of white bathrooms.

“Everyone has similar designs because design is easily copied, and quite quickly as well – particularly coming out of China.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, McClenaghan said Victoria Plum looked at ways to “leap off the website” despite being an online-only retailer and “offer customers something physically”. This included launching a bathroom design and installation service.

“We offered a white glove delivery service, which was quite unique in our market,” he said.

“It was expensive to invest in. We hired a lot of people early on. We invested that way because we felt it gave us a competitive advantage.

“Alongside that, we introduced some manufacturer brands, the ones that were recognised by the public, that offered something different.

“We also upgraded our customer experience on the website by revamping the website. We’ve invested a lot of time and effort into the customer journey from UX and UI. We transitioned to Google as our primary marketing channel.”

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown in March last year, McClenaghan said Victoria Plum worked quickly towards sending office staff to work from home. It eventually made the decision for all staff to permanently work remotely – except for the teams working in the online retailer’s 275,000sq ft distribution facility in Doncaster and nationwide delivery network. Nonetheless, Victoria Plum’s Doncaster facility and one of its offices in Hessle, East Yorkshire, have now become hubs where staff can work and meet according to their requirements.

“It was a bit of a moment for us to say what does this mean to the organisation? And more importantly, what does it mean to our colleagues and our customers?,” McClenaghan reflected.

“I’m a great believer in having very clear messages for our colleagues. So we told them we’re going to get you home.

“We’ve migrated 200 people.”

The pandemic also presented new sales trends for Victoria Plum, such as people moving increasingly towards focusing on homewares.

“We saw a trend that pivoted towards taps, showers, and radiators,” McClenaghan explained.

“Victoria Plum is now one of the UK’s fastest growing online home retailers”

“We started to invest incredibly heavily into those when we started to invest in digital marketing.”

In response to demand, Victoria Plum also introduced a click-and-collect service as this was “important to our customers”.

McClenaghan said the online retailer “takes full advantage of social media” in an effort to learn what its customers want.

“Communication is a two-way thing. We’re very focused on feedback from our customers as you don’t always get it right,” he said.

“As a team, we review our Trustpilot reviews regularly. I read every negative review personally. I write back to customers that we’ve really left out, I think that’s the right thing to do.”

McClenaghan’s career experience comes from his first retail role at Dixons Group where he served as group trading director in 1987. He then eventually moved on to Halfords in 2005 where he worked as commercial director.

“I had a very long career at Dixons, which was the start of my schooling on retail,” he laughed.

“The business grew enormously during the time I was there.”

McClenaghan said his previous career experience helped him gain “people skills” which is the most important skill in retail according to him.

“People skills are the most important thing because you have to develop it,” he said.

“The clear understanding is that you need to align the organisation for the needs of its customers and also execute the strategy.

“One of the things I learnt was that you have to cut through the noise because everyone wanted to do different things across different chains.

“We had to think about how we can find things that the competition is doing as well as not doing.”

In March, Victoria Plum recorded a sales increase of 46 per cent to £103 million for its full year period ending February 28. Full year EBITDA skyrocketed by 115 per cent to £4.5 million during the same period. Additionally, staff headcount grew from from 349 to 398.

Compared to the previous financial year, Victoria Plum’s website users increased by 165 per cent to 23.2 million while its sessions rose 194 per cent to more than 51 million.

In response to increasing sales, Victoria Plum recently secured a £7 million funding package. The flexible facility from Secure Trust Bank Commercial Finance is intended to support further growth. The £7 million comprises a £4 million inventory facility and a £3 million cash flow loan.

“We are confident that we will continue to grow at speed,” McClenaghan said.

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