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Rising stars: Don’t get too comfortable

Nick Smith on the importance of turning Japanese in the changing western world.

Honest answers now: are you really stretching yourself in your current position? Or are you content in the comfort zone? Potential Rising Stars reading this will know all about the ‘Kaizen’ concept: the Japanese philosophy of continued learning and development.

“The idea of striving to improve yourself is part of the Japanese culture, but this ethos isn’t widespread in the UK,” says Inchcape group human resources director Nick Smith. “We want to change that.”

In conjunction with Loughborough University, Smith has overseen the creation of the Inchcape Retail Academy; it takes its first 16 students this week (April 21). He has also presided over a leadership programme for senior Inchcape managers, of whom 85 have so far completed the course.

Since joining Inchcape two years ago, Smith has overhauled the HR department following a period of severe under investment subsequent to the group’s withdrawal from non-core, non-automotive operations across the world. “HR is nothing unless it helps to improve business performance.

Inchcape is a ‘people intensive’ business which, from a HR perspective, is fantastic,” he says.

Smith epitomises the benefits companies can expect if they look outside the motor industry when seeking to fill management positions. This non-automotive retail specialist has adjusted with apparent ease. But after an early career dominated by telecommunications – first BT and then, via KPMG, Cable & Wireless – why did he decide to switch careers?

“The automotive sector didn’t appeal as much as Inchcape itself. It’s an international company with lots of interesting complexities from the retail, import and distribution ventures,” Smith says. “This is a company on a journey with a clear strategy, terrific business and successful people. It’s important to work with people from whom you can learn from and be stimulated.

Inchcape has a senior management team with enormous drive and integrity, and a successful track record.”

Arguably his career-defining move was to Cable & Wireless in 1995: firstly because it saw his gradual repositioning from general manager to human resources manager; secondly because it offered an opportunity to gain experience abroad. But not in Europe, or even America – in Australia.

Smith got the job after completing a report for the company while at management consultant KPMG. “They liked the report and its recommendations and felt I was the person to manage the project,” he says.

At the end of 1998 he went to Australia to develop a remuneration framework at C&W’s newly acquired company, Optus. In 2000 he became HR director. “I needed international experience, which made me think a lot more about how to interact with different people. It sensitises you, but also toughens you up and was pivotal in terms of building self-confidence.”

Returning to the UK in July 2001 after Optus was sold, Smith found the landscape had changed – C&W had sold lots of its business divisions to concentrate on the internet. “It was clear that a massive downsizing was required and I spent the next 15 months laying off around 5,000 people out of a 16,000 workforce. It was unpleasant and difficult, but building too,” he says.

“But I knew 5,000 wasn’t enough and it became clear to me this wasn’t a business I wanted to spend too much time in.”

He took a redundancy package and cast himself into the job market. With some financial security, Smith was able to cherry pick. He calls it a “cathartic event” – a chance to look around at other industries, and an opportunity for some charity work (meals on wheels three times a week and gardening at a disability centre).

“It’s easy to lose touch with reality when you’ve been travelling the world. After years of a corporate life, this was a real jolt. Inchcape gave me the chance to keep learning from some highly respected people such as Peter Johnson and Sir John Egan, who have successful track records,” says Smith.

“That’s what I’m looking for as a Rising Stars judge: someone who is open-minded, flexible and can lead, but also someone with a large degree of humility. They need to be always learning and looking to continually improve themselves. That’s the Kaizen principle.”

CV

2003-present Inchcape plc group HR director
2001-2002 Cable & Wireless (C&W) vice-president HR
2000-2001 Optus Communications HR director (Australia)
1998-2000 Optus GM, HR Corporate Services
1997-1998 C&W manager, performance management
1995-1997 C&W manager, group performance and analysis
1995 KPMG management consultant
1987-1994 BT various management/strategy roles
1984-1987 BHS store management

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