The Lighter Side of the 1980s
Despite the big drive to regenerate and reshape the Woolworths brand during the 1980s, there was still plenty of time for people and fun. The new owners recognised and encouraged the long service and dedication of Woolies people, and launched a series of initiatives to help Managers to develop an external perspective, hone their leadership skills and put something back into the communities served by the stores. This page take a whistestop tour of some of the activities.
After the takeover there was a major drive to improve customer service, with a change programme that touched everyone in the business, from the stockroom to the boardroom. In a marked change to the management style of earlier years, instead of telling people to give better service, there was a real effort to engage them. HR Director Don Rose evangelised the new approach, explaining to everyone that those who served customers were the most important people in the business, and deserved to be treated with respect. This meant that Managers needed to discuss and agree things with their people in team meetings rather than simply barking orders and shouting a lot.
Every Manager nationwide attended three annual week-long courses at Henley Management College, exploring aspects of leadership and team development. These aimed to to embed the switch from a tell-based 'top-down' culture to a more collaborative way of 'working and winning together'. Remarkably these events were the first time that Store Managers and Buyers and other Head Office personnel had ever spent a week together. They proved an effective way of tackling the 'them and us' culture which prevailed at the time.
Managers left Henley with the skills and materials to put the word out to their teams. The great majority also left with the enthusiasm and commitment to make change happen. The training materials were designed to be on the wavelength of the people who would use them, and were light-hearted and funny, despite the serious subject matter. New characters were developed called 'warm fuzzies' (above, left, and below). The creatures gave good service, leaving customers happy and positive. There was also a nemesis, the 'cold prickly', which symbolised the rude and sometimes off-hand behaviour that some perceived to have become a hallmark of Woolworth service at the time. The approach caught the imagination of the younger staff, encouraging some to rethink their attitudes. The training also honoured the good service and attentiveness of many of the chain's longer servers, which helped to keep that important group on-side. Customer surveys soon started to show improvement, particularly for those visiting on Saturday, the busiest day.
The programme recognised that being polite would not be enough to change customer perception. Staff would need to answer questions about the new up-market products and to respond professionally to questions. To tackle it introduced 'EXCELLENCE', a broad engagement that encouraged the staff to learn about all areas of their stores' operation, building their pay packets and status in-store as their knowledge grew.
The program was divided into two halves. Initially staff learnt about the basics of store operation and the ranges that they worked on. Progress was measured in five stages, building up the letters to spell the word EXCEL, which appeared on name badges. Supervisors and Managers were bonused on the number of colleagues who passed, and were expected to lead from the front, first mastering the test and wearing the badges themselves.
If they wished, colleagues could then progress from 'EXCEL' to 'EXCELLENCE' by learning about the other products and ranges in the store - the sign of a true all-rounder. They were awarded a further letter each time they passed a test about one of the five ranges that they did not work on day-to-day. A remarkable 3,000 long-serving colleagues took pride in achieving EXCELLENCE status. Many later became store managers.
The new investment in people caught the imagination of the media and brought much-needed cudos to the brand. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, agreed to endorse 'Leadership '86', a Woolworths-led scheme to identify the best leaders of the future at schools and colleges. Store and Office-based Managers worked with the local Head Teachers introducing them to a competition and game. The winning children went on to meet the PM for tea at Downing Street. The event provided a photo-opportunity which made that evening's television news bulletins and the following morning's newspapers. Reporters commended the new management for the progress they had made in turning the chain around, noting that staff confidence had improved and praising the firm's corporate social responsibility.
The fuzzies helped a generation of more than 30,000 staff to cope with major changes in the systems and operations in-store. The creatures were used to train colleagues about everything from new cash registers to garment management.
Warm fuzzies occasionally made an appearance in front-of-house too, particularly when stores were doing charity work and community-based projects, or had won customer service competitions.
As staff grew in confidence, more ambitious local community projects were initiated. In the late Eighties a number of stores decided to support the charity 'Help a Child to See'.
An example of this was the team from the store in Lothian Road, Edinburgh, who organised a sponsored drive to London to raise much-needed funds for the cause. On the left a group of colleagues say goodbye at the start of the arduous 774 mile round trip. The driver, Avril, is proudly holding the store's Warm Fuzzy in the centre foreground of the picture,
The mission was accomplished and later the much loved Woolworths Executive Roger Stafford (below) was invited to hand over a cheque for £20,000 to Help A Child To See.
Geoff (now Sir Geoffrey) Mulcahy, asked all group companies to work with their local communities. Kingfisher instilled confidence that encouraged staff to 'put something back'. The CEO led from the front, happily making a fool of himself for charity.
Journalists particularly enjoyed a snapshot of Mulcahy with a group of colleagues wearing 'run the world' t-shirts. They believed the slogan summed up Kingfisher's acquisitive strategy perfectly.
In a brave move, hearing that the supermarkets had shunned the new idea of a 'Red Nose Day', Woolworths stepped up. The chain's Marketing Director, George Makulski, arranged for the red noses to be available to all 5,400 tills across the chain and mobilised the workforce to put the word out and to arrange fund-raising events of their own. Colleagues entered the spirit of the occasion, coming up with all sorts of ways of engaging the public and encouraging donations. When the big day came on 10 March 1988, Makulski was invited to be a special guest on the TV telethon, at which he would hand over a giant cheque live on air. No-one knew quite what form the show would take, so Makulski wore his best suit.
Despite donating a giant, circular cheque for a 'stonking' £1,500,000 which had been raised in the stores, Makulski was unceremoniously dumped into the Red Nose Day gunk tank on live television. Fortunately he saw the funny side.
Did he ever get his suit clean? Nobody nose!
Finally, no review of fun in the Eighties would be complete without a mention of the Chain's Ultimate Showman, one-time Managing Director Malcolm Parkinson (left). He played a key role in the fight against Dixons in 1986 while Marketing Director at B&Q, and was rewarded with the top job in the High Street. Under his leadership profits doubled year on year, allowing the new boss to say a spectacular thank-you to his management team. 1,200 Managers from the Stores and Head Office were entertained to a full funfair inside the huge National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, West Midlands. The celebrations included a free bar and a night of revelry which many remember as one of the high spots of their careers with the firm!
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