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Richard Baker

Case Studies


Richard Baker works with our Retail Consumer and Leisure team. He is Chairman of Advent portfolio company DFS, the UK’s largest upholstered furniture retailer. Richard was instrumental in sourcing the DFS investment and writing the growth plan. He brings considerable experience, vision and leadership skills to the RCL team.

“You have to be aligned with the Advent culture because, in the end, people buy people. I would describe Advent’s approach as thorough, prudent, and intelligent, based on teamwork and partnership.”
Richard Baker

Summary

Richard Baker is one of the foremost executives in British retail. He previously held the role of Group Chief Executive at Alliance Boots Plc, having been Chief Executive Officer of Boots Plc for three years before its successful and transformational merger with Alliance Unichem in 2006. When Richard joined Boots in 2003, it was widely recognized as one of the most challenging CEO assignments in the UK. Four years later, a rejuvenated Boots was sold to a private equity firm for more than £11 billion, a gain of over £5 billion for the company’s shareholders.
 
Prior to his tenure at Boots, Richard spent nine years at Asda Stores, one of the UK’s largest grocery chains. In addition to his role at Advent, he also serves on the board of directors at Virgin Active, Nectar and Whitbread plc.

How would you describe your business philosophy?

In my experience, it is essential to look after your own employees well. If you can make sure that the workplace is engaged and constructive, while also being challenging and ambitious, then your employees will take care of your customers. Employees have a huge impact on how your customers see you, particularly in retail. Through your employees, customers will hopefully see that you run a happy and fair ship, where people understand what is going on with the business and they feel empowered to drive change. If employees have exciting plans to achieve with proper rewards, and if they are in great communication with the leadership, then they will do a good job and you need only apply a subtle touch of direction from time to time. Returns will follow and shareholders will be rewarded.

How did you first become involved with Advent?

Having had a 25-year corporate career and worked for three large companies, I wanted to do something different with my business career. Over the course of nearly two years, I met a number of private equity firms, one of which was Advent. I enjoyed working with the people I met at Advent’s London office and started working with them on an assignment basis, consulting on particular investments.

This went well and, after a while, I was pleased to sign up as an operating partner. After that, we set about trying to find an investment together, which we did about a year later when we acquired DFS.

Describe your role as an Advent operating partner.

My role is effectively to translate Advent’s and the company’s needs, issues and demands to each other. Whatever the management team’s priorities and concerns are, I will come up with an appropriate and timely way to communicate them to Advent so that there are no surprises and Advent knows what the management team is wrestling with. Of course, I make sure that it works the other way around too: I can help the management team address any of Advent’s questions and focus on creating value which is, after all, everyone’s main goal.

So to some degree my role is about providing balance. Though they are heavily interested in improving the operations, Advent ultimately comes at issues from a predominantly strategic and financial perspective. Meanwhile the DFS management team is concentrating on the day-to-day operations of, employing people, designing products, selling to consumers, and making sure that customer service is top quality. Finance is part of their world, but it’s not their entire focus. My job is to knit the two parts of the Board together for the greater good of the company.

With which Advent investments are you involved? In what role?

I serve as the Chairman of DFS, the UK’s largest upholstered furniture retailer. I helped source the DFS deal and write the investment plan, so I feel a great sense of ownership. DFS was a business I had known for quite some time. I had built a relationship with the founder prior to my involvement with Advent, so I knew the business might come up for sale. When it was put up for sale, I was able to leverage my relationship with the founder to help ensure that we were ultimately the preferred bidder.
 
We liked a lot of what we saw at DFS. It was well-insulated against recession, had strong cash generation and was by a long way the market leader in its sector. Looking ahead we could see a relatively straightforward growth plan doing more of the same, while opening new stores in key locations to fill in gaps in the store network. We have put the accelerator on this, opening up 13 stores throughout the UK in less than a year without adding a great deal of cost to the operating platform of the business.
 
In addition to helping to create the vision for the next phase of the company, I have appointed some key people into the business. We have retained all of the top managers we inherited from the start of the investment, and have also successfully integrated a few new key recruits. We needed a new CEO, a property consultant to help with the store expansion, and people to fill new roles to support the growth. I identified, hired and integrated the new CEO into the role within six months. I see my role as more of a coach and a mentor. He and I are a good team: we talk many times a week, bouncing ideas off each other about what needs to be done and making sure that we are fully aligned.

What have you enjoyed most as an Advent operating partner?

There is a lot of trust and goodwill working with Advent. For example, with the DFS deal, there were certain elements of my personal arrangements that we needed to sort out, but that we put on hold as the focus was on getting the deal done. Yet I was comfortable saying that we could sort these details out later, because I knew that everyone at Advent would be good to their word. And they have been. This is a healthy way to work: trust facilitates so much.

What advice would you offer someone thinking about becoming an Advent operating partner?

It is important that they get to know the people they will be working with. Before I signed on as an operating partner, I took time to meet with some of the senior people at Advent and found them to be decent and charming, with the utmost integrity. By getting to know them up front, I recognized that we saw eye-to-eye on a lot of issues and that we would work well together.

The Advent culture, although it is not highly visible, is strong. Their people have very firm principles. From my point of view as an operating partner, this clear, steady set of principles makes for a good working relationship.

What does it take to be an effective Advent operating partner?

You have to be aligned with the Advent culture because, in the end, “people buy people.” I would describe Advent’s approach as thorough, prudent, and intelligent, based on teamwork and partnership. There’s a personal humility that runs through all levels of the organization and a good deal of respect between individuals. Even if you have had a sparkling career and an amazing CV, you still need to work the way Advent does, if you want to gel with them.

Why do you choose to work with Advent?

I appreciate the emphasis Advent places on improving the operations of the company and the focus on value creation as opposed to financial engineering. On a more personal level, there’s the quality and approach of the individuals at Advent, and the strong sense that this is a partnership both with the management of the companies they invest in, and with the individual operating partners.

I am, by nature, a team-oriented person and am not keen on big egos and name-makers. The Advent team members are grounded and respectful of people that have done a lot on the operations front. I thoroughly enjoy working with them and am proud to be one of their Operating Partners.

contacts


Conor Boden

Head of Portfolio Board Development, UK

T: +44 (0) 20 7333 0800
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