Big Interview: Joanna Wild, retail director of Thomas Cook

Big Interview: Joanna Wild, retail director of Thomas Cook

Thomas Cook’s retail chief was poised to leave last summer – now she is leading a retail turnaround. She spoke to Ian Taylor

Joanna Wild is excited by the changes under way in a division she has headed since 2010.

She declines to discuss why she was deciding to leave Thomas Cook last summer or how she was persuaded to stay. But her excitement speaks volumes.

Circumstances have clearly changed.

Wild says: “We’re very much back in the game and need to demonstrate that to customers.” And she is intent on making clear: “We are not closing down.”

In December, Wild opened the first Thomas Cook “store of the future” in Leeds’ White Rose shopping centre, and this month launched a store-refresh programme that will see 90 smaller high street shops get a facelift by September.

The investment is “significant”, says Wild, adding: “The store-refresh programme shows our commitment to the high street.”

Of course, the changes come alongside a painful redundancy and shop-closure programme, announced in March, with 195 stores to close and 1,600 retail roles to go among 2,500 job losses.

However, Wild insists: “By reinvesting we’re demonstrating this isn’t just about stripping out costs. This is also about rebalancing and showing we are focused on growing. We are making sure the offering is relevant to every customer in every town and shopping centre, in a multi-channel approach.”

Cook’s commitment to rapid growth of its online business must alarm many store staff.

Wild says: “[Chief executive] Harriet Green’s target is for our online share [of UK bookings] to be 55% in 2015. But we expect a lot to come from taking business from online competitors.”

However, right now she accepts: “A significant number of people are at risk [of redundancy]. It is difficult, and not just from a retail point of view. We have some hugely talented people and we don’t want to lose them.”

Wild is confident plans to have cluster managers replace existing shop managers will work, and not just for the group. She says: “There will be robust training for these jobs. We’re working on succession planning and career development.

“People will have a future in retail, with opportunities for promotion.”

Wild insists: “There have been months of intense planning. We asked ‘will this impinge on the product, affect turnover, add value to customers?’ We’ve done extensive benchmarking and we’ll be doing a thorough review. It is the right decision.”

Wild is equally clear about Cook's commitment to the Co-operative Travel brand, brought into the group by the retail joint venture of October 2011.

She rejects the idea that Cook does not value or market the Co‑op, saying: “The Co-operative is really important and we do market it. But with Thomas Cook the approach is national; with the Co-op we use local press and radio, and the marketing mirrors the Co‑op group’s. We keep close with the Co-op group to make sure we’re aligned with them.”

She adds: “I don’t think people link the brands. We wouldn’t put a store of the future in a Co-op. It’s a smaller high street concept.”

However, she confirms the Midlands Co-op name will disappear. “At present, we have Thomas Cook, the Co‑operative Travel and Midlands Co-operative. Over time there will be two brands: Thomas Cook and the Co-operative.”

The past 18 months have been a rollercoaster period for Cook and for Wild. But she says things have turned: “Harriet Green has put confidence into the City and into our people. They can see we have a future, can see the pace at which we are changing. We feel confident as a company.”

For herself, she says: “I’ve worked for Cook for a long time and I want to do the right thing by people. But I’m not shy of making decisions.” So why did she stay? “Who would not want to be part of this turnaround?”


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