With a career that started as a trainee manager in local government, Ben Willis has spent the last 20 years working for the likes of Capita, Deutsche Post, eBay and Bpost.
Here Ben tells us more about his career to date, how he came to be part of the Hexagon team and why his passion and expertise in D2C is so relevant in a post-Covid world.
Hi Ben, give us the quick lowdown on your career to date.
When I first moved up north, I took a 3-month contract to set up an HR function for GSI Commerce. GSI commerce had just made 3 acquisitions, one in London, one in Manchester and one in Barcelona and they wanted to start up their HR function because all of their infrastructure was in Philadelphia. I was meant to be there 3 months but ended up being there 12 years.
We provided ecommerce solutions for retailers and brands. I joined them in 2007 but they were already $500m in revenue and they had Polo Ralph Lauren, ToysRus, Mothercare and some other really big brands. Then in 2011 we were bought by ebay for $2.4bn. I stayed there for 4 years and was running the HR teams across Europe & Asia for eBay Enterprise – a 1.5bn business, with 800 employees in Europe and Asia across 7 countries.
Having been on the leadership team for 6 years, I then wanted to move into a broader role. I had a good relationship with the Global CEO, and after a chat one Friday, he came back to me on the Monday and said I’d like you to give it a go as MD for International! We were then sold to Private Equity after 3 months of me being in the job.
Fortunately for me, the next couple of years went really well. I took it from a $25m to 75m over 2 years, the PE firm were happy and after 2.5 to 3 years of holding us they had an approach from Bpost who subsequently paid 1bn Euros for our global business. Under Bpost I took on more eCommerce operations and another 7 or 8 warehouses fulfilling out of different countries.
Once I’d done 12 years, I decided it was time to try something new. I started doing Non Exec work, did some interim work with Klarna for 12 months and that’s when I met Peter from Hexagon.
What attracted you to become part of the Hexagon team?
The Hexagon team has a great track record – big clients, big companies – but the main thing for me was chemistry. Sue’s a straight talker and Peter is the same. I’m like that so I gravitate towards it.
As a team, we’re all experienced, seasoned professionals who’ve been there and done it. Not in an arrogant way, but we’ve all run businesses and been in the situation where you’re on the client side and you’ve been responsible for the outcomes. It’s helpful when you’ve sat on both sides of the table – I think that is the authenticity of what we do. This isn’t just about conceptually you can do A, B or C. When Peter has told me war stories about rolling up sleeves and getting things done, I really appreciate that. When I was a client I wanted consultants to work alongside me, rather than being that disconnected firm over there.
I also really like Hexagon’s philosophy about making a long term, sustainable difference. Rather than going in, getting paid, doing the job and saying good luck, there’s a genuine desire to see that what we’ve put in place sticks. We’re always keen to see things through to realisation rather than what you get with some other consultancies where businesses may only be able to afford the strategy and plan but not the implementation.
Tell us why D2C is such a hot topic right now
My favourite subject! I’m very passionate about this but there’s several reasons why it’s important right now.
As a result of the pandemic, eCommerce has gone from 15-20% of sales in the UK to, in August 2020, being up to 50% – a lot of that’s going to stick. You’ve suddenly got the older generation of people ordering goods online who hadn’t adopted it before. There’s been a digital acceleration because of Covid and because of that retailers are looking at what they need to do with their relationship around ecommerce and D2C.
The high street is so fragile. Up until recently 80% of shopping was still done in stores, but the market is leading towards digital, lots of the players can see that happening and are trying to quickly get into a space where they’re competent in that area.
Then when you consider some of the benefits associated with D2C. Almost overnight you can show all of your product portfolio. All of a sudden you’re global, you can bundle offers and create subscriptions, you can provide different payment methods that you don’t have in store – and the real icing on the cake is the consumer data that you can receive with going into this channel – that’s incredible insight.
What kind of patterns are emerging in a post-Brexit, post-Covid world?
Let’s take Brexit first of all. From a Hexagon perspective, it has started to impact some of the work we do around the supply chain – clients all of a sudden are having to think of different supply chain routes.
The fact that it’s not possible to travel and move around as freely, I think there’ll be some overhang from that, it could be 2-3 years before Heathrow and Gatwick get back to full speed. That will continue to drive digital commerce from a business perspective. The digital transformation agenda is going to be front and centre.
Many organisations will undoubtedly have a capability requirement, unless in protected sectors that have done well from Covid, they’ll have to think about how they reshape their workforce to get more for less or at least the same for less.
With a rise in unemployment being seen, there’ll be lots of re-organisations and re-structures that we’ll need to support with.
Tell us something we don’t know about you
I’m big into sports and I was a semi-professional footballer for 10 years.
I once played in the FA Cup 1st round in front of 13,000 people at Preston North End which is my claim to fame. I’m happy to get the video out at any opportunity – that’s always my ice breaker!
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