Farrell currently works as the Head of Central Operations and Transport at John Lewis and up until his transition to the shopping giant served in the armed forces. After serving everywhere from Iraq to Berlin, where he was stationed during the Cold War, Farrell started looking for a role that would allow him to spend time with his family and “luckily enough John Lewis thought they could find a useful activity for me to do, which has been great. I’ve been there since then, six and a half, seven years later. Now I know retail in the UK extremely well after all that time covering it, so it’s all worked out magically.”
What is the one thing you learned from the army that gave you an edge in the business world?
Obviously [in the army] you learn how to lead people — on my first day, I took on a platoon of 30 men, then after eighteen years I ended up commanding a battalion, 1500 soldiers. The biggest single skill that I’ve seen an absence of [in the business world] is effective leadership. There’s so much more that could be done to motivate and harmonize organizations through effective leadership. Leadership that provides real clarity and makes complicated things simple for people, know what I mean? Especially in an increasingly complex retail world where we talk jargon, we talk about omnichannel dynamics, and really, good leadership needs to help people understand how they can contribute to a business driving it forward. I remember being in Iraq and seeing an American general who came and he put a situation that was so complicated so simply that everybody was very motivated to get behind what he was saying.
What would you say is the one challenge John Lewis needs to solve to stay ahead of its competitors?
These days, it’s hard to maintain the customer’s trust and engagement and a loyal customer base — because of the internet, it’s increasingly easy for people to choose more widely. When customers come to John Lewis, they get great products, great quality, a reliable service and when we say we’ll deliver it, it’s going to be there. So to maintain that in a world where there’s so much choice at the click of a mouse, you need to sustain that position.
We’ve got 150 years of experience in terms of the brand having great heritage in British society, we’re paranoid about customer service all the time, we spend our lives reviewing it and asking how we can do better. Out of constant paranoia comes constant activity to keep getting better at what we do and to increasingly personalize our service. If we have a relationship with you, we know you so we’re going to offer you things you like, maybe in the future we’ll even know your significant milestones, your 21st birthday, your wedding, your kids’ birthdays. We’re about establishing a personal relationship with our customers.
What’s your one tip for hiring staff who will be game changers?
I’m convinced we need to think broadly about people. Rather than saying, that person has the CV that matches the job description exactly, we need to think more deeply beyond that.
It’s tempting to look for a CV and think tick, tick, tick, those are the skills, they’ve done that before, let’s bring them in. But people often bring new ideas to the table if they haven’t necessarily been involved in that kind of profession for years — it’s easy for people to become stale.
Look at people like Richard Branson, he does space travel, railways, the breadth of it — there’s a guy with a vision. You can’t say here’s a picking list of experience that I want, I’m going to get it — that way you get people who are deeply experienced in one area but don’t necessarily have new thoughts or ideas to contribute. So maybe prioritise vision above skill, especially with leaders.
If you had a time machine, would you go back in time or head to the future?
I’d go forward, definitely. I’m excited by innovation, technology, what the future can bring, when I look at the last decade, how the digital evolution has taken grip of all aspects of our society, so I’d be excited to see what the world looks like in 50 years. I’d want to see what it would be like for my children when they’re that sort of age. There are so many aspects that I think will be revolutionized, like travel or the pace of travel. Look at innovation in the automotive industry, look at the innovation in airline travel, the pace at which space travel moves on, there are all sorts of thrilling things going on. Look at the very earliest signs of taxi drones — where will space travel take us?
What’s on your bucket list?
I go to Morocco with a bunch of guys every year and we race motorbikes across the Sahara Desert and I love doing that. We’re doing it again this year. I’m going to go kitesurfing in the best place on the planet to go kitesurfing, Dakhla, in southern Morocco. I’d like to go heli-skiing in North American in the deep snow. That’s on my bucket list for this year. My grandfather rode a motorbike from London to Capetown in 1924 and I’d like to do that. And one day, when I’m finally finished working, I’d like to be a sculptor. I’ve done a bit of it before because I went to the Chelsea School of Art when I was younger and did some sculpture there — human figurative sculpture.
What keeps you up at night?
Generally speaking, making sure my family are in good shape and doing a great job professionally. I’m very busy in the peak trading periods of the year in the run up to Christmas, making sure that all goes really smoothly for John Lewis. Watching those Netflix series also keeps me up at night — I’ve just watched Narcos, I totally recommend it, it’s brilliant about Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels in Colombia.
And finally, what are you most looking forward to about Savant eCommerce Berlin?
Meeting everyone and hearing different perspectives from across Europe and beyond on retail in a very rapidly changing world. Plus being back in Berlin, a city I love.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Farrell will be delivering the keynote speech on what a customer-centric, data-driven supply chain and fulfilment strategy entails at Savant eCommerce Berlin (1–2 March 2018). During the speech, he will be sharing insights into how John Lewis tackles the challenges of customers’ fulfilment expectations. Catch Farrell — and a whole host of other leading business figures from the likes of Coca-Cola, Zalando and Google — there. Buy tickets here.