When Stuart met Michael

MichaelGordonHe arrives spot on time for our appointment. I have met Michael Gordon a couple of times before and I made a mental note – get on with it and don’t waste his time.

Gordon is the managing director, group services, plus chief financial officer, of Steinhoff Asia Pacific, the local arm of South African global retail powerhouse, Steinhoff International.

Their ‘who we are’ page on their website states that Steinhoff is an integrated retailer that manufactures, sources and retails furniture, household goods and general merchandise in Europe, Australasia and Africa. Their revenue is €9.9 billion. Their brands include locally known chains such as Freedom Furniture, Snooze, Poco, Best&Less, Conforama, along with about 35 other brands. Steinhoff employs 90,000 people and have 6500 retail outlets worldwide. They were previously listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange but have recently moved their primary listing to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, a move said to help further grow the Steinhoff name internationally. Their head office remains in Stellenbosch, a quaint little town in the wine district not far from Cape Town.

The enigmatic Michael Gordon plays his cards close to his chest and doesn’t give away much. In fact, he tells me that he hardly ever gives interviews, shooing them away with a curt ‘no comment’.

So I consider myself lucky to have gotten this far. I realise that I had better cut to the chase. I ask a few questions, such as the structure in Australasia and the number of employees. I am immediately tested: “Why do you want to know?”Gordon probes. I know I had better provide an answer, and quickly, which I do. “Because I want to get an idea of scale in the region”. The answer is obviously acceptable and we continue.

After some discussion, I volunteer that the modus operandi sounds “Wesfarmers’ish”. Each company operates more or less autonomously with little interference from corporate – provided they perform. Gordon heads up a team that inter alia provides services to Steinhoff companies. He graciously advises that it is the companies themselves that make decisions, although one gets the impression that what the intrepid Gordon suggests is not lightly ignored. It’s called ‘clout’.

Both being South Africans expats, we eventually get onto discussing sport, as one does. Gordon supports the Wallabies – I support the Springboks. We cordially agree to disagree. He is passionately supportive of the country that has given him so much. So am I, but I draw the line when it comes to rugby.

The interview ends on an affable note. As a retail commentator, one tends to win a few and lose a few. One can’t ‘click’, with everyone but when one does, it is a bonus.

As I part ways with Michael I leave a lot wiser. Steinhoff is a low-key mother of a retail organisation with a unique style that clearly works.

Stuart Bennie is a retail consultant at Impact Retailing www.impactretailing.com.au and can be contacted at stuart@impactretailing.com.au or 0414 631 702

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