Date of recording: 24/11/2022
Speakers: Professor Christopher Pietroni and Paul Richardson
Video length: 27:19
Christopher Pietroni: Hello everyone and welcome to the Leadership Exchanged Podcast with me, your host, Christopher Pietroni. The podcast is brought to you by the University of Birmingham, where I am, Professor of Leadership Practice and Director of the Birmingham Leadership Institute. On this podcast, we ask whether we have the right kind of leadership for the challenges that we are facing or whether we need to exchange our current approaches for something new. In today's episode, I'm delighted to welcome Paul Richardson. Paul has success in an extraordinary, diverse range of sectors, from waste management to retail to fashion, e-commerce, cybersecurity and most recently, football. Starting at 18 in his Dad's skip hire business in the 1970s.Paul's well known for being one of the key figures behind Gymshark a multiple billion dollar global enterprise, and most recently, Paul's behind the Gen-Z fashion brands Hera and more recently, a Pre-Loved platform Haru. So we're going to explore a wide range of themes with Paul today. And Paul, welcome. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
Paul Richardson: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for inviting me on. It's a pleasure to have you.
Christopher Pietroni: Paul, it's been fascinating reading about your career and generally when you're written about and when you're interviewed you’re written up as this successful businessman entrepreneur, which of course you are, you know, you've done an extraordinary amount of things. You've taken businesses, you've grown them, you've created jobs, you've made a lot of money. But when I look at your career, the thing that really stands out for me is that you seem to me to be somebody who is an innovator, a disruptor, and that that's really been behind a lot of your success. Is that how you see yourself?
Paul Richardson: Yeah, I mean, I didn't really see that and didn't really understand the word disruptor until we got to Gymshark. And, you know, Gymshark was probably the disruptor of its time. But when I look back into waste management and look at what I did back there in the day, just as a, for instance, in waste management, sort of skip hire businesses days back in the day, you own a building site, you only put skips on and everyone just threw everything into one skip and we came up with an idea that recycling needed to be sort of brought to the forefront and, you know, building sites didn't do that. So we decided to talk to a company that's not here. Now, Tarmac, who's a very big Midlands company back in the day, had lots of sites building houses and buildings, and we talked to them and put on their sites containers and skips for all of the different types of waste. So wood, cardboard, canteen waste building, rubble, etc., etc. So I had many different skips on site. So when we suggested it and sort of people like that won’t they won't do that, but they did because it saved them money. It was much better for their environmental policy and everything. So even in those days I sort of look back now and I didn't realise it, but that was a disruption just in itself.
Christopher Pietroni: So that’s really interesting because you say in this really matter of fact way, it's come out, oh, we came up with this idea and but it came from somewhere. The impetus to think differently came from where does that come from?
Paul Richardson: You have to think differently if you want to stay ahead. I mean, you're always I mean, if you know the thing, if you got to keep doing the same, you just going to get the same. So for me, any time, I'm constantly thinking about new ways to do things and I love taking sort of ideas from other sectors to bring it into the sector you’re in. You know, so looking at Birmingham City Football Club at the moment, now football's run as football and my belief with looking at it most recently it's sort of a bit behind. And as a for instance, you know, there's 20,000 people or 30,000 people who go to the ground. I'm very interested in what they have as an experience on that day, on the Saturday. But what about all of the other days and what about the 50,000, the 1 million people that are outside that you can bring in somehow? So, you know, I'm constantly looking now at things like that. Just like the football side of what can we bring in from the e-commerce that was working, what can we bring in from another sector, etc.? So you always have to look, you have to stay ahead, you know, and another thing, I used to work seven days a week, which, you know, probably frowned upon today. But the way I looked at it was when I had my skip hire companies way, way, way back was that if I worked seven days, most of my competition were working 5 to 5 and a half. So by the time the end of the year came, I was 80 to 100 days ahead of them before they even started. So that to me wasn't something that took a university degree to get or, you know, I had to do anything for it was just basically I was working harder, I was working more. So again, it's just things like that.
Christopher Pietroni: But that's something else that strikes me about your success, Paul, is that you've quite often been sort of on the boundary of something like not exactly on the outside, but not exactly on the inside either. So like, KnoWaste, even, you weren't you were actually in another company and you were you were giving a perspective into KnoWaste. Gymshark, you were sort of brought in. You weren't one of the founders. You just you mentioned earlier, Birmingham City football club and you're thinking about that from the perspective of somebody who's been in other sectors. I mean, again, do you see yourself that way and how significant do you think that's been for you?
Paul Richardson: I quite like helicopter view, right. So again with Steve Hewitt at Gymshark. He sort of invented that for me because we were very fortunate and I think that was one of the successes that Gymshark was able to have someone with that helicopter view constantly looking at where people were going and say, don't go down there. That's a dead end. That is one of the things I do. I like to be high level. It's very difficult if you're not actually right in the depths of it to see, in the depths of it. But you can see high level and work with the people who are in the deep end.
Christopher Pietroni: I just wanted to explore this idea of adaptation a bit more and in particular in relation to growing companies, because that's been a big feature of your career as well. And you know, you've worked with a number of companies, right, all the way back to the Skip hire businesses, where sometimes quite successful companies have been stratospherically successful. And obviously Gymshark’s the one that you're probably best known for and people will know the brand. I think when you first got involved with Gymshark it was already pretty successful, right? I mean, it was a bit it was a bit you're not exactly a Momma and Poppa store, but it was a little fly by the seat of your pants. But it was doing okay.
Paul Richardson: Yeah, it was about four and a half million, around about eight people in the business. So it was run a little bit. I mean, you know, Ben and Lewis ran it almost like a bit of a laugh. You know, it was a bit of a joke. It was great fun for the young guys sort of 19/20 earning money, you know, driving a couple of nice cars. So yeah, I mean, you know, by comparison to a lot of businesses and, you know, businesses, that I’d developed in my day, you know, really, really hard work. It’d come quite easy, you know. But they were onto something really good at that time. You know, they'd hit on something very innovative with how they developed it. But yeah, it was, it was early doors, but it lacked it structure in any way, shape or form. So the thing is, and again, this is a Steve Hewitt analogy, you know, it's like they've got a house and they wanted to put an extension on another extension of the extension, but the foundations were all on sand. Yeah. So, you know, the house itself is going to start to wobble. Never mind, you put an extension and extension on, it's going to literally collapse and that's what they haven't got. So that was one of my almost my specialities is seeing that the foundations need to be put in as much as possible and as much as you can afford because you can't do that sometimes in the way that and you know, maybe we did at Gymshark because it was very successfully very cash rich at the time. So we could easily go, we need to do this, we need to do that, we need to do that. Sometimes you can't afford to do that. But I think having in your head as a as a, you know, as a business person, that you want to do that, you know, it's the right thing. So for argument's sake, rather than when you get your first load of money and go and you buy yourself a Lamborghini, put that money into the foundations of your company, and then that will help it grow.
Christopher Pietroni: And, you know, just to give people a sense of the growth trajectory here, so it goes from about 4 million in when did you first get that? There was four and a half million at the end of 2013. And then becomes famously the unicorn, over $1,000,000,000.
Paul Richardson: I mean. Current turnover is going to be ballpark in 500 million.
Christopher Pietroni: In roughly speaking, ten years. So phenomenal growth. Yeah, so many organisations really struggle with that sort of growth, you know, particularly when there's a founder or two founders in this case involved and I guess a pretty small staff when they began probably people they knew. Friends and relatives. Right. Exactly. So the growth is wonderful, but it's also going to change everybody's life in lots of ways, their working life, the way that they imagine what this company is, what their job is. You know, all sorts of new people are going to come in, people they didn't know, you know, a whole load of change. How do you know, having been through, what do you see as the kind of leadership challenges of taking people through that journey?
Paul Richardson: So it's several again, when Ben and Lewis, I sat them in my office, it was actually KnoWaste’s office at the time. I was still with KnoWaste. You know, there's a transition period, but I was helping them and I'd ask them what they wanted to do with the company because again, you know, they were mini successful what they did and I said, you know, what do you want to do with the business? You know, you've got a nice lifestyle business here, which is fine. And they said, no, no, no, we want to be as big as Under Armour. I said, okay, that means there's lots and lots of change you've got to go through and there's going to be some of it that you don't like for absolute certainty that you don't like. You need to adapt and grow with that change. And there's several things, you know, people one of them. Business is about people. You are going to need to hire people much better than you. And that is given at that particular sector or section or whatever they do or that, you know, their talent has to be much better than you and that can be quite hard for people. So I know Lewis struggled with that at the time and eventually left the business, whereas Ben realised that that was the way that growth went and you know, that's one of the main ingredients for growth is these people. Putting the right people in the right place. And you know, that for me is the hardest thing anyone has to do.
Christopher Pietroni: This thing about risk is very interesting, isn’t it? I mean, you're an entrepreneur, right? It’s risk. It's all about risk taking. So, I mean, do you see yourself as a risk taker?
Paul Richardson: Oh yes, 100%. Yeah, I do enjoy it, I mean it, is that the experience. Oh yeah. I mean it's, it's, it's part of it. It's the high of it. I mean it's when you get it right but as long as you get more right than wrong, you know, you can't get them all right. But I enjoy doing things that other people wouldn't do, trying to be ahead of the curve as much as you possibly can. I’m probably not the very, very first mover. I'm probably just a little bit behind that. I'd love to be that first mover. Sometimes you just see something completely no one's ever seen. But, you know, I'm just probably a little bit behind that, is the way that I look at it.
Christopher Pietroni: It does come across as you speak, Paul, that that there is a sort of you know, a values base right. There’s something that motivates you about, you know, I don't know what it is, being decent to people or being, you know, a good human being? There's something that that sort of infuses the way that you try to exercise your leadership.
Paul Richardson: I think it pays in the long term. Look, it doesn't always work. You know, in business, you're in business. And, you know, things happen within the business that sometimes don't go quite right or whatever. But I always look long term if I possibly can. So I look in businesses for not a supplier, but someone who it's almost like a relationship because there's a time and I know I might need them to get me out of it, you know, a hole. Can you get me that material quicker? And if you're not, say nice to them. If you're respectful to them, you don’t have to be their friend, you know, they're not your friend. It's business, but respect there might get you that quicker. So that to help you out when you've got a problem and then sometimes when they can't deliver to you, you know, you don't rip their heads off. You know, it's a case of saying, look I’ve got to understand what they're going through. Is it logical? Is it okay? Or are they taking the mickey? Yeah. You know, being firm and fair. I think I think it works it works long term because you go up, you come down, you go up, you come down. My, my life has been it's been like this. You know, it's not just one nice, easy line.
Christopher Pietroni: I think this holding a kind of attitude of curiosity is a really important part of leadership. And I think we really struggle with that. And I think one of the reasons is because it it's exhausting. It's hard work. Yeah.
Paul Richardson: People don't like hard work really, do they? They want everything needs to come easier. And I always say to people, people talk to me about balance of work and life and things like that. And I don't know any successful person that I've ever met, whether that's an Olympian, a footballer, a businessperson, a leader of some description in government or whatever, it doesn't matter what who hasn't had to work really, really hard. It's very, very hard but I don't know any so hard work comes into it all the time. And I think if you wire yourself for hard work and expect it and it's not a surprise. Oh, my God, this is hard. No, actually you were expecting it. You know, it's going to be hard. You know, you are just got to run a marathon. So you're not thinking, oh that's going to be easy. It's going to be hard. Even if you're the best in the world record holder, it's still going to be hard for some description, different level of difficulty, probably, than if I run it or try to run it. But I think if you expect it and are ready for hard work, you know, I lift. I lift at the gym and, you know, I've got a couple of hundred kilos on the floor to do a deadlift. I know it's not going to be as easy as lifting a hundred, so I've got to set everything ready, get my mind ready, get my body ready to take that 200 off the floor. But if I walk up to it thinking, it's going to be just dead easy. It’s not going to come off the floor and it's going to feel really hard. But if I prepare myself, get myself in the right headspace, get the right form, execute it, it will feel easier.
Christopher Pietroni: And that getting yourself in the right headspace, the and that sort of preparation that you do in the moment when you're lifting it also seems to me connected to what I know is another interest of yours, which is around supporting mental health and mental wellbeing.
Paul Richardson: Massively.
Christopher Pietroni: Because, you know, the work that you've done, you know, the, the highs, the lows, the risks that you've had to hold, risks that have gone wrong as well as the ones that, you know, have gone well. The success can be as hard as the failure sometimes. So to stay mentally well through that kind of process must have been demanding for you in the way that it is for everybody in organisations.
Paul Richardson: Yeah, again, I think it's getting ready for it and expecting it. So if you're going to put yourself under pressure, you're going to have times when you won't feel as good about yourself for whatever reason that could be physically and mentally. So for me, in terms of my regime in now, in terms of fitness and vitamins in my bag down there are all my vitamins for the day and things like that, I drink a lot of water and stuff, a lot. Stuff I've learned over time that I probably didn't do when I was younger. But you can get away with it when you're younger. Preparing yourself really for that same mentally, you know. I think you cannot be successful. Or want to be successful without having some form of issues at some point. So again, open yourself up. So I’m a massive advocate for counselling, you know, people to talk to who have no agenda with you. They're not your mates who's just going to agree with you but will challenge you about yourself and why you think the way you do or the way you're feeling, etcetera. So for me it’s making sure that you're open to it and not waiting for it to all go completely wrong. Preparing yourself mentally and physically I think is really important.
Christopher Pietroni: And do you I mean, do you see this support for sort of mental health and wellbeing as being sort of, you know, part of a good business?
Paul Richardson: One hundred percent. Yeah I mean again at Gymshark I bought something there which they now use. It's called D-Load now. So we brought in loads of experts around. We brought a psychologist, a psychiatrist and dieticians because again, dietary stuff is huge in the sort of gym industry and around there, you know, eating disorders. But again, disordered eating is equally as bad. We had a GP and had all those sort of people around. So I will carry that through now to every company that I deal with in terms of trying to make sure that you have, you know, health care and help wherever they need it, push them forwards and make sure that people are being spoken to and their mental health is being considered at all times, but also giving them the expectation that if we are going to be a successful company and we are going to be pushing the boundaries, we are also going to be pushing those boundaries a little bit so you have to get ready for it, be prepared. I think is, you know, one of the things, you know, if you go into it completely blind and blasé then different, but if you're ready for it, you can prepare yourself for it.
Christopher Pietroni: Do you find still that you know, you find you get resistance, people saying, well you know, it’s going to come off the bottom line. And we're not we're not a mental health organisation.
Paul Richardson: I think we are. I think people are getting better. I think they go, what I'm not keen on is the token gesture thing. I think there was an advert at one point. It might have been... I won’t say the company, it doesn’t matter. of sticking the post-it notes on their head and stuff like that. I think campaigns in my mind are a little bit well, you know, for me it's not about just doing a campaign. I know it can heighten awareness, but for me it's about what you do on a constant heartbeat basis all the time. It's not just what you do when someone's either ill and then you sort it out is you just keep it on a constant heartbeat basis. Give people to the ads. For me, company counsellors, having someone that you can send your people to, they don't have to think about it. They don’t even need to think about paying for it. They go straight to that person. It's completely private. But you, you know, you've got that person that they can refer to as a counsellor. I’d have that everywhere I go if I could.
Christopher Pietroni: It seems to be another theme for you, Paul, is that, you know, you never want to say it's a trade off between the bottom line and doing the right thing. You know, it's when you can align those two things that real change happens.
Paul Richardson: Yeah, people aren't stupid. They, they work out when companies are doing things for the sake of it. So they work out when, you know, a diversity type scenario is being almost like crafted, your consumer will work that out. Your staff will work that out. When you're doing something with a true heart. So, you know, Hera, for instance, we have a quite a large gay community in our customer base and I was just interested and I was asked some people that I know, okay, what do we do to help this out without it being sort of crafted? And they gave me the answers. You know, it was you support something constantly, you know, you don't just go in on pride and do some kind of a big splash and put it all over your website and then you disappear again. You constantly support things. And I think it's the same with mental health. It's a constant heartbeat of things rather than just an advertising brand awareness campaign, you know, for me is, you know, you're doing something you can't have every type of different person in your roster, you know, that's just crafted, oh, we’ve got to have that type of person and that type of person that's not actually real. That's just putting it out there. You know, people in your business should be diverse. People you associate with should be diverse in all the different ways. But also they have to be the right person for the job or the contract or whatever you've got to do, because that comes first as well, because that's the commercial trade off. You know, in my head, you know, it has to work for both.
Christopher Pietroni: When you when you're pushing these boundaries, when you're when your or at times your career and you have them, when you've been making the case for mental health support, you've been making the case to support, you know, people who might, you know, be customers of yours. But in that case, you know, like, you know, people from LGBTQ identities and so on. Are you aware that that's leadership? That, you know, because without you, that might not happen. And for me, that looks like leadership.
Paul Richardson: Yeah. I think so. But it just comes natural to me. I just see it as logic. I just see it as the way it should be. It's the right thing to do, you know. And to my mind is I don't want to spend a lot of money on a campaign and it then it just falls flat. I'd rather have something that works over time and gives you the things you want and it gains you the respect from everyone. And because for me, supporting people is not about giving sweets out to them type of scenario, it's the right, you know, giving them perks and discounts and other things, no, no, support them when they need it. And that's what's important. Put the money in the right place at the right time. And that it is it is difficult sometimes to get people to see it. And the trouble with some big companies is if you give them something, they don't do it and then they'll do it and when that's their idea, type of scenario when it suits them rather than actually getting ahead of the curve. You know, if in my mind you get ahead of that curve, that's when you really, really get it.
Christopher Pietroni: So Paul, one question that we ask all of our guests: whose leadership inspires you and why?
Paul Richardson: Many, many people inspire me. But probably a combination of two probably mentioned them earlier. Alex Ferguson. I just think him dealing with the stars of Man United and all the people around him at that time to the level of protection he gave them. But then when you hear about the hairdryer scenario in the dressing room and throwing in the football boots at Beckham, you know, that type of thing, not saying that's the right thing to do, by the way. But just that sort of style of leadership in terms of protecting, but also holding to account behind closed doors is one you could combine that with Steve Hewitt. You know, at Gymshark, I have immense admiration for him and what he's taught me from the culture, understanding and just the sheer sort of empathy and the ability to communicate with vast numbers of people. I can’t actually do that in the same way that Steve does, but I really love that sort of style, and it's a level of honesty that Steve has brought and brought to Gymshark at the time. I've really taken so much on board and so those two to me are a bit of a combination, so that's okay.
Christopher Pietroni: Paul, thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for joining us on the Leadership Exchanged podcast today. It's been absolutely fascinating exploring both that kind of, you know, really focused business entrepreneurial kind of notion about how do we actually deliver things that people want and stay in the real world. But with that, this ability that you seem to have developed to be open to learning, to kind of stay curious, to stay open to what the future might be and what people from a different generation might have to contribute. And ultimately to combine that in ways which create, you know, fantastic brands that people really want to buy to do extraordinary things in the world. And I guess, you know, as I said, Chelsea fan, I wish you well with Birmingham City Football Club because, you know, you're probably right. This may be your biggest leadership challenge to date, but thanks again for being with us.
Paul Richardson: But thanks very much, at least you’re a Blue.
Christopher Pietroni: And to those of you listening, thank you for joining us again and we look forward to you joining us again next time. All the details of everything we've talked about today with Paul will, as always be available in the show notes. And if you've enjoyed this episode, do please subscribe on whatever channel you're using and give us a review. We'd love to hear your feedback. If you've got any suggestions for guests or for topics, do let us know those as well. We always look at them and we're really keen to have the people who you'd like to hear from on this podcast. Otherwise look, stay up to date with Leadership Exchanged what we've got upcoming and again you'll find the details in the links in the show notes.
In this episode, Paul discusses his journey as a serial entrepreneur at just 18 years old in his father’s skip-hire to strategically directing Gymshark to become the billion-dollar global sportswear brand it is today.
Paul and Christopher discuss taking a helicopter view on leadership to stay ahead of competitors and how empathy, communication and consistently developing on your learnings are key to a modern-day leadership approach. The Leadership Exchanged podcast asks if the world's biggest and most complex problems could be solved if the right leadership approach was applied? Do we need to exchange current approaches to leadership for something new? In each episode Leadership expert Professor Christopher Pietroni discusses with guests what kind of leadership is needed if you want to make real, lasting change.
Find out more about the Leadership Exchanged podcast.