HR Director Profile: George Wakely, Director of Retail HR at B&Q

Written by: Annie Hayes
Published on: 26 Aug 2016

George Wakely, B&Q

George Wakely has built a career at B&Q but it so nearly didn’t happen. When presented with a multiple-choice questionnaire for his initial screening he chose not to complete it thinking it wasn’t a very robust way to select people, but when the Do-It-Yourself retailer called him back and asked him to have a go at it he thought it said something about the business culture that would make it a good place to work. He joined the business in October 1998 and is still there today.      

  • Early career:

Wakely is an accomplished student. He studied Geography at Cambridge University, graduating in 1997 and initially wanted to carry on with his studies. He applied for funding for a PHD in Disease Diffusion which Wakely explains is a half-way house between Geography and Epidemiology. Sadly, the funding wasn’t available but by this time, Wakely had also missed out on the graduate milk round.

“I decided I’d have to wait to apply for the next round and in the meantime, whilst I was at home, I worked at the local convenience store, I suppose it gave me a taste for retail.”

It was perhaps a more important first foray into the industry than Wakely initially gave credit to it for. He found he loved the immediacy of retail and the buzz, it led onto his application at B&Q and, with a little encouragement to complete it, he began his career at the business but he admits it was more a case of ‘falling into retail’ than a conscious choice. 

“I joined in the days when there were big graduate schemes. I spent over four and a half years as a management trainee, working my way up to Store Manager roles. I moved from Wrexham, to Salisbury, Abingdon and Newbury where B&Q first trialled a mini-warehouse.” It was an exciting time and Wakely was given an important grounding in how to be a retailer.

Suddenly life was going to change yet again, not only was Wakely going to move locations but this time it was going to be on the other side of the world. “Mike Cutt, the HR Director for B&Q at the time approached me and asked me if I’d like to do an exchange with Bunnings in Melbourne, Australia. They sent someone here and I went there for six months to work in their commercial team. I delivered projects on range assortment and new-store opening processes. The experience made me realise there was a world beyond stores and I came back to the UK with my eyes wide open.”

It was a leap that challenged Wakely who confesses: “From a career point of view store life is like a continuation of school. It is very transparent and you know what the next step looks like, when you step out of that the career paths can be less clear.”

  • The mid-years:

In 2003 Wakely moved to central operations and began work on store-facing projects aimed at improving the supply of products. He learned a lot about project management and within eighteen months he moved permanently over to supply chain: “I knew it would force me to be more rounded and I got more experience in the commercial spine of the business. The great thing about B&Q is that if you have an idea of what you want to do, there are plenty of opportunities here to do it.”

Wakely began to learn that even if a long-term career path wasn’t always clear, by understanding the attributes he wanted his next role to have, he was able to build those skills and at the same time be ready to spot the opportunities when they came.

“My next move was to Finance where I worked in business planning. The Finance Director at the time really valued the ability to work cross-functionally. He had come from Tesco where that had happened a lot but it was not so common at B&Q at the time. In this role I got to oversee the businesses’ balanced scorecard. It was a fantastic role and I got to work closely with the Board on the strategic plan. On a particular part of the plan I was working with Martyn Phillips who was the Retail Director at the time. In just over a year he appointed me to the role of Director of Retail Planning and Productivity.” In this role, Wakely drove the creation and delivery of a single retail strategy and plan, leading the delivery of change into the store estate and creating and delivering a productivity programme delivering around 4% year-on-year savings.

  • Today’s challenges:

In the year that the Olympics came to London, Wakely was appointed as the Director of Retail HR at B&Q and whilst it was his first professional role in HR, he says it wasn’t a completely new discipline for him: “I felt I’d been doing ‘HR’ all of my career, ever since I undertook my first supervisor job at the local store.  Even so, I quickly learned there were some things that I didn’t even know I should know!”

He has relished the opportunity, “B&Q is all about its people, and this role is about trying to get the best out of every colleague in every store. Working in HR also gives you a unique perspective across the whole business, bringing with it the chance to influence strategy. I really love it, I have enjoyed moving back to a role with an operational element and again it has presented me with an opportunity to learn and grow by stepping outside my comfort zone.”

As well as leading a busy people change agenda, Wakely has been working hard on continuing to grow and develop management capability, an important part of which has been the introduction of the award-winning ‘Aspire’ talent development programmes.  He adds, “Great managers are the key to engaged teams and strong business performance. Working closely with the rest of the business to drive improvements in both of these areas has been really satisfying”.

There have been external challenges to think about too, including the changing nature of the retail landscape with the growth of online retailing which has posed the question as to what the role of the store will be in the future.

  • Top tips for HR Retail candidates:

Wakely is a self-confessed lover of retail and his top tip for candidates looking to get into the sector is that you should want to work in retail first and HR second: “Retail is an exciting place to work and you need to be bitten by the bug. You need to love working with people and want to make a difference but you also have to be comfortable with the pace. It’s never the same day twice.”

 “The advice I’d give to others wanting to get into the sector is that you need to be curious about how the business works and you need to understand customers. When people ask me what I do I say I work in Retail, then I add that I work in HR.  I think that’s the way round it should be.”

The expectations of workers are changing and Wakely admits that it has altered since he joined. “I read a recent BRC report which suggested that by 2020 there’ll be fewer but better jobs in retail. The growth of omni-channel retailing means we’ll need to re-think what the role of the store will be in the future, and about the different skills and capabilities the business will need to be successful.”

Wakely admits that before he worked in HR, he could see that it was important for the function to demonstrate its relevance. “HR at B&Q is all about driving business performance.  It’s important that we’re commercial, applying our skills to the problems and opportunities our teams face in delivering for our customers.”

  • The next chapter:

Wakely says that B&Q has always offered him opportunities for career growth: “One of the benefits of working for a company as big as B&Q is that there have always been opportunities to match my ambition.  I have never been bored and love working here. It’s fast-paced and the environment and culture has been a great fit for me.”

The business has offered even more than a career though. Wakely met his wife Nici at the business when he got back from his secondment in Australia. The couple now have a son, Sam who is seven. Wakely even admits that B&Q has not only introduced him to his life partner and given him a career but also presented him with a hobby: “I must admit to being a bit of a closet DIYer – I am currently building a treehouse for my son. It has a zip wire, a fireman’s pole and an eight metre chain bridge!”

The B&Q lifer’s story continues as just six weeks ago he was appointed to a new role as Director of Talent and Organisational Effectiveness and you can see why Wakely has done so well. His natural inquisitiveness to all things new and readiness to take on a challenge together with a love of retail has meant that Wakely has risen the ranks and deservedly so.