Mark Stirton: making the CFO the chief futurist officer

A proponent of digital tech as a key enabler, Mark talks about Mr Price’s recent acquisitions and growth opportunities.

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Mr Price Group’s recent acquisitions of Power Fashion and Yuppiechef mark the first deals the company has done in more than 20 years – with both deals being completed in less than six months.

This track record supports CFO Mark Stirton’s assertion that he is not a traditional CFO, but more into the operations and business model engineering. “I would best describe myself as a commercially strategic futurist,” he says. “The fiscal discipline skills help you to commercialise your thoughts, but my true passion lies in helping business and individuals prepare for a rapidly changing world.

“I am a proponent of technology and being a data-driven organisation. It is the key enabler to transform business models, replumb our business and enable an insights-driven organisation,” he says.

Although the Yuppiechef deal received more media coverage, the Power Fashion business was several times bigger. “We had to reset the business in terms of vision, strategy and growth. We realised when we analysed the market that there were opportunities up and down the value chain. We targeted aspirational value with the Yuppiechef deal and deep or price value in the Power Fashion deal,” he explains.

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The former also gives the company an e-commerce opportunity and a channel strategy access to skills. He does, however, caution against confusion around the concepts of digital and e-commerce.

“Digital is much broader than e-commerce. It encompasses every aspect of business and our lives that no longer requires physical constructs to execute,” says Mark. In South Africa and Africa, the emergence and penetration of smart devices has accelerated way faster than in developed markets. Communicating and transacting through apps and other digital mediums has become prolific. This provides a major opportunity for digitally ready organisations.”

Mark, who is in the process of completing his executive MBA in Global Digital Business, sees Mr Price’s mobile capabilities providing a strong platform to aid in delivering the group's digital ambitions.

Borderless
“Business models are changing at a rapid rate. The customer is firmly in charge; we cannot push products onto customers any longer, but need to see how we can meet the customer at the intersection of their needs and desires in a frictionless way. We are moving to a digital, borderless environment and competitors can launch from nowhere. You can do everything nowadays in a low capital environment, from managing supply chains to customer expectations. If you’re too slow, you’ll find yourself irrelevant,” he says.

This is one of the reasons he sees the upside in Covid-19, of jolting people into action and moving businesses from complacency to urgency.

“In March 2020, we presented a growth budget to the board and then in April we had to go back with version two that looked horrendous. Basically, we lost R2 billion cash in April 2020 when Covid-19 hit. This was almost 50 percent of our cash reserves in one month. Capital and funding strategies had to be employed quickly. We had to convince the board that we needed to open up a channel for authority to raise capital via an equity raise – authority we did not ever think we would need, being such a strong cash generating business. Fortunately, we did not need to action this form of capital raise, but display the uncertainty that we had to deal with,” he said.

This is where an agile, resilient business makes all the difference. “Mr Price people have a high degree of ownership, empowerment and love for the business and that definitely helped in a crisis,” he says. “We also have very flat structures, which facilitate communication. Messages we get to people are clear: it’s firm and it’s fast,” he says.

“We were very fortunate compared to some of our peers,” he adds. “With our diverse retail footprint, when customers were avoiding headline malls [during Covid-19], they frequented our smaller location shops.”

Competitive and complex
This lends credence to the company’s mandate of being the people’s value champion, with the aim of bringing fashion to people who are cost conscious, but want to look and live well. “The average consumer in Africa has a high desire to look and feel good. Often their living conditions are inadequate, so how they present themselves is very important to who they are,” he says.

Retail is, however, a highly competitive market, works off the back of economic cycles, and is currently in a tough space. “It has been devastating at a retail segment level, but base effects are starting to create green shoots,”says Mark. “Mr Price has a defensive business model: category dominance coupled with promotional appeal help us to surprise and delight our customers with the price and fashion value clearly communicated. Evidence of this is displayed over the last 12 months where we have taken market share. We are also starting to see a lot more trialists from the higher LSMs, which shows the versatility of the model and that our purpose is having impact.”

Mr Price has also recently decided to pull out of Nigeria to create strategic focus on its core market, South Africa. “Africa is a complex animal. The government and regulatory complexities and inconsistencies create a lot of challenges, most notably the uncertain forex regulations . We are completely sober to the fact that opportunity comes with mess, but unfortunately trading in Nigeria exceeds our current risk to reward tolerance,” he says.

However, Mark remains optimistic about the African market and the opportunities that it can bring to Mr Price.