On his appointment as chief executive, Will spent several weeks, shirt sleeves rolled up, in the local Caffe Nero in his home town of Shrewsbury. He made coffee, he cleared crockery from the tables, he was organising stock in the storeroom . . . in short, he was doing the work of any trainee or junior level worker.
“I firmly believe that leaders should spend time listening first, before doing,” says Will. “My time working on the shop floor here was totally invaluable. The staff know that I know the system and how it operates, and I think that makes me far more credible.”
This from a man whose CV must boast more top-level roles in major corporations than anyone else’s in Shropshire, listing senior executive posts at British Airways, Walt Disney, InterContinental Hotels Group and SSE plc, one of the ‘big six’ energy firms.
“I’m fascinated by the core product – just breaking into the composition of a chocolate brownie really interests me,” he says.
He was previously managing director of energy company SSE – all very different to running a café empire.
“I wasn’t a passionate coffee person. But I liked the Caffe Nero brand. I liked the whole colour palette and the way Gerry Ford, the founder, had developed the brand.
“Food generally in coffee shops is pretty samey – a sea of carbs, where customers are confronted by walls of different bread-based products; we’re trying to inject more health and freshness.
“We are basically looking to make the food as great as our coffee.”
The easy-going rapport Will has with colleagues past and present in the café is not just down to his natural demeanour – it seems to be the Caffe Nero way.
He recalls the time when, during his spell learning the ropes as one of the workers in Shrewsbury, he was sent downstairs to get more cups. On opening a cupboard, he found it to be groaning with Christmas presents, which turned out to be gifts from customers to the staff. That’s quite a recommendation.
“I’ve worked in big organisations which have really strong cultures but I’ve never seen one as great as here.
“It’s not franchised which makes quite a big difference. A lot of our staff come from the EU and Eastern Europe, and if they have a problem we help them in the same way that we would if they were family.”
Adopted at six months old, Will was brought up in Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. His first taste of retail was gained on the tills of the Harrow store of Marks & Spencer in the early 80s.
After a spell at Leeds University and being enticed into joining the navy “where I was paid to travel”, Will’s first major career move was in the aviation industry, joining British Airways as part of a post-graduate scheme.
This 10-year spell with BA was where he developed his acumen for marketing and branding with a major corporation. In 1995 he got posted to Rome as BA’s commercial manager for the Mediterranean.
These were the heady days of globalisation and BA bought two smaller airlines and Will tells a story of a presentation he made to various executives in Paris as part of a brand re-launch.
“They were in their 50s and I was 30. Marketing for them was something for some junior person in a back room, not sitting on the board designing a strategy to re-launch a company.
“It got to the big event along with hoopla regarding the new branding, cabins, food and so forth. At the end, the CFO and another executive beckoned me over. ‘Maintenant nous croyons,’ they said. Now we believe.
“I had assumed that people in finance, or investors, or really good businessmen, don’t have a heart. But of course they’re human beings and the big insight for me was that it’s not just about making a case in a cold and rational way – which of course you do to a certain extent – but you also have to be able to sell the dream; you have to be able to engage with the heart of the target audience.
“Something needs to go click, and if it goes click – sometimes against their better judgement – then you have succeeded.”
It seems shameful to gloss over Will’s next three positions, but in 2000 he joined Disney, initially as head of sales and marketing for continental Europe, before being made vice president of brand and marketing for Disneyland Paris. Here he oversaw the re-positioning of Disney as a resort destination from a day venue.
In 2006 he joined InterContinental where he was managing director of UK & Ireland, overseeing, amongst other chains, the world’s largest hotel chain, Holiday Inn; and in 2012 he was made group managing director of retail of SSE plc, which comprised some 9 million customers, 10,000 members of staff and revenues of £8 billion.
The very fact that he was headhunted for these positions with such vast responsibilities is testament to the success he made of them all.
At what point though did Shropshire appear on his radar?
“This was while I was still at Intercontinental. By then my wife Tania and I had three children and we were living in a beautiful suburb of Paris. My son wanted to go to school in England. Because Tania’s parents live on the eastern fringes of Shropshire we thought it best my son go to school in the area and he ended up at Shrewsbury School. That precipitated a move from Paris to Shrewsbury.
Will talks passionately about Shrewsbury, and indeed the county as a whole, and you get the impression that he feels a sense of duty to make whatever contribution he can to Shropshire. He urges others to do the same.
“My message to business leaders is that everyone’s got a role to play. Shropshire needs to get itself out there and bringing more people to the county will in turn drive more and more demand. We need to build the awareness of Shropshire.
“One of the things I’ve enjoyed in the latter part of my career is the close involvement I have with the county. It’s such an amazing place to live and work.”