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EY CEO RETREAT- Learnings from London Part 2

27 June 2018 by Sandra Lawler

Building Successful Brands and Businesses

EY CEO RETREAT- Learnings from London Part 2

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Sandra Lawler, Founder Director Alternatives Other, Interview Advice, Customer...

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I recently spent a week in Oxford and London on this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year CEO retreat, along with current and previous Entrepreneur of the Year finalists.

Here are some of the learnings that I found most interesting, shared with us by some of the fascinating business men and women that EY had lined up to speak to us.


Sahar Hashemi co-founded Coffee Republic, the UK's first US-style coffee bar chain. She shared her 6 habits on how to be successful in business.

Habit 1: Step into your customers shoes. Somehow as businesses grow we get further from them and only to seek to understand them via research. It becomes Us vs Them. So stay close. Have “Pillow talk” knowledge of them-Get to know your customers as well as you know your life partners.

Habit 2: Get out of the office. It’s easy to confuse busyness with business. Avoid the trap of “comfort admin”, get out of the office into the external world and seek stimuli to create ideas.

Habit 3: The importance of being clueless. Go back to the beginning and unlearn. Lead by curiosity, keep questioning and essentially be the maverick. 

Habit 4: Bootstrapping. Be extremely resourceful and nimble. Encourage a culture of experimentation, trying new things, inexpensively, not aiming for absolute perfection.

Habit 5: Don’t be afraid to notch up the “no’s”. Remember 12 publishers said no to Harry Potter. Embrace failure as a normal part of innovation.

Habit 6: Take 100 percent of yourself to work. Encourage individuals. Bring your head, heart and personality to work and encourage others to do likewise.


Lord Bilimoria Founder and Chairman of Cobra beer shared his insights on What Makes Extraordinary Brands?

#1 … tell a compelling story based on an undeniable brand truth. At Cobra he had a simple big idea- extra smooth beer you can drink with food (originally Indian food). Resulted in “Cobra- Brewed smooth for all food”.

#2 … live by and refuse to compromise on their principles. Ikea for example is relentless in its focus “to create a better everyday life for the many people”.

#3 … have an instantly recognisable iconic look. As Steve Jobs said “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer … but to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design.  Design is the fundamental soul of any man-made creation."  

#4 … deliver a unique, relevant, consistent experience. A brand is a living entity – and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures." Michael Eisner –CEO Disney.

#5 … that inspire people to become loyal brand champions. Apple, Harley-Davidson, Coca-Cola, Disney. Just some of the global brands that inspire a loyal following.

#6 … that deliver enduring, extraordinary profits.


Simon Rogerson is CEO and co-founder of Octopus Group which operates across a number of sectors “where customers deserve better”.  He is the 2018 UK EY Entrepreneur of the Year.

He shared his learnings:

Learning 1. Keep everything simple. Several business sectors make things complex purposefully. Customers are fed up with friction. Companies and brands who can ease the friction will thrive.

Learning 2. Never compromise on your people. Spend a lot of your time as a senior manager interviewing and hiring the right people. Ensuring a values and culture fit is critical.

Learning 3. You need a dream. Tesla for example won’t stop until every car is electric. Octopus has an ambition of being in every home in the UK.

Learning 4. Values must be genuine. Power sits with the end customer. Octopus’ values are to be bold, helpful, straightforward, do the right thing. As a leader, hire those who share your beliefs.

Learning 5. The world is totally transparent. The Customer has the power and will effect change. Ignore that at your peril.

Learning 6. Embrace rather than fight change. We all need to embrace disruption and technology. Those who don’t will struggle.

Learning 7. People assess businesses on two dimensions- Competence (skills) and warmth (best interest at heart), but competence is less importance than warmth.

Learning 8. Never forget who the boss is. The customer. Apply the same levels of love as you did to the first one. 

Simon ended with a quote by Sam Walton, Founder of Walmart:

“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”


Martin Hellawell-Chairman of Softcat PLC

Softcat is one of the UK’s leading IT infrastructure providers. It has an annual turnover in excess of £800 million and is a FTSE 250 listed company.

Martin spoke to us about his belief in outstanding employee satisfaction and world class customer service and how he believes that the former drives the latter. Although a lot of the talk was private, I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing 3 of his top tips.

Tip 1: Culture is the differentiator in attracting and retaining great talent and culture and recruitment must align. Recruitment must be a key focus for senior management. Look for people who are hungry to do everything for their customers, who also fit with your culture and are positive. And however scarce a resource they are and however good they are at sales, at tech or whatever, don’t overlook the values fit.

Tip 2: Build a truly great place to work. Make the environment fun but focused. And as a leader, focus on the quality of work for your team. Are they focused on where they can add the most value?  Review and address how best to let them focus on customers, ensure they keep connected with them and understand their broadest needs.

Tip 3: Be “communication mad”. There's no such thing as over communication. Meet frequently with the team to discuss developments and seek feedback. Create a business that recognises and celebrates success. 

Sandra Lawler, Founder Director, Alternatives