Anna Johnson, CEO and co-owner of Bendon Group, on living with a Covid-19 world in the future, the importance of communicating with customers and the pitfalls of picking the wrong retail site.
Q: How would
you describe 2021 for your business?
A: This year has obviously been hugely difficult. But I think it's really important to remind ourselves of what we've achieved. We've managed 18 different lockdowns across New Zealand and Australia with, at some point in time, every one of our 36 stores in New Zealand being closed.
We've rebuilt and reinvested in our IT, we've introduced so many different systems for better structure, communication, and learning and training platform, and we've rebuilt our entire supply chain. While it's been an enormous pressure and Covid has changed our world, I'm super proud of what we've achieved.
Q: How is your business planning to tackle 2022?
A: We want to continue to learn from the year that has just been. We've always had a strategic plan but this year more than most has taught us it doesn't always stay relevant, so we have to review, revisit and constantly prioritise. One thing 2021 taught us is that communication is really the key to success.
We want our customers to be more involved in some of the feedback they're giving us, particularly in the design and potentially in our campaigns and messaging. So we've got a big journey ahead of us in 2022 to really ensure that we nail it. And we have some massive plans for the year. We already have two new partners in Australia locked in and have some huge launches with them.
Q: What will be the major challenges and/or opportunities for your industry?
A; I think one of the biggest challenges for us is the need to educate women that they need to be fitted for a bra every year, or every time you have a body change whether because of having a baby or menopause or an operation. When we get the customer in the right brand for their shape and style, we get amazing feedback. They talk about how they feel, that they feel confident, they feel sexy.
Q: How do you think the Government has handled the Covid-19 crisis?
A: I think they did a great job in keeping us safe last year. It's hard not to question the complacency around ensuring we're ready for the inevitable second, third and fourth wave both within the vaccination programme and the investments in hospitals.
In business, you need to really consider worst case scenarios and you need to plan and make hard calls. I would imagine when you're responsible for the health and safety and economic wellbeing of a country, you can't just have one path. I understand that they took a health approach first and we're thankful for that. Now we really need a robust and solid plan for now and the future to support the recovery of the economy.
Q: What are two key things the Government should do for economic recovery?
A: I guess it's hard not to look at this from a business perspective, especially when you run a very New Zealand-centric business that employs close to 350 people. There is a huge laundry list of what needs to be addressed. I think the state of the current job market is obviously one. We need to have a strong and immediate immigration plan to ensure that the businesses today don't continue to be crippled by the people crisis.
Probably the other most important thing not only businesspeople but for the general public is clear communication so we know what we're facing. I think that's something the Government really needs to step up on.
Q: What was the most interesting non-Covid story of 2021?
A: It's so hard to remember another story not related to Covid the world over. I love to hear the stories about how amazing and resourceful people are. There's been a lot of businesses start up, not as many as have unfortunately closed their doors. But it's really inspiring to read about people taking the opportunity through this time to put themselves out there, take the risk and build their lifelong dream.
Q: What are your predictions for 2022?
A: I think that it's still going to be very unsettled. Unfortunately, I don't think as a society we have fully come to the realisation that Covid is not over and this is a new world we have to live in. So I think 2022 is going to be bumpy for us all. But we have shown that we're resilient, and hopefully we're ready to tackle those challenges.
Q: What's the worst mistake you've made in business?
A: I've made so many mistakes, it's really hard to pick out one. And I'm a really big advocate of making mistakes. Fail fast, learn. If I had to pick one, it would definitely be choosing the wrong site for a store. It's super expensive for a business and it takes years to wind back. You've spent all your money fitting it out then you're locked in for four or five years. I'm a big believer that most mistakes have an answer, you just need to look at it from all different angles. But that one (the wrong site), you are locked and loaded. There's not much you can do about it.
Q: What would you rate as your greatest success in business?
A: Owning Bendon and being able to lead this incredible team of people. I had the opportunity to do an MBO (management buyout) that went through in April, and that would have to be one of my greatest successes in my 30-year history. I love it, I couldn't imagine not doing it.
Q: Are you going on holiday this summer?
A: No, it's the busiest time of year for us. I'm going to stay at home. I love Christmas and the family get together. I'm the feeder so I'm right in my element. We celebrate the day together, have a big Christmas lunch, spend the afternoon in food coma, try to play some beach cricket at Murrays Bay. I love Auckland in the summer. It's a great place to be. Then I'm up very early on Boxing Day for a big trade day.
Q: How has the media reported Covid and what's your view of the Fourth Estate?
A: The media has recorded Covid excessively. I absolutely understand that the media needs to be the conduit to get the message out and has a huge part to play in ensuring we as a nation hear what needs to be said. But I definitely think that readers would have benefited from hearing other views, potentially more about what we can learn from other countries. And I do think that they could have done a better job in asking challenging questions, digging a little deeper and reporting from that perspective as well.