BNC#6 Sean Summers – Returning to PnP, his journey to CEO and navigating retail in SA

In an insightful nightcap session with BizNews founder Alec Hogg at BNC#6 in Hermanus, Pick ‘n Pay CEO Sean Summers shared the pivotal moments that led to his return to Pick ‘n Pay, emphasizing the importance of caution and strategic decision-making in leadership. Reflecting on his career journey from a young training manager to CEO, Summers discussed the evolving landscape of retail, the enduring value of family-owned companies, and the imperative of creating meaningful customer experiences. He also addressed the challenges facing South African retail and advocated for civic engagement, urging individuals to make their voices heard through voting. Summers’ wisdom and vision offer valuable insights for navigating the complexities of modern business and societal responsibilities.

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Edited transcript of Pick ‘n Pay CEO Sean Summers’s nightcap session with Alec Hogg at BNC#6 in Hermanus ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Sean Summers (01:36): So, just take that as a backdrop. I just need to be very guarded in what I say this evening. The genesis of coming back to Pick n Pay was that I kept a close relationship with Raymond and Wendy post my departure. Raymond and I would see each other at least once or twice a year. When I saw Raymond in May last year, I knew it was the last time I would see him alive. When I came back to pay my respects to him in September, Wendy and Gareth reached out to me and asked me to come back. I said I would. You do what you do. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.

Alec Hogg (03:22): Where did the story start? How did you end up getting in there?

Sean Summers (03:52): I joined Pick n Pay as a training manager at the age of 20. My first job was at Shell BP Service Company in 1973. I had a dream then that I wanted to get into computers. I left Cape Town and drove to Port Elizabeth. That’s where it started. I worked my way up through the company, eventually becoming CEO.

Alec Hogg (04:50): Has the training program at Pick n Pay changed much from when you were being trained?

Sean Summers (10:13): The fiber of the company has diminished. Life is quite simple. You get two kinds of people: those who want to take out more and those who want to leave stuff behind. If you put more into your people than you want back out of them, there’s no end to what you get.

Alec Hogg (11:09): After you left, there were a lot of investment analysts who believed that you left because of the dynamics of a family-owned company. What is your view on family-owned companies?

Sean Summers (11:37): Family-controlled companies are a beautiful thing. They have substance and soul. When you’re dealing with a family, you’ve got people with a long-term view of what the company looks like. It was extraordinary working with Raymond and the family.

Alec Hogg (15:24): Clearly, they’re passionate about the business. And bringing you back in after you departed must have been a huge decision for the family as well. Did they ever share with you why?

Sean Summers (15:31): Not that intimately. It’s an honor to be asked to come back. We will deal with the challenges and move the boat forward faster.

Alec Hogg (16:59): Your approach now, how much would it differ from the way you look at the business, from the way that you did when you left?

Sean Summers (16:59): Everything we focus on today is about making the boat go faster. The fundamentals of great retail haven’t changed. It’s about the people who have a love of the product and what they do. We fell out of love with everything we did, but we’ll earn our right for people to come to our store again.

Alec Hogg (17:28): Is there much that you’ve learned from working globally that would change your view on South African retailing?

Sean Summers (17:55): The fundamentals haven’t changed. Great retail is about the people and the love of the product. Customers today are more demanding, and time is precious. We need to focus on making their experience worthwhile.

Alec Hogg (25:09): Sounds a bit like banking. When last did you go into a bank branch?

Sean Summers (25:09): Unfortunately, Alex, since I’ve been back at Thickenpatch quite regularly, because, you know, we’ve got a few issues at the moment. Oh, the dark question. So that’s not a very, it’s not a very, it’s a painful question. Yeah, but a branch. A branch. A head office. Fortunately for the last few years, my bank has been coming to me, but it’s changed a little while at the last bit.

Alec Hogg (25:37): Banking has changed completely. It’s all in your app. Cash has gone. Customers today are more demanding, and time is precious. We need to focus on making their experience worthwhile.

Sean Summers (26:06): The experiential emphasis of how you run your business is gonna be vitally important. Today, the shopping journey is about creating an experience. Bricks and Clicks have been around forever. And where they sort of find a meeting point at the end of the day, it’s another thing if this is a meal.

Sean Summers (27:29): You know, we launched home shopping in Pick n Pay 20 years ago. Even in those days, we used to talk about consumer promiscuity. Customers will have a physical and a virtual life with you.

Sean Summers (28:50): The supermarkets of the future are definitely going to be smaller and more compact. Gradually, you’ll see less space being dedicated to certain items.

Sean Summers (31:44): Value-added services are very important. We provide them in conjunction with financial institutions.

Sean Summers (32:16): There are many critics today. We need to get past slogans and insults and work out how to get things done. We’re failing our people in this country.

Alec Hogg (41:12): What are you doing to get people to vote?

Sean Summers (41:12): We’ve urged everyone in the company to register and go and vote. People need to make their vote count.

Alec Hogg (42:17): What would your recommendation be to everyone in this room to help achieve that objective?

Sean Summers (42:17): I think when you have a look… I think that the first crime against the people of this century is unfortunately the current leadership in this country. We’ll be judged in biblical terms. Old Testament good. New Testament bad.

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*The above transcript has been condensed and paraphrased for brevity and clarity, and may not capture the full context or nuances of the original session between Sean Summers and Alec Hogg at the Biznews conference, BNC#6.