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The five key skills you need for a successful merger

The proposed £12bn merger of supermarket giants Sainsbury’s and Asda is arguably a watershed moment for the retail and grocery sector, with the potential to kickstart widespread market consolidation.

As both leadership teams will know, delivering a successful  merger is far from straightforward and having the right skills onboard is crucial.

Retailers are increasingly looking for external expertise, including interim managers, across finance, HR and operations, to guide them through the process. Below I list the five skills retailers are looking for in senior interim leaders:

A strong track record

In my experience, more than half of interim candidates hired for M&A-related work have a career background in the retail sector. Those who don’t have worked in other consumer-facing industries, such as FMCG or financial services and are therefore familiar with industry best practice.

Professionals brought in by a retailer need to hit the ground running, and knowing how a retail business works from top to bottom is a real advantage. If they have a strong management career in the sector, they’ll have a good understanding of potential pressure points, from the supply chain to the shop floor.

Stakeholder skills

Juggling multiple stakeholders’ demands and expectations can be an overwhelming task – and you need to be able to work with different personalities.

The process of a merger can often highlight cultural differences between companies, particularly when it comes to ways of working, so a professional needs experience engaging with stakeholders in large organisations.

If working with industry heavyweights, you’ll also need to bear in mind the role of the regulator, which will create added pressure and inevitably force diversions from original plans.

Project management experience

Leaders should be able to scope a project, plan effectively, create workstreams, oversee budgets and timeframes and be able to manage upwards – all quite independently. The ability to effectively juggle these different components is rare but valuable. Interims who have this capability will be in high demand.

Adaptability

Preparing and delivering a merger has many moving parts. An interim brought into the process could find themselves tasked with streamlining operations pre-merger, finding cost-cutting measures at the back-end of the business, part of the negotiation team as plans are finalised, or creating and delivering an integration strategy post-merger.

Companies need to make sure that any professionals they hire are versatile and can adapt to what could be a quickly-changing situation.

A decision-maker

Merging companies is a formidable task on paper, and can be a long process, which quickly overruns without effective leadership.Leaders need to be able to prioritise and act accordingly. Often during a merger, tough decisions need to be made, which is why external expertise can be brought in to help provide solutions.

It’s crucial to have an objective senior leader on board during the merging process, to act as an impartial and fair arbiter when needed.

Finding a senior manager who possesses all of these skills is a difficult task, which is why we’re seeing more companies turn to external talent to lead them in the right direction. As mergers become more common in the sector, expect the battle for interims with previous experience in the field to intensify.


Jonathan Flynn, head of retail and leisure at Odgers Interim, who works closely with clients to fill senior management interim positions.

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