People: Bob Willett, Best Buy

In June 2006, Bob Willett, CEO of Best Buy International, was a speaker at AMR Research’s Supply Chain Executive Conference, where he followed a keynote speech by former President Bill Clinton.

In his introduction, Willett warned the audience not to expect much from him. “After all, I’m just a simple shopkeeper,” he explained.

“Simple shopkeeper” is an understatement. Google “Bob Willett Best Buy,” and 196,000 hits pop up—a sign of a busy and noteworthy person.

One reason for Willett’s notoriety is his deep understanding of supply chain concepts. To many, supply chain is about moving product. To Willett, supply chain is first about serving people, and second about moving product. This philosophy is the driving force behind virtually every decision he makes.

As befits someone who values serving people above all else, Willett credits numerous managers and co-workers with helping shape his own career.

Born in Wales, Willett began his journey fresh out of college as a store manager at U.K. department store Marks & Spencer (M&S).

“M&S is one of the most successful retailers in the world, and I learned a lot there,” Willett says. “I discovered what a good supply chain and retail strategy requires.”

Throughout his tenure at M&S—which included retail management, store operations, central operations, and merchandising positions—he learned from the best, Willett says.

“M&S has great principles: The customer always comes first, and quality is never compromised,” he explains. “Plus, the company was profitable for 100 consecutive years.”

After leaving M&S, Willett held CEO and managing director positions with several major retailers in Europe and Asia. Willett also worked for the Arcadia Group, whose chairman, Philip Green, became his mentor.

Keeping It Simple

“Philip taught me the importance of keeping business simple,” Willett says. “His success in acquiring and growing businesses comes from one simple premise: Focus on the customer, and make sure you do the right thing from the product perspective.”

Willett has modeled Green’s extensive customer knowledge and willingness to “get his hands dirty” in his own career.

In the mid-1990s, Willett joined global consultancy Accenture—first as global managing partner for its retail practice, then as a member of Accenture’s executive committee, focusing on business strategies and supply chain technologies.

Working with the “best of the best” in retail supply chain consulting helped prepare him for his role at Best Buy, which he joined full-time in 2003.

He credits Best Buy’s leadership team, including Richard Schulze, founder and chairman of the board; Bradbury Anderson, CEO and vice chairman; and Allen Lenzmeier, vice chairman, corporate strategy and services, with furthering his quest to focus on people.

“This, in fact, is our ‘secret sauce,'” Willett says. “Best Buy’s management goes to great lengths to make sure everyone plays a part in the business.”

The other ingredients in Best Buy’s secret sauce mix well with the key components of Willett’s personal supply chain philosophy. “A big part of Best Buy’s environment is continual learning,” explains Willett, a history buff who satisfies his quest for knowledge through reading. “I have always been a great follower of history because it tends to repeat itself, especially in business.”

Willett also likes to view supply chains holistically, which has become a key strategy at Best Buy. For Willett, individual initiatives must fit into a higher supply chain plan—one that includes end-to-end visibility, and emphasizes a lean, demand-driven chain that only builds products that customers desire.

Prior to Willett’s arrival, the role of Best Buy’s supply chain was to push products and new technology out to consumers. When Best Buy shifted to a customer-focused strategy—called “Customer Centricity”—in 2004, it dovetailed nicely with Willett’s customers-first mantra.

“Best Buy had an adequate supply chain, which kept it in good stead over the years,” he notes. “But it was a push model, rather than a pull model.”

Willett helped Best Buy develop a supply chain strategy modeled after the food industry, and in particular on Tesco, a U.K.-based food retailer with more than 2,500 stores worldwide, which Willett believes operates the best supply chain in the world.

“The food industry demands a responsive supply chain,” he explains. “Food companies need transparency back to the growing fields where their products originate, as well as the ability to adjust to marketplace spikes and changes.”

Under Willett’s direction, Best Buy’s revamped supply chain has become an integral part of the overall corporate transformation. Two years into a 3.5-year program, Best Buy has attained great improvements, Willett says.

The new strategy emphasizes agility, responsiveness, and accuracy, as well as meeting the specific needs of customers in eight distinct demographic segments. Instead of carrying the same products in all its stores, Best Buy identifies products that will be of interest to specific customer segments.

The company is also focused on increasing delivery frequency, reducing shipment size, and generating more effective forecasts. Best Buy used to rely on forecasts from internal departments and external sources, such as suppliers. It is now moving toward “one source of truth” by consolidating information from all sources, Willett says.

Consolidating information is one of Willett’s great strengths. In 2004, when he assumed responsibility for Best Buy’s supply chain as executive vice president of operations, Willett also took over the role of chief information officer. And in February 2006, he was named CEO of Best Buy International, which covers Best Buy’s Canadian locations, Canadian consumer electronics chain Future Shop, and three sourcing offices in China.

One Man, Three Roles

This added position, created to help execute Best Buy’s international expansion, does not replace Willett’s other responsibilities. For some executives, juggling the tasks of overseeing Best Buy’s supply chain, technology operations, and international expansion plans would pose a major challenge. But Willett sees the three jobs as an advantage, not a burden.

“Maintaining responsibility for supply chain and technology makes my international responsibilities easier, because I understand the company’s overall blueprint and footprint,” he explains.

In his roles as technology guru and international ambassador, Willett again shines the spotlight on people first, everything else second. While most logistics executives see RFID, for example, as a tool to increase supply chain efficiency and visibility, Willett also appreciates its potential to improve customer service at Best Buy stores.

“My goal is to use RFID as a supply chain capability, but also to enhance the customer experience,” he says.

Another of Willett’s people-friendly technology goals is to create the first checkout-free store. “I want to automate our system so customers can make purchases automatically when they pass through a certain part of the store. This way, they can bypass checkout,” he explains.

Willett believes Best Buy can achieve this goal with RFID. “The technology is available, it’s just not cost-effective yet,” he explains.

Even with so many years of supply chain and retail experience under his belt, Willett keeps an eye toward the future. And the future, as he sees it, is global.

“You can no longer expect to manage your supply chain only in the country where your business is located,” Willett says.

Companies, he explains, must take a holistic view, looking back in the supply chain as Best Buy does, to functions such as sourcing product from component manufacturers, assembling finished product, consolidation, shipping, reconsolidation, cross-docking, and distribution to stores.

These functions take place around the globe and around the clock. Companies that miss this connection are missing the boat, he explains.

Becoming Truly Global

Willett continues to focus on transforming Best Buy’s IT and supply chain operations, which he considers fundamental to the success of the company’s “customer centricity” model.

He would also like to see Best Buy become a truly global brand, and believes it has the capability to do so. “We will enter new countries with our service model before we go in with our store model,” he explains.

Willett hopes to gain market share in Canada, for instance, by opening additional stores. The company currently has 34-percent market share in Canada—not bad, as it was unknown in the country only three years ago. And the company recently opened its first Best Buy store in China.

When Willett describes himself as a “simple shopkeeper,” it’s his way of acknowledging that, throughout his career, he has maintained his humility and kept his priorities straight—it’s all about the customer.

A simple shopkeeper understands that. So does Willett. And now he has the opportunity to spread that concept around the world.

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