South Aucklander Andrea Scown is bucking the trend within the typically male-dominated hardware industry – appointed in March as the first female chief executive of DIY chain Mitre 10 New Zealand.
And the mum of seven, now living in Auckland’s Parnell, found herself immediately in the hot seat dealing with a severe structural building timber shortage after Carter Holt Harveycut supplies because of accelerated house construction.
Scown joined the 84-store chain in 2017 and quickly made her desire to be the boss known. She hopes her appointment inspires the next generation of women.
She has taken over the reins from Chris Wilesmith who clocked up an outrageous number of days (74) in managed isolation and quarantine as the transtasman commute to and from Coffs Harbour under Covid-19 restrictions became unsustainable.
Scown says she has picked up the baton and will continue to lead the firm through its five-year transformation plan, which is said to cost Mitre 10 north of $100 million.
Asked how she feels to be the first female chief of Mitre 10, a first for the wider industry, Scown says the milestone achievement is “very cool”.
What was surprising after the announcement of her appointment, she says, was the “reach-outs from younger women across the organisation”.
“You forget how important those role model pieces are for younger women,” says Scown.
“[When] you do get reached out to from younger women in the organisation you realise actually they are looking [for representation], particularly in this type of industry, thinking it’s hardware, building products, there’s a lot of men about, is it a place for women – and I think it definitely is.”
Scown says some of her biggest supporters have been male colleagues.
Surprisingly, Mitre 10’s employee gender split ratio – just like its customer base – is slightly skewed towards a higher female representation versus male.
There are three women in Mitre 10’s executive team and one – Tricia Indo – on its board.
Scown says there was an “understanding around a transition plan” for her to take over as chief at the end of last year, outlined internally around the time she stepped into the chief operating officer role.
“I knew [becoming CEO] was coming, I didn’t know exactly when it would come but it does feel like it has been part of a managed plan. There was no shock factor with it.”
Scown first applied for the role of chief executive at the same time Wilesmith did in 2019 when former Pumpkin Patch boss Neil Cowie announced he would step down.
The 52-year-old says her appointment represents stability within the business.
She is focused on steering the company through the second year of its multi-year transformation programme. “Anything I’m doing is a build-on rather than a change out.
“We’ve got a very clearly defined strategic path that we want to take, we’ve got support from the board and membership around that, so [I will be] managing all of those things and taking care of the team. There could be some reprioritising of things [ahead] but no wholesale change.”
The transformation is part of a major overhaul of the way the Mitre 10 operates through both its internal systems and model as a co-operative. It is also looking at how it can utilise new retail technologies from store sales through to back-end fulfilment.
It is centred around enabling the business to operate more as a “bureau service” and is expected to be completed by 2025, says Scown.
“We’re a very inefficient business, again it’s not unusual for retail, retailers don’t tend to spend a huge amount of money in that real tech space,” she says.
“For us that inefficiency means we take a lot of people to do things and we’d love to have more people focused on customer service and value-added things.”
Scown says the programme will be the “biggest investment and transformational change for Mitre 10 since the building of Mega”.
Over trading and the challenges
About half of Mitre 10’s 84 stores are Mitre 10 Mega outlets. The hardware chain which doubles as the largest garden centre in the country is currently expanding that larger box store format, with new stores planned for construction in Silverdale and Papamoa.
“We’re at an age now with the store network that there is probably more significant store refurbishments happening [than new openings]. We’re also working on evolving [the concept] of what is our store of the future – that’s a piece of strategy that is underway.”
The last 14 months of trade following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has seen the business trading at levels typically seen over its Christmas peak.
“If you imagine what four or five weeks around that Christmas boom time would feel like in terms of everyone under that pressure, and then turn that into 14, 15 months, that has become the new normal for us,” says Scown.
“We’re ordering in the same pattern of things we would buy … but we’ve had to place indent orders far earlier than we would traditionally.”
Over-performing has proven to be tough work, she says, and the opposite of what the board originally forecast would happen in the months that followed the outbreak.
Like most retailers, Mitre 10 forecast sales would pull back and it held a fairly pessimistic view of business performance. However, the polar opposite had occurred.
“We have become a bit more humanistic with what we’ve been through in the last year. Certainly everyone is living in the present … I think all of the nice feelings you have about having a lovely home or office environment has driven [demand in] our sector.
“The level of spend in garden and garden care, the level of spend in outdoor furniture and seasonal goods, the amount of fences being built, the amount of paint we’ve sold; it all points to people enjoying making the most of the nest they live in.
“Our sales along with our trade partners have certainly done well. There’s also been huge challenges around supply chain, the timber piece is another aspect of that with phenomenal demand on products. We’re kind of rolling with that,” Scown says.
“At the moment there is still a love for DIY, a love for gardening. We’re buying stock and we’re keeping very bullish about the fact that we think this will continue for the short term.”
Emerging timber shortage
Mitre 10 is realistic that once the borders open to international travel the level of demand for its goods will likely peter out. “We will see a change in behaviour … the reality is if you’re not travelling to Australia you’re going to build a new deck. Australians travelling here with their $5 billion spend [however] aren’t going to buy decks or buy paint while they are here.
“As a sector we should accept that it will pull back a bit, certainly in the retail space. Trade though for us continues to grow really strongly year-on-year pre-Covid and I would not see anything happening that will pull that back. We’ve still got a housing shortage, we’ve still got unprecedented levels of consents that we haven’t seen since the 70s; there’s no proof point for me or other senior leaders in the business or our members to say that will ease off anytime soon – subject of course to being able to get materials to do that building.”
The timber shortage has had varying “different pockets of impact” across Mitre 10’s network up until now, says Scown.
She believes the timber crisis will continue for the next six months. While she does not believe it will have a massive impact on Mitre 10 as the co-operative stores are able to share assets, for the industry it will “probably shake down and will end up in a new normal”.
There’s no easy fix for the shortage as there are many layers of complexity, she says, something she believes will stick around until at least the end of the year.
Private equity background
Scown moved back to New Zealand from Sydney to join Mitre 10 in 2017 as general manager of retail operations before later moving into the role of chief customer experience officer and then chief operating officer.
She has previously worked in acting chief executive roles, including at EziBuy, which she describes as “a bit like being the bridesmaid and never the bride”, and has a varied background working in both fashion and apparel retailing and private equity.
Scown previously worked for ASX-listed Speciality Fashion Group, running the Millers brand and prior to that worked with EziBuy, and before that lingerie brand Bendon.
Prior to that she spent 12 years working in private equity. She was employed by Westbury Land Holdings and took care of a portfolio that included converting a dairy farm in Karaka to Westbury Stud, the JV build of a 50-box racing stable at the Counties Racecourse, and the application for resource consent to operate Te Hihi Estate, a rural retreat and conference centre in Karaka.
Scown comes from a rural background and started her working career as a sharemilker in the dairy industry with her husband. She attended McAuley High School in Ōtāhuhu and studied towards a business degree with accounting and IT at Manukau Institute of Technology, finishing it through correspondence at Open Polytechnic. She also holds associated chartered accountant qualifications, which she says has been helpful in her role as chief executive.
Scown has a rule she lives by as CEO of Mitre 10: no meetings before 8:30am, and says she is not one of those chief executives that starts the working day at 5am.
“I’m more burn the candle at the other end of the day,” she says.
“Fortunately my youngest is 24 so I don’t have any children living at home now, but I have got seven children so I’m well-versed in being well-organised. For me it’s about an 8:30 start in the office and I like to be out of here by 6pm.”
With a big family and now five grandchildren Scown has plenty to do outside of work and says she does not believe in 13 to 14-hour work days. “There’s always times when you have to put in the hours but I think as a routine it’s about sending that good cultural message.”
Scown says she loves being in the stores and spends two or three days each month outside of Mitre 10’s Albany office in Auckland’s North Shore, where she is typically based.
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