By Sarah Falson
SYDNEY: New Woolworths CEO and managing director, Michael Luscombe, addressed a crowd of 720 people in the grand ballroom of the Hilton yesterday to communicate his plans to expand his supermarket company, which owns electrical retail chain Dick Smith.
Investment agents, retailers, suppliers and analysts gathered to hear Luscombe speak, which was the first time he had spoken at a conference in his position representing Woolworths, since he was appointed in September last year as the successor to Roger Corbett, who was heralded for spearheading Woolworths’ growth.
Luscombe wasn’t shy in front of his friends and competitors, however, and spoke easily to the crowd.
“There is an unheralded number of company directors in the Woolworths head office at the moment who are working hard to make families, and will each be taking a hard-earned year off for leave,” he joked, in response to former Coles Group deputy chairman, Simon Lloyd, who said that if he were Luscombe he would be lobbying the government to relax its immigration laws in order to grow the population and the economy.
“Woolworths can’t grow in terms of acquisition, but it can grow organically,” said Lloyd.
“Australia currently houses about 20 million people – if we had another five or 10 million you’d be able to facilitate more growth.”
The event was both a networking opportunity for Woolworths suppliers and executives, and a vehicle to communicate the company’s ideology to the industry.
The focus of Luscombe’s speech was the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) which, according to Luscombe, is practiced more efficiently by Woolworths than other companies because the retail giant focuses on only “responsibility,” in all areas of work and life.
“Responsibility needs to be embedded in our business, as a way we think,” he said, and explained the various ways the company has attempted to help farmers in treacherous weather, such as a fund-raising event held nationally in-store recently which saw all proceeds from Woolworths supermarkets go towards the Country Womens’ Association, which then transferred the funds into both food packages and labour for the unfortunate farmers and their families.
“If companies are not acting responsibly, then the seed of good will will die,” said Luscombe, who also encouraged other retailers to get behind issues of climate change.
Luscombe also said that Woolworths hopes to expand its consumer electronics presence in India with 10 stores by the end of the year.
“Our joint venture with the Tata company in India is doing very well. Our Dick Smith stores there are huge – the equivalent to Harvey Norman stores in Australia but without the furniture,” said Luscombe.
The event was chaired by Channel 9’s business manager, Ross Greenwood, who – in a strange twist – approached high profile members of the audience and asked them to comment on Luscombe’s speech.
David Jones chief executive officer, Mark McInnes, said that the most important thing for retailers to do is to “remain relevant to their customers.”
“Our company is 160 years old, and we remind ourselves to stay relelevant to our customers in terms of products, advertising, marketing and service every day,” he said.
Interestingly, McInnes has been rumoured to be next-in-line for the MD spot at Woolworths, replacing Luscombe who began working at the company in 1978 as a trainee.
“Michael’s company is three times as big as ours,” McInnes told the audience.
“Far be it for me to give Michael advice.”