Weekend Herald

She’ll be right

Mitre 10’s first female CEO Andrea Scown begins amid post-lockdown trading surge and timber supply shortage, writes Aimee Shaw


South Aucklander Andrea Scown is bucking the trend within the typically maledomina­ted 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 Harvey cut 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. 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, 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”.

The challenges

About half of Mitre 10’s 84 stores are Mitre 10 Mega outlets. The hardware chain which doubles as the country’s largest garden centre is 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 . . . refurbishm­ents happening [than new openings]. We’re also working on evolving [the concept] of what is our store of the future.”

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 . . . 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 . . . 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,” 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.”

Timber supply issues

Mitre 10 is realistic that once the borders open to internatio­nal travel the level of demand for its goods will likely peter out. “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 preCovid 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 “pockets of impact” across Mitre 10’s network up until now, says Scown. 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 layers of complexity, she says, something she believes will stick around until at least the year’s end.

[When you] do get reached out to from younger women in the organisati­on you realise . . . they are looking [for representa­tion], particular­ly in this type of industry. Andrea Scown

Before Mitre 10

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 fashion and apparel retailing and private equity.

Scown previously worked for ASXlisted 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 O¯ ta¯huhu 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 wellorgani­sed. 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 a month outside of Mitre 10’s Albany office in Auckland’s North Shore, where she is typically based.

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