Q & A with Michael Smollan – Chief Growth & Innovation Officer
Q & A with Michael Smollan – Chief Growth & Innovation Officer
We have recently touched base with Michael Smollan on his thoughts on the retail environment and what does success look like for him.

About you:

What does success mean to you?

Success can be a number of things. It can mean a happy family, it can mean a strong contribution to your community and it can mean building a successful business. Success for me is being able to live a proud, happy life with a business that has a reputation for growing people and having a massive focus on the work we do for our clients.

What do you think is required to achieve success?

To be focused and to put a huge amount of effort behind those things you want to succeed at. It’s not possible to do everything, all the time, so you need to prioritize the stuff you want to be good at and give it your full attention. You can’t assume things will go your way, you have to try immensely hard to get them and even then, some things won’t go your way. When this happens, you need to learn from it and fight harder. Success takes effort, hard work and a bit of luck. All three are critical in whatever it is you want to succeed at.


Why did you choose retail, or did it choose you?

Why did you choose retail, or did it choose you? I think a bit of both. When I was studying my undergraduate degree I had holiday jobs in different areas of the industry, businesses like CPM or Daymon; some work with the retailers in SA and abroad; and some brands. I realized that I just love products, brands, shoppers, and retailers. I loved all of it.

I never planned to choose a career but somehow, I love this space and in some way it chose me. I also think as cliched as it sounds, it has always been in my blood. I grew up in this industry and perhaps it had chosen me way before I even knew.

I remember spending weekends at the office helping merchandise and being around reps and products. It always seemed so natural for me. I guess the last part is that I am a massive consumer too- I love brands, I love retail and I love experiencing them as much as possible.

What do you think retail globally is going to look like in a few years’ time?

I think retail is an a very interesting space. There are so many dynamics at play in various parts of the world. Businesses like Amazon or D2C brands are eating away quickly at bricks and mortar. Own brands or house brands are really hurting traditional branded companies. The world is changing faster than ever, and I don’t think anyone really knows what it will look like.

My sense is that we will evolve to a space where physical retail is no longer just retail, rather it may become more experiential, where the purpose of a store is to experience and feel the brand and then purchase and delivery is fulfilled elsewhere.

I think supermarkets will be the most challenged because hard discounters and house brands are encroaching massively, and traditional retailers are battling to find their place.

What we have found is that wherever the consumer has an experience, they will continue to go. A brand like wholefoods in the US is a perfect example. I think retail is already omni-channel and retailers and brands who want to survive need to be thinking this way from the start as the foundation of their strategy, not as a side note.

I think that the brands that will win, as always, will be those that connect with consumers and make it easy for consumers to experience them. We can no longer think that because we have put a brand on a supermarket shelf and because for 50 years their TV ads have worked, that the consumer will identify them.

Brands who have taken on this new world well? Nike is a prime example having created amazing digital content, incredible brick and mortar stores and easy online retail to fulfill. They have made the leap perfectly.

So I think while the pendulum is swinging fast towards online retail and digital for transactions, it will swing back where the consumer wants to have an experience with the brand both physically or digitally. They want to connect. Then they will choose the path in which to purchase.

Growth and innovation:

Tell us a bit about the role of the Growth and Innovation function in Smollan.

“When I came back from China, I was going to take over Business Development across the group. I’ve been in operations for about 15 years and really wanted to start building a business development engine, centrally, for the business. I quickly realized that it’s as much about offering new clients growth through our current services as it is about facilitating innovation for existing clients, and so we evolved the function into Growth & Innovation. This incorporates an ever-growing variety of parts- evolving as we evolve our thinking, our relationships and our offerings.

Today, these parts include identifying and managing M&A opportunities and partners; traditional business development; services integration (existing & new services to our top clients); new categories & channels, including our ecommerce strategy and retail marketing services, as well as The Lab – our R&D hub.

Why do you think it’s important for the business and the industry?

Its critical because in an industry under pressure our clients want and need better solutions.

They need new technologies to outperform in the categories they play in and the competitors they compete with. We need to lead this evolution of our services. It’s also crucial for our business to try and future proof it against our competitors, not just existing, but future.

It’s crucial that we constantly challenge what solutions we offer and whether they will be relevant in the years/decades to come. If we truly want to build a sustainable business, we need to be looking years ahead to ensure our relevance and decrease our dependency on current offerings, not by shrinking them, but by extending, evolving, and at times, outgrowing them with new ones.

What do you think drives innovation in a business?

I think innovation is cultural. People always seeking new and better ways to do the things we currently do, and people always on the lookout for new companies to invest in or to partner with.

This kind of innovation is systemic, and it takes time to forge in the minds of our people, especially because it is such a new way of thinking. I think innovation comes from across the business, the strategy and the focus may come from the senior leadership, but innovation needs to come from all parts and levels of the business.


How would you describe a typical day in the life of Michael Smollan?

Typically, I have a number of calls and exchanges with my team, bouncing around ideas and opportunities. About a third of my day is spent on working out connection points within our business: projects on the go for existing clients where we are trying to build new solutions.

Another big part is calls or video conferencing with the international team. We have a large amount of countries that we now work in and I try to facilitate connections across the world.

Lastly, a fair amount of time is spent on thinking and meeting on the future of the business, changes that need to happen and products or services to build. The last pieces of my day I save for a run on the promenade (or in whichever city I find myself working in – which is the best way to see a city, I think) or with my family!

What are you most excited about in terms of the future of the business?

I’m most excited about how we will evolve, how the market will evolve and how retail will evolve.

We are in a wonderful position to capitalize on our capability in many markets across the world. We have amazingly passionate and energetic people, incredible Clients and a fantastic opportunity to provide more and better solutions for them.