The Group CEO at Saga turned the lessons from eight years as a submariner into a successful career with world-famous brands from Amazon to Vodafone. He talks about Nelson, art and learning from grey-haired people
There were signs as a child that I liked to lead. I was the one in class who put his hand up to take charge, who joined the scouts and ended up head of the troop. I like responsibility, leading the team.
My father was a marketer, just like me. We moved to America when I was 10, then to Venezuela, because he became country manager there. Business was always discussed, but I wanted to be the opposite so I joined the navy and became a submariner.
I always nod to the bust of Admiral Nelson at the IoD in Pall Mall as a mark of respect. I read a few books about him as a teenager and got hooked on the idea of a leader who was ruthless in delivering goals, but an inspiration to the people he worked with. He was an extraordinary, flawed human being and his ‘band of brothers’ would have followed him into hell – and basically did.
Life and business is all about change. I went to eight schools, moving country multiple times. I went to state and private schools, in rich and poor areas, mixed and single sex, good and bad. That taught me how to deal with change, ambiguity and uncertainty without being fazed by it. And how to deal with every sort of person.
In the navy I realised that succeeding is all about people. If you can walk the floors, talk to people and customers and take input from lots of smart people, the answer’s there. As midshipman on a minesweeper, I talked to experienced grey-haired people who could tell me what they knew. I’ve lived by that ever since.
I spent eight years in submarines. I got married and realised I couldn’t spend my life in an underwater metal tube. I went to Harvard Business School to do an MBA and spent two years learning about different kinds of business. What I really wanted to do was a business that involved making and selling real things, leading teams of people and influencing customers’ lives.
I hope I create a climate of openness and trust. When somebody new comes to work for me one of the first things I say is: ‘At some point you’re going to screw up. The mark of a man or a woman is to come straight in, tell me and we’ll sort it out together.’
Just because things have been done a certain way, doesn’t make them right. At Amazon I learned to look at a situation with a blank sheet of paper. You start with the customer and their needs and you use technology to find novel ways to suit them. Amazon remembers what you bought and suggests something else you might like, just like they did in cornershops. That got lost with huge supermarket shopping, it became impersonal. Amazon brought ‘personal’ back.
The City cares about results but you get them through people. I’m most proud of the fact that employee engagement at Saga – the measure of how many are passionate about what they do – has risen from 61 per cent three years ago to 81 per cent now. It means 6,000 employees wake up each morning passionate about their work, buy into the strategy, and want to be part of the story.
The company and employees must have a crystal-clear vision. They need to know why the company exists, what it is for and what it is trying to achieve. That’s true north on the compass. A difficult trading year won’t throw you off course, you won’t shed skills you need, because you understand there’s something worth going after long term.
The more people you meet, the more opportunities you create in life. A headhunter I’d spoken to many years ago had the rare foresight to ask about my other interests. I told them I’m fascinated by art and go to galleries all over the world. Five years later, the National Gallery asked them to find a businessperson passionate about art – now I’m a trustee.
We don’t always understand how good Britons are at innovation. We’re brave about trying out new ideas, and cheeky about how we do stuff. But we’re not good at capturing and scaling. We flip ideas quickly to someone. British entrepreneurs will have an idea and sell it for £10m and think they’ve made it, whereas a US entrepreneur will sell it for $2bn.
I love variety and opportunity. The over-50s have over 70 per cent of the wealth. I want Saga to be recognised as one of Britain’s greatest brands. It’s got the heritage, the passion for service, it exists to make life great for retired people. We’ve got the people and we’ve got the direction. I want our investors to think, ‘That’s one of the smartest buys I’ve made’, and I want our customers to come back from holidays saying, ‘We want to go again with Saga next year’.
Saga Group CEO Lance Batchelor CV
Education: Graduated from Aberystwyth with a BSc in international politics and strategic studies and joined the Royal Navy before doing an MBA at Harvard Business School
1991 Joined Procter & Gamble in the UK before relocating to Cincinnati to run a global category
2000 Moved to Seattle and spent two years at Amazon as the head of video and DVD
2002 Returned to the UK to become chief marketing officer for Vodafone
2006 Joined Tesco and became CEO for its telecoms division in 2008
2010 Made a non-executive director at Domino’s before becoming its UK CEO in 2011
2014 Group CEO of Saga
Did you know? In 2011, Batchelor was made a trustee of the National Gallery by David Cameron.
Lance Batchelor is a member of IoD Kent