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Sir Ian Cheshire – “The Famous Business, Sustainability and Environment Influencer and Creator

The creator of Net Positive Thinking Sir Ian Cheshire recently announced that he would step down as group chief executive of Kingfisher, Europe’s largest home improvement retailer. Sir Cheshire was knighted as part of the New Year 2014 Honours for his services to business, sustainability and the environment, has not yet made his mind up as to what to do next – although he does offer some clues. A graduate of law and economics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, Cheshire’s early career took him to Boston Consulting Group, Guinness and Sears, before he joined Kingfisher as a strategy director in 1998. The following ten years saw him in a number of roles, not least in heading up the UK’s leading DIY firm B&Q (one of five operating brands that make up the Kingfisher portfolio) as chief executive.

In 2008 he became the group chief executive of Kingfisher and since then has continued to capture the imagination with his vision for shifting the way business traditionally operates. The buzz word “NET POSITIVE” of sustainable business was created by Cheshire in 2013. He shares few of the thought provoking questions as to What if his business could encourage people to rent their power tools, rather than buy them? What if his business could create a net positive and restorative impact on the planet and communities, rather than purely do ‘less bad’?

A great example cited by Cheshire was the B&Q easy grow initiative of Net Positive scaling up with the aim to connect vision to business model; otherwise it will be a lipstick on bulldog. He shared about the extended debate with the group exec, including people like [the then group corporate affairs director, now with the Co-Operative Group] Nick Folland, and Sally Uren and Jonathan Porritt from “Forum for the Future” the current areas of focus – communities, timber, energy and innovation. The outcome of debate resulted in asking them whether they can become force for positive good

Cheshire relative organizational inertia has enabled a three-phased approach; he says the first phase is about thought leadership and setting the strategy and vision. “If you don’t get that right, you can’t engage people.” The second stage is about winning hearts and minds “Getting people to effectively turn it into their idea, not your idea”. He further said that if you have the right strategy in place and you spend the “right amount” of time in the engagement phase you can then get to the third stage: scaling things up.

Cheshire is leaving at time when Net Positive has become embedded at board level with some fantastic examples of scaling, likes of B&Q easy grow and the work Kingfisher has led on developing sustainable timber. Now he envisions the need to see scaling go faster. He believes in creating safe environments that foster innovation and give people the freedom to test new ideas that has been central to success.

He advised and shared to businesses across the globe his vision of doing some structured thinking about what your business will be like in 20 years’ time. “Get other people, from outside your business, involved. Outline the big risks and opportunities for your business – and how it will react to those.” He also advises about creating space for people to try things by quoting “You have to test, pilot things and give people a chance to get from theory to reality, before we get to the scaling part. That ability to safely innovate is one of the biggest challenges.” Another important thing advised by him was on “spend time on engagement”.

Cheshire further mentioned that for business collaboration is crucial. The best example of it is the rally behind the Aldersgate group’s An “Economy That Works”. He said despite a “cohort of CEOs coming through that were more interested than was the case 10 or 15 years ago” he recognizes how rallying around helps a specific cause. He cited an example of tackling illegal timber or the phasing-out of incandescent light bulbs, – “both materially accelerated by a series of corporate banging on door of the EU”.

Cheshire hopes that his successor Veronique Laury will come up with more ideas than he did. Veronique Laury has now stepped in as new chief executive of Kingfisher after having spent 11 years with French business Castorama where she was recently the head

He mentions as to what we can we expect from Laury, one of just five female FTSE100 bosses, as ‘sustainable business visionary’?  Since she was involved in the development of Net Positive and has publically reaffirmed that it will carry on it will be crucial to see what Kingfisher does in future, as she will come up with more ideas than I did.”

Cheshire’s journey of Kingfisher has been a fascinating one as he had inherited the business when it was not in best of conditions (the DIY boom of the 1980s and 1990s).  A series of cost-cutting measures and central-buying practices saw the business back on its feet as he doubled profits during his tenure, eradicating net debts of £1.6 bn and creating a net cash position for the business.

The influencer Cheshire’s journey of Kingfisher has ended but his vision for the future is extremely inspiring and motivating and the work he has done needs to be celebrated and long remembered. Against the challenging backdrop, he mentions growth has to be largely fueled by desire and motivation for the company’s people to innovate and move beyond business – as – usual.

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