A lesson in leadership from the international industry: Part II


As general secretary of the Global DIY Network, an international umbrella organization that connects home improvement retailers around the world, retail leader John Herbert has met and worked with some of the industry’s top executives throughout his 60-year career. That career includes working at the first big boxes in Europe and at Home Depot in North America.

Hardlines recently sat in on an interview with Herbert. He spoke with Ken Hughes, an international retail consumer-behaviour expert.

Herbert’s CV includes opening the very first big box store in Britain, a hypermarket under the Sainsbury’s banner. He worked directly for Lord Sainsbury himself, and Herbert recalls that his boss embodied the best qualities of a modern leader. “Lord Sainsbury was really, really good at putting his stamp on every aspect of retail.”

Herbert also recalled his time working for Knauber, a family-run chain of home improvement stores based in Bonn, Germany. Even though it was not an international retail chain, he was impressed—and surprised—by the organization and dedication of the management team. That quality of passion remains at the heart of good retail today, Herbert said.

Knauber pioneered many of the features that make up large-format retail today. With wide, bright aisles and innovative assortments, the Knauber stores combined traditional hardware lines with lifestyle products. The sheer size of the stores was made more navigable with maps at the stores’ entrance to help customers find their way around. Retail executives from around the world were soon making a pilgrimage to Bonn to see what Knauber had done.

As a young man (he left school at age 15 to work in a local grocery store in York), Herbert worked briefly in retail before joining the British army. Both in the army and back in civilian life, Herbert recalled how he felt disrespected by his superiors. He says this was a pattern that typified the culture at the time. Herbert was determined that, when he became a leader, he would treat people humanely. As he ascended the ranks, he made a point of learning the names of everyone on his team and treating them with respect.

The values Herbert learned under Lord Sainsbury remain critical today. He put them into practice at Knauber, and again at retail chains including The Home Depot, where he served for a while as president of that retailer’s Expo Design Centers on the West Coast. “The real leader today is the one who runs from the front,” Herbert noted. “The first thing is to lead by example: don’t ask anything you wouldn’t do yourself.”

“And make sure you are passionate yourself.”