Brian McBride: Amazon to advisory board

Date Published
  • Brian McBride is a member of SEP’s Advisory Board and has had a distinguished executive career with several of the world’s biggest technology and e-commerce companies.
  • He is an expert on digital transformation and international consumer businesses and currently sits on the UK government Digital Advisory Board.
  • His early career spanned roles at Xerox, IBM and Dell and previous top jobs included Managing Director of T-Mobile UK and Managing Director of Amazon UK.
  • A vastly experienced non-executive director, his current boardroom roles include chairman of Trainline, and non-executive director roles at Standard Life Aberdeen, online bike retailer Wiggle and Swedish investment company Kinnevik as well as sitting on the advisory board of Lazard’s.
  • Previous board positions include the BBC, AO.com, Celtic Plc and ASOS.

If anyone is qualified to offer a sage view on digital disruption and globalisation, it is Brian McBride who has been steeped in international commerce and ground-breaking technology businesses for decades.

A long-standing member of SEP’s Advisory Board, Brian’s experience in pivotal roles with several of the world’s most successful technology companies, has mirrored the rise of the digital age, giving him unique insights into what it takes to build a winning team and scale an international business.

Beginning as a photocopier salesman with Xerox, he has ridden several technology waves during his career, from desktop PCs, mainframe computers and servers at Dell and IBM to smartphones at T-Mobile and the expansion of global e-commerce as UK managing director of Amazon UK.

Having worked for legendary Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Michael Dell, founder of Dell, he has learned invaluable lessons from the world’s most successful business leaders.

So what does he regard as the common denominator of a successful global business? “It’s essentially about having a great leadership team – look at the top team and ask whether they’re able to take the business where it needs to go,” he replies.

He believes the Covid 19 pandemic presents both a threat and opportunity, with slow-moving companies likely to lose ground to disrupters. “Not every company will survive this crisis – none of us has lived through anything so profound or wide-reaching before. Those stuck in old ways will struggle.”

He says innovative businesses can prosper as big established players become more open to adopting digital solutions. “We’ve seen two years of digital disruption in two months.…look at the shift to cloud-based systems from old mainframes and data centres – the unit costs are much cheaper and more efficient. Technology trends have accelerated and there will be a big divide between digital winners and the rest as a result.”

Having worked with very big businesses, he enjoys being involved with young ambitious business leaders through his association with SEP. “It’s exciting. I get to see emerging trends and spot early ones. I like the enthusiasm of entrepreneurs, it’s very energising witnessing businesses develop successfully.”

The composition of SEP’s Advisory Board has evolved as SEP has honed its strategy to focus on providing growth equity to fast-growing UK and European companies to help them scale and internationalise in diverse technology areas from software to consumer internet.

“There is more diversity from a gender and also business experience and sector expertise perspective. There’s a real vibrancy and freshness about the board because everyone brings something different to the table.”

Recent additions include Carolyn Jameson, former Chief Legal Officer at Skyscanner, a former portfolio company that SEP helped scale from 28 people to more than 800. It was acquired by Ctrip for £1.5 billion after becoming one of the world’s most trusted online travel brands. Carolyn, now Chief Legal and Policy Officer at Trustpilot, was joined by fellow new members John Kerr, former CEO of Deloitte Consulting and Steve Halliday former CEO Wood Mackenzie – all three are non-executives on several boards.

A battle-hardened business polymath, Brian has dealt with everything from fridges to football and fashion (on the boards of AO.com, Celtic Football Club and ASOS respectively), and enjoys non-executive positions across a range of businesses from financial institution Standard Life Aberdeen Plc to Trainline and online bike retailer Wiggle.

Having a deep understanding of customers is important for any business, he says: “At Amazon, Jeff Bezos always said ‘Start with the customer and work backwards’. It’s a bit different for a company serving B2Bs but the customer is only one step away from you. The further you get from a customer the more difficult it is to relate to them.”

He believes strong cultural values underpin success. “It’s important to have a strong culture running through a company and for everyone to know and share its values. We all knew Amazon’s leadership principles and we hired people who lived our values.”

He also identified an ability for leaders to respectfully challenge decisions as a key factor in ensuring a company is well-led and well-managed, irrespective of size. Managing growth is critical, especially when scaling internationally. He cautions: “Companies advance in zig-zags, not straight lines. To make each big step is always more costly, complex and time-consuming than you think. Sometimes companies think they need an office overseas. You have to be clear why you’re going after a certain market to get maybe just a small percentage share when you might be able to grow more sustainably in your home market first or by expanding into adjacent markets.”

Working for international retailers has given him valuable insight into how consumer behaviour differs globally. For example, the rate of return for unwanted goods for one retailer was 60% in Germany and just 5% in Singapore – differences that can make a critical difference to profit margins and either boost or hamper growth.

His stellar career has included some difficult episodes, notably when he was Managing Director of Crosfield Electronics and had to preside over closing factories and halving the workforce. “That kind of experience shapes and defines you. You have to reach the right decisions, however tough.”

A four-year stint on the board of Celtic Football Club was another enlivening but sometimes chastening experience in a sector which some say operates on ‘the economics of the madhouse.’ He says it was hard to experience the fans praising the players when the team was successful but squarely blaming the board for any failures. “There was glamour and fun and excitement – but ultimately you had all the accountability without the upside.”

Regardless of whether you lead a football team or a high-tech company, he says strong leadership is key, although leadership styles may vary. He says Jeff Bezos and Michael Dell are very different characters, yet both are great leaders.

His former employer Amazon has 14 corporate values – several of which strike a chord in his role on the Advisory Board. They include hiring and developing the best, thinking big, earning the trust of others and delivering results.

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