After seven months as Woolworths Holdings Ltd. Chief Executive Officer, Roy Bagattini can finally make plans to visit the whole organization.
The former Levi Strauss & Co. Americas boss returned to South Africa to take over the Cape Town-based retailer in mid-February and only had about a month in the office before the country entered a strict lockdown to contain the coronavirus. That meant he wasn’t able to visit his teams in Johannesburg or Australia nor check out most of his stores.
The 57-year-old has had to overcome pandemic challenges while running an upmarket food and clothing retailer in a country deep in recession. National retail sales have dropped for four straight months through July. For Woolworths, this was coupled with extended difficulties in the Australian unit that the company bought six years ago. The stock has lost more than 40% of its value in the past 12 months.
“You can imagine what it’s like coming into a new role at a new company and not knowing the people and then all of a sudden you get whacked with Covid and you don’t have the opportunity to really walk the halls and get into the stores and eyeball people,” he said in an interview Thursday. “That’s been somewhat frustrating.”
South Africa imposed a lockdown in March, halting almost all cross-border travel and shuttering most businesses. While Bagattini says he’s found different ways to get “into the bowels of our organization,” there simply isn’t a substitute for physically meeting people face-to-face.
Woolworths has made progress at its two worst-performing units. The South African fashion, beauty and home business has a new manager to tasked with plotting a return to profitable growth. That means implementing clearer brand differentiation and driving online sales, the CEO said. The shares climbed 6.6% to 36 rand at the close in Johannesburg, the day’s best performer on the FTSE/JSE Africa General Retailers Index.
In Australia, Bagattini is speeding up store closures. Woolworths had planned to cut floor space by 20% over five years, but the CEO sees that as more urgent and is looking to complete the process in two.
While South Africa’s easing of most lockdown rules may mean Bagattini will finally be able to visit the Australian business, the virus remains a threat. Woolworths is pumping more money into its online offering in response.
“This will not only help us to catch up, but become the leaders in the online space,” Bagattini said.