How Greggs became great with Roger Whiteside and the woman replacing him

Greggs chief executive Roger Whiteside stands down on Tuesday after nine years in charge.

Under his watch, the High Street bakery chain has seen huge growth, going from a traditional bakery business to a go-to lunch time staple.

He announced his departure in January and has been involved in the handover to new CEO Roisin Currie ever since – so who is Roger Whiteside, why has Greggs been so successful and what’s coming up next?

Who is the ‘Turnaround King?’

Roger would no doubt cringe at the title, but it is hard to term his time at Greggs with anything less.

The retailer honed his trade in the food sector with 20 years at Marks and Spencer, rising to the top of the much-admired food division before leaving to create an online grocery model that would become Ocado.

Experience, expertise and real passion for the fast-paced, pressure-laden food sector are the traits that led Roger to being headhunted into the top job at Greggs, via some of the UK’s biggest commercial names, including Punch Taverns, Thresher and Bright House.

Born in Fulham, Roger’s father was in the armed forces so the family travelled the globe, spending a large chunk of time in Germany before settling in Southampton when he was 11.

Unsure of what to do with his life, he took A levels and went to Leeds University, graduating with first class honours in economics, – that’s when he accepted a job at Marks and Spencer, joining their graduate trainee scheme, and the rest is history.

What has Greggs done right?

It seems hard to imagine, now that it is a presence on every high street and much-loved by pop stars and ordinary punters alike, but Greggs was not in great shape when Roger took over in 2013.

At the time the company was losing its main market – bread and other baked goods – to the major supermarket chains and had become a byword for the unhealthy food that was fuelling the UK’s obesity crisis.

Greggs’ strategy, in which the shops were either bakeries, coffee shops or food-on-the-go shops, was not working.

Within a few months after becoming CEO at the FTSE250-listed Newcastle based firm, Roger laid out his five-year plan, announcing the firm’s switch to a purely food-on-the-go focus across its shops.

He recalls in this 2015 interview: “It massively simplified the business. But the jury was out. Analysts were saying ‘it’s a quaint bakery but can it compete with Costa, Tesco Express, Pret-a-Manger?’ and the die-hards still buying bread in bakeries were saying ‘they’ve lost the plot, they’re not going to sell bread anymore!’. We had to win.”

Win they did. Within two years the share price rocketed from £3.85 to peak at £13.80 and it currently sits at around £21.

Roger said he didn’t expect there to be such a fast turnaround of the business – “But the plan worked straight away. I’ve never known that before,” he recalled.

Now, Greggs is a social media phenomenon, becoming as well known for its cool, clever, good-humoured and self-deprecating marketing as it is for its steak bakes and breakfast deals.

And it is ahead of the trends – everyone knows about its pioneering vegan sausage roll – one of its fastest selling new products when it launched 2019. The launch was declared as a standout marketing moment, winning the business Brand of the Year.

Part of the success of Greggs is that it doesn’t stand still – a self confessed adrenalin junkie, Roger said that the trick is to stay one step ahead.

The key, he says is much more than giving customers what they want, second-guessing the market to come up with the Next Big Thing. Much of that, he says, involves spying on the competition.

“It’s about giving customers what they want, and what they want before they know they want it. And that is hard.

“That’s what Marks and Spencer did, it’s what Apple have done. The way you storm forward is creating something everyone wants.”

And giving people what they want now includes Greggs drive thrus, vegan donuts and cafes within Primark.

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It’s not always been easy

At the start of 2020, Greggs was very much the darling of the business world.

It had seen a seven-year programme to transform its business paying off in the form of record results, a special dividend for shareholders and a one-off payment for its 25,000 staff. A long-held target was reached as the company’s 2,000th store opened in South Shields, leading it to raise its sights higher and aim for 3,000. Meanwhile, Greggs’ all-conquering social media presence saw stars lining up to be associated with its coolness.

Fast forward 12 months, and after a pandemic year, Greggs was telling a different story. In March 2021, the company reported a £13.5m loss – the first in its history – after a year in which it had to make 820 people redundant and close its stores during local and national lockdowns.

Ahead of those results, a number of analysts had questioned whether there was even an “existential threat’ to Greggs as fewer people work (and get lunch) in city centres. One suggested that customers wouldn’t want to pay for lunch having been making their own for the last year. But Greggs remained bullish about its recovery.

By October 2021, Greggs had announced plans to double its turnover and open more shops than ever, as well as investigate its first overseas sites.

In its latest financial results, it hailed strong trading at the start of the year – but warned of increasing costs.

The Newcastle headquartered business, which now has more than 2,224 shops across the UK, reported a 27.4% rise in like-for-like sales growth for the first 19 weeks of the year, a strong figure which it recognises is flattered when compared against the same period in 2021, during restricted trading conditions.

What do others say about him?

When he announced his retirement last year, John McCabe, chief executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce, hailed him as a ‘fantastic example of an inspirational and innovative leader’.

Sarah Glendinning, regional director of the CBI, said: “Roger Whiteside has led the talented executive team from the front, evolving Greggs into the modern, values-driven business it is today. He will be a tough act to follow as CEO.”

What’s happening next at Greggs?

A new chief executive has been appointed. Roger will be replaced by one of his key executives, retail and property director Roisin Currie.

Roisin has worked for Greggs for more than a decade and currently holds what the outgoing CEO describes as “the biggest job” in the company. She is also a trustee of Greggs’ charitable foundation.

She has been described as a “great leader” by Roger while Greggs’ chairman Ian Durant said she had “deep experience of our culture and our strategic plan, and will lead with energy and character.”

She will oversee Greggs’ growth plans for 3,000 shops, opening at a rate of around 150 a year, up from its current rate of around 100.

Greggs is also looking to expand its delivery partnership with JustEat and the customer loyalty scheme it operates through its app, as well as opening more in the evenings and investigating a push into Europe.

It is also pushing on with the The Greggs Pledge, which has so far set up 686 breakfast clubs and is feeding over 44,500 children every school day, and this year it now wants the Greggs Foundation to support 760 breakfast clubs. By 2025 it wants to support 1,000 clubs while providing 70,000 free meals each morning.

What will Roger do next?

As for Roger’s next step, he insists his retirement will be very much a break from the world of business.

“The time had to come eventually,” he said. “I’ve always said I wanted to retire before 65, so I’ll be 64 and a half by the time I leave, so I’ve just about made it, he said in this interview.

“I’m going to go through a full retirement and spend the rest of my days with friends and family and doing things that I really love doing.

“You won’t see me going plural (becoming a non-executive) or doing any chairmanships. I’ve kept my options open thinking about it, but at the end of the day, I’ve got so many other things I want to do.

“I spent most of my life doing business things and I’d like to spend the final chapter – adventure before dementia, that’s what I say.”

BusinessLive – London