This is the first in a new series of interviews where we explore the careers of our talented retail, change management and training consultants.
First up, we hear from Head of Systems Transformation Training, Jean Spencer, who shares with us how she first found her way into retail, some of her earliest memories, and why she still loves working at First Friday after 21 years!
Retail Careers: An Interview with Jean Spencer
Tell us more about your background, and how you got into Retail…
I studied at the London College of Fashion for 4 years with the aim of becoming a Buyer, attaining a degree in clothing technology. I was lucky enough to do placements with this course which saw me working in a factory making shirts for M&S, and then for a high-end lingerie designer selling diamond-encrusted underwear to America!
I joined Top Shop when line forms were called ‘Ladies’, WSSIs were cardboard, and delivery schedules were weighty tomes – and very quickly realised my career lay in merchandise planning. I worked in merchandising before transferring to Group at Arcadia to work as a Training Manager within IT on projects and training.
I joined First Friday at the very beginning, bringing all my previous experience and like to think I have helped shape what it is today.
What do you remember from those early days [at First Friday]?
First Friday started with just 7 employees, and until recently the majority were still part of the team.
Robin Turner (Founder and Managing Director) started the business with a goal of creating a supportive and flexible working environment for experienced senior women.
We began as a team of mostly mums who wanted to continue to use our hard-won retail and training skills while balancing family life.
I still remember fondly my first project with Laura Ashley and travelling to Wales to plan and deliver training.
What is your current role within First Friday?
I am currently the Head of Systems Transformation Training, which sees me develop training strategies and training needs analyses for systems programmes and then pull together the specialist First Friday resource required to deliver them.
Once programmes are under way, I take the role of quality and continuous improvement for the development and delivery team.
I also work in a consultancy capacity, producing many reports for clients reviewing their existing training provision and making recommendations for improvement and best practice.
21 years is a long time. What has made you stay so long?
There are a number of reasons I continue to love my job: the variety of projects I’ve been exposed to along with the variety of cultures and teams – and that’s not forgetting the variety of challenges too!
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with so many different and often world-class retail businesses and product types over that time too; supermarkets, department stores, independents, chains and online. I’ve even ventured into different sectors completing a variety of recent projects within housing.
One of the most important reasons, however, are the people at First Friday. We all share the same core values which means it’s a really collaborative and supportive environment to work in.
Embracing change while staying true to our values
How has First Friday changed over the years?
Obviously it has got bigger and has a much wider reach! As well as training we are now successful in the retail change and consultancy space and have expanded into other sectors.
We also now work all over the world; UK & Ireland, Europe, South Africa, Hong Kong, Australia, the Middle East, South America, Mexico, the US and Canada.
One thing that hasn’t changed is our values. They remain consistent with those we shaped at the beginning.
We wanted then and still want now to be seen first and foremost as open, honest and down to earth, meaning we understand the challenges people have in their working lives.
We are supportive of our own team as well as our clients, e.g., we had a flexible working environment long before it became popular.
We strive to do our best for our customers while remaining focused, tenacious and above all curious.
We like to really understand the organisations and the people we work with, and this often leads to feedback from clients that we fit into their teams seamlessly and share a ‘one team’ approach.
These values have attracted individuals to First Friday and each and every one of our team embraces the values inherent in our culture and ways of working. We are therefore rightly proud our employee retention is so high.
Most people have been with the business for over a decade and some, like me, from the very beginning!
These values have also attracted customers to First Friday and made it easier to share a ‘One Team’ approach on projects.
Standout memories and success stories
Where is the most interesting place you have travelled to for a project?
My first trip to Helsinki sticks in my mind. I was totally unprepared for the amount of snow and ice, unlike the taxi driver who drove us from the airport as if there wasn’t any!
There was a choice of pink or blue food at breakfast in our hotel, and one taste was enough! I also remember my ridiculous footwear and how unsuited it was to snow and ice! I am still amazed I returned home with no broken bones.
The most memorable part was the limited daylight; we saw blue skies between 10am and 2pm only, but what we did see during that time was beautiful.
Any other standout memories from the last 21 years? (Good and bad!)
There are many of each!
The Bad: The fire alarm going off at 3.00am and standing outside for 45 minutes in the freezing cold. Staying in a haunted hotel in Wales with several of the team scared to sleep. And viewing the dubious but interesting nightlife in Berlin.
The Good: Travelling and exploring different cities and organisations abroad and at home. Sharing those experiences with my team. Celebrating project successes and making many new friends along the way.
I also can’t forget the First Friday family BBQs, and of course our Christmas dinners at The Ivy where we share our successes with our clients every year. I have even received 2 values awards from clients which were so much appreciated.
So to summarise, at First Friday we are all passionate about what we do, enjoying our work allows us to do the very best for our clients – and that is why I still love my job after 21 years!
Head over to Jean’s profile page for more about Jean’s credentials, interests and recent articles.