NICK EARLE – Culture Unpacked
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye, Photography by Nick Hook
Exeter is a hugely exciting place to be right now. Whether it is another promising title hunt for the Chiefs, Exeter City reaching Wembley for a second successive season, the continued growth of the local economy or the area coming to life under the glow of the spring sunshine, the city is truly thriving.
As is sometimes the case in life, things tend to happen with an almost serendipitous timing and, as the calendars turned from 2017 to 2018, an inaudible countdown began in the minds of people around the city (and the wider region). A countdown to May the 1st (which eventually changed to May 10th) when IKEA was coming to town. This was it. It was only a matter of months, then weeks, then days and finally hours until they were able to get their first glimpse of the legendary Swedish home furnishings retailer who had decided to make a new 29’000 sqm home for itself in Exeter. In doing so, they have created 370 new jobs for the local economy, with over 85% of these ‘co-workers’ recruited from the Exeter and Devon area.
So, when we were invited to attend an exclusive V.I.P media preview of the store, the week before it opened to the public, we jumped at the opportunity quicker than you can say ‘Holy Meatballs!’.
It was with great pleasure and excitement then, that Nick Hook (one of the region’s finest photographers) and I met outside and ventured through the front doors where we were greeted wonderfully by members of both IKEA’s internal and external P.R teams. Along with fellow journalists and photographers from the BBC, ITV and other regional media, we were led upstairs into the Food Court area where we were greeted by a friendly team of IKEA staff.
It was here that I met new Store Manager Nick Earle for the first time, who I found to be incredibly engaging, relaxed and generous in conversation. We spoke openly about family life, our careers to date and the journey that he and the IKEA team have been on to make their new Exeter store a reality. This was the first of four one-to-one chats that I had the pleasure of sharing with him in the run up to the store opening and, I must say, he made an excellent impression.
The number of media obligations that he had to fulfil were staggering, let alone a personal move to Devon from near Southampton (the week before the store opening) and all the 24/7 chaos of such a large operation. With unimaginably large numbers of stakeholders to keep informed and ‘onside’, I can’t fathom the amount of pressure he must have been feeling. But, he seemed relaxed, focused and wore an almost permanent smile. To say he made a strong first impression would be an understatement.
After our short introductory chat, we joined the gathered members of the regional media and were treated to a short presentation from Nick who outlined the ethos, culture, vision and strategy of the store. He shared how the company had conducted multiple ‘market research home visits’ with local residents to ensure that their product ranges and merchandising suited the precise needs and lifestyles of local people.
Nick also outlined how they have kept sustainability at the core of their store development, making Exeter their most sustainable store in the U.K. With ground source heating, rainwater harvesting, 100% LED lighting, solar panels and rooflights, they have put their money where their mouth is in order to make the site as ‘green’ as possible.
Once Nick’s presentation was over, we were treated to a one-hour tour of the new store by Sandra Sinfield (Head of Communications and Interiors). Although work was still going on around us to finish the store off, it was significantly more complete than I had anticipated. On this tour, we were shown around all the different departments, the dedicated children’s area and a first for IKEA in the U.K, a ‘Greenhouse’ section of the store centred around gardens and outside spaces. One thing that really stood out was the light and airy feel to the store, as more glass has been used in the outer walls of the building than, for example, in their Bristol store. This makes for a pleasant and calmer experience as you walk between departments.
I was also impressed with how open-plan they had made the store design. Rather than a one-way linear shopping experience with a clear start and end, IKEA have worked hard to create more of a flow, allowing customers to navigate their way around the store as they wish to. With a London Underground-style map system and handy shortcuts signposted at regular intervals, it really is a more ‘free-range’ shopping experience.
As the tour drew to a close, we re-assembled in the holding area and waited our turn to have some one-to-one interview time with Nick, during which we sampled one or two (ok, maybe five) of their meatballs along with the spiciest cheese sandwich I can ever remember eating and some lovely fresh coffee. Finally, our turn arrived, and we settled in for a short catch-up.
So, Nick, what an exciting day. You’re nearly there! Thank you for inviting us to come and see the almost finished store and I’d love to hear a little more about you and your journey to becoming Store Manager in Exeter?
It’s great to have you guys here today Joff, thanks for coming. So, I’ve worked for IKEA for eleven years, starting off in our Tottenham store in North London, then spending three years at our Southampton store before becoming our UK Logistics Manager, based in our Wembley office. At IKEA, staff tend to have their careers marked into three-to-four-year chunks, within which they are taken on a training, development and learning journey. The first year you learn, the second year you put your learnings into practice, the third year you polish and perfect your learning and then you find yourself a successor and move into a new role. So, after several years in my UK Logistics role, my line manager said “It’s time Nick. What’s next?” and a discussion started about what my next role could look like.
How did the Exeter role come about then?
Well, before I get to that, Devon has always had a special place in my heart as my Dad grew up in Braunton and his Mum lived in Barnstaple, so there is a strong family connection to the area. I remember many holidays, particularly at Christmas time, were spent in Devon so I have many very fond childhood memories of the area.
When it came to exploring roles, the Store Manager role in Exeter started to become a possibility for me to look at and I jumped at the chance. My wife, children and I talked about it and it was a very quick “Yes!” all round. Particularly the lifestyle element of the Devon move was hugely appealing for us. This is my first Store Manager role and the first time I have opened a new IKEA store, but I can’t imagine doing it anywhere else in the world.
This journey has been fourteen months in the making for me and my family and it feels like that will all become real and formal this Friday [the Friday before the store opened] when we move to our new house in Devon.
That’s really powerful Nick and really says something about the culture and vision of IKEA; to have that focus on replacing yourself within four years and, in doing so, deliberately having and creating new opportunities within your staff base.
Yes. A core part of our approach is to give straightforward and down-to-earth people a chance to develop, both professionally and personally. If you want to have a genuine career path ahead of you whilst working in a fun, transparent retail environment, IKEA really is the place to be.
And why did IKEA choose Exeter as the location for their latest U.K store?
We are incredibly strategic in the way that we select locations. Essentially it is based on a model of data-analysis that we have started implementing in recent years, whereby we interrogate complex sets of data to analyse socio-economic demographics of city locations. This, at a basic level, is to work out whether we think that location has a critical mass of a certain type of consumer to allow an IKEA store to thrive (not just survive). To put it simply, Exeter has that.
Of course, the right plot of land and the appropriate planning permissions are two other huge factors in a development like this and, again, both of those things came together wonderfully for the Exeter store.
And that is where we left our chat on that day, but we picked things up again on the Grand Opening Day (May 10th) for which we had been given special media access.
On that morning, as crowds of local customers started to gather in a growing queue outside, a private staff party was happening inside – a chance for new staff to mark the special moment and celebrate the collective achievements that have gone towards making this new store a reality. Staff hugged, held hands and even shed a few tears as the gravity and reality of the moment hit home. This was it. This is what they had been waiting for. It was finally time!
As the opening time of 10:00 drew closer, there was a palpable rise in anticipation levels amongst the staff. After waiting for so long, you could tell they were itching to show off their hard work to the members of the public gathering in queues outside. The brass band was in full swing, Swedish flags were being waved (almost patriotically) and there was a sea of yellow and blue as far as the eye could see. A real feast for the senses.
As children from the local primary school (Trinity CofE Primary in Newcourt) took centre stage, excitement reached fever pitch as a countdown started and one lucky child (along with one of his teachers) cut the ceremonial ribbon, formally marking the opening of the store.
As the first lucky customers came up the escalator, they were welcomed with loud applause and cheers by the IKEA team. The very first customer to arrive, local man Jim Langdon, looked both perplexed and thrilled at being the focal epicentre of this initial energy and hospitality. A moment I’m certain he won’t forget in a long time.
And so, as the crowds started to file in and the staff team slowly went about tackling their first full day of work in the store, it was a pleasure to take a few more moments with Nick Earle to look back over the journey from the conception of the project to the exciting moments that had just passed.
Nick, hello again and well done! You’ve done it!
I am so, so proud of the whole team. Today is the first day our IKEA Exeter lives. Stage by stage, our team has taken shape, we have become more confident and we have finally arrived at this momentous day. Everyone was ready and ‘up for it’ and it has been a really emotional morning.
When people invest their time and energy into something to the extent that our team have with this store, it is a hugely rewarding and emotional experience. I couldn’t be prouder and, although you will say that I have to say this, this really is the most beautiful IKEA store I have been to and the most incredible team within it.
Togetherness is one of our core values and to share this experience together is very meaningful indeed. We each bring something unique and valuable to the table and it is only together that we will be able to achieve the things that we dream of doing with this store.
So, as life at IKEA Exeter started for real, we drove back towards our city centre offices feeling that we had witnessed a small but significant moment of history in our city.
Join me in wishing Nick and his team a very warm welcome to Exeter and I hope that they find the city to be as welcoming and positive as they made us feel during our visits.
As their vision statement says, IKEA really is a store that ‘wants to create a better everyday life for the many people’. So, here’s to ‘The Wonderful Everyday’ right here in the city that we love.