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Interview: Graham Johnston on joining the judging panel

We speak to Graham Johnston, CEO of specialist timber firm Donaldson Group about his appointment as judge for the People in Retail Awards 2023. Graham previously… View Article


Interview: Graham Johnston on joining the judging panel

We speak to Graham Johnston, CEO of specialist timber firm Donaldson Group about his appointment as judge for the People in Retail Awards 2023.

Graham previously worked at ASDA where he was senior director of omnichannel customer support. He also spent a decade at Hutchison 3G UK (Three), where he was most recently head of omnichannel.

Why did you choose to take part / be included in the People in Retail Awards?
I have been in retail my whole life. I left school and went straight into retail at a young age so really, in some ways, I grew up on the shop floor. And what I’ve learnt is that people are what make up retail. Whether you’re a tech business or a service business, people are the lifeblood of that business – and for me – it’s really refreshing that you have a whole award ceremony that is entirely focused on the people in this space. I think it’s long overdue and hats off to you and the Retail Bulletin team for putting it together.

Why do you think these awards are important?
These awards are a platform to celebrate the very often unsung heroes in the retail community. It gives everybody the opportunity to be recognised. Even for those that don’t like to be in the limelight, it’s still nice to be seen, to know you’ve done a job well. It’s a win-win on both sides; it’s great for businesses to be able to recognise their people, and it’s great for their people to be recognised by their business, and their peers.  

What are you most excited about to see in this year’s awards?
Hearing the stories! I just love to hear how people have gone that extra mile, made someone smile, made a difference. It’s heartwarming. Personally, I’ve got a big passion for recognition, it leaves you with that feel good factor. Seeing people proud of their achievements and watching others support their peers is quite special.  

Any advice or top tips for companies entering?
Tell a story and try to bring it to life, even if it takes a little longer. I’m reminded of the famous quote by Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” If you can try to capture that ‘feeling’ together with the impact, that will make an incredible story.

What do you admire about the retail industry and why?
Firstly, resilience. Retail has gone through a huge amount of change and transformation. When you think about retail, you naturally envisage a shop or a physical space, but retail has evolved into a collection of different channels and touch points. And behind the scenes, people are supporting that experience. Especially since the pandemic when stores were shut, and retailers had to quickly adapt and really think about how best to serve customers and keep going. 

There are so many incredible stories of how people went the extra mile to make sure that communities got fed and were able to access supplies. Working at ASDA when this all happened, it was incredible to see. So, I think that resilience and adaptability is definitely something to admire. But of course, it all goes back to people.  They are the ones on the front line, day in, day out, all weather, all conditions – and sometimes, it can be a bit of a thankless task. Businesses can invest in the most expensive marketing strategy, overhaul technology, upgrade systems but ultimately, it comes down to human interaction in a store, online, at the point of delivery or over the phone. How people behave reflects the brand, it’s the moment of truth. That really speaks to the point that people are at the heart of retail. They represent your brand. 

Any comment about how the retail industry has changed since the start of your career?
When I joined the industry, the internet existed, but only just. Ecommerce wasn’t a big deal yet and we still had spreadsheets for manually updating stock. As time passed, we integrated platforms, brought in systems and new technologies, we adapted and improved and grew. You could argue that as we improved, we went through a phase of ‘facelessness’ but that has improved over time. I suppose the one thing that has been constant is the people. Everything else has changed. 

What changes do you hope to see in the future.
The future of retail I believe is the re-emergence of trust. My approach to digital transformation has always been to invest in tech that enables people to do a better job for a customer and to improve their experience. Technology is now at a point where it can really support retailers and customers in a very positive way. There has been a period of time where tech was used to simplify processes and reduce costs but now, it’s able to do so much more, in a more personalised and human way that is transparent. I hope to see more of that in the future. 

About The Donaldson Group
The Donaldson Group has been operating in Fife for over 160 years, and over time has grown exponentially through innovation and acquisition, and investment in key businesses that complement the Group’s current capabilities.

The 17 businesses that make up the Group trade and operate independently and are market leaders in their respective fields of timber engineering, saw-milling and distribution, merchanting, roofing and cladding distribution, and laminate manufacturing. As part of the DG family, they share best practice, innovation, purchasing synergies, and market analysis.

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