People & Perspectives

BUSINESS CASUAL: Annie Murphy

A series getting to know the real people whose passions are shaping the future of Walgreens Boots Alliance.

By Steven Cohen

Annie Murphy sitting at her computer
THE BASICS

Name: Annie Murphy
Role: Senior vice president, global chief commercial officer, WBA
Born in: Southampton, UK
Family: Husband Dan; stepdaughters Larissa, 12, and Elsie, 11; dog Ralph, 1

THE ICEBREAKERS
  • Has been with WBA (and Boots) since 2011
  • Previously held senior commercial leadership roles at Birds Eye, P&G, PepsiCo and Tesco
  • Fun fact: While at Tesco, Annie helped exclusively launch Virgin Cola chainwide
  • Only time spent living outside the UK was an 18-month work stint in Dallas, Texas, where Annie learned to love quesadillas and margaritas
  • Favorite work destinations: NYC and Italy
  • Favorite holiday destination: Maldives
  • Favorite non-WBA brand: Apple
If we were on a short elevator ride in the office, how would you quickly describe your role as global chief commercial officer for WBA before we reached your floor?

So, as WBA’s global chief commercial officer, I wear two hats in the organization: Hat number one is that I look after the commercial function globally. That means I support the retail divisions, mainly Boots and Walgreens, to develop their commercial strategies and lead the company’s relationships with some of our biggest global suppliers.

The second hat, and the predominant part of my job, is that I look after our Global Brands team, home to our WBA product brands. I feel very blessed to have the job I do because I have a really nice breadth of responsibilities and a team spread across the world, from Chicago to London to Shanghai. I am very connected with our main retail businesses on a day-to-day basis, but I’m also running a brands business. It’s a lovely combination.

When you say brands at WBA, is that just beauty? Or everything spanning WBA’s entire portfolio?

We support all global product brands WBA sells. However, my chief brand responsibilities are around our global beauty brands, such as No7, Botanics, Liz Earle, Soap & Glory and Sleek.

Given your global role, how have your day-to-day operations changed, if at all, during the pandemic?

“Unprecedented” has probably been the most overused word over the last eight months or so, hasn’t it? Everything has changed. I think it’s wrong to say that it hasn’t, and if you try and cling on to the old world, I’m not sure you’re going to be successful. What we’ve done as a team from very early on is to understand how consumers are living their lives, what solutions they need, and figure out how to best meet those needs.

Can you provide a few examples of how WBA has, and specifically Global Brands, changed through these tough times?

Given our presence in Asia, we had a lot of evidence of the pandemic gaining pace before it hit either the U.S. or Europe. So our local teams there were very close to the action, and knew personal protective equipment, or PPE, was going to be a really important consumer need. With those insights, we built our capability to source masks well ahead of many competitors, making some big decisions about the quantities we would need and how we would bring them into our retail outlets. We went from sourcing single millions on a monthly basis, to our peak around June when we sourced about 320 million masks for WBA, with a better range and stronger supply than many others.

The other thing we realized within our beauty brands was that consumers, partly because of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, were less likely to be coming into stores and browsing for items. All the action moved online. So we thought long and hard about how to make sure we showed up in a really powerful way in that space. A few months back, we held our first online-only product launch featuring No7 Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate. That was a terrific success and generated a lot of excitement. We proved ourselves successful at a new way of doing things, and we’ve replicated that for subsequent product launches. Annie Murphy showing Global Brands products

Were there any other pivots across the beauty business with such widespread global lockdowns and stay-at-home orders?

One thing we’ve talked about as a team is to treat this period as an opportunity to be really entrepreneurial, and I think we have been. We had many beauty advisors stuck at home who were usually working in our brick and mortar environment, so we mobilized them and got them doing online consultations with consumers, who were also sitting at home. We treated this virtual connection and consultation as a test-and-learn opportunity, which has been really successful. We will eventually see a return of customers to our stores, so we must think omnichannel in everything we do.

 
With these changes, how do you see brands continuing to play a role in consumers’ lives, whether in-store or online?

WBA’s proximity to customers and the role we play in their lives every day is incredible. Even as we get back to something close to normalcy, our ambition in digital is profoundly bigger now than it was a year ago. That’s just where consumers are. I think the important thing is remaining customer-obsessed with all the great insights and data we have. We must remain curious and listen to what customers need, and then be really agile in innovating in the products, services and experiences that meet those needs.

We’ve expanded our brands in the U.S. this year, but we are now looking at other parts of the world and finding the “white spaces” to build into. We need to expand our global platform, but in a way that is locally relevant. We just set up an Asia hub where we are innovating on No7 products, and we just had some unique product launches in the market in Thailand.

 
Switching gears a bit, have you always had this passion for beauty? How was it cultivated and how does it influence what you do today across the globe?

My mum would never leave the house without lipstick on. In fact, sometimes you would see her wander off and put lipstick on even if we weren’t going anywhere. She always wanted to look her best, and I still have visions of her using her Lancôme products. So, I’ve always loved it and been curious about beauty.

I spend a lot of time on social media, constantly researching and finding new products, new trends, new ideas. I’ve always been interested in finding the trends that are going to stick, versus the ones that are just short-term fads – in the beauty market there’s quite a bit of that. I’ve had the benefit of going to Korea and Japan; it’s insane how much innovation there is in terms of beauty there, and how the presence of beauty and the experience of beauty is everywhere. It was inspiring. I hope all this means that when I talk beauty in a professional sense, I bring quite a high level of personal perspective and experience because I immerse myself in it.

I think curiosity is a really important muscle that any great brand’s business has to have. I am always looking and listening, and I think culturally WBA wants to do more of that as we build global brands that create a positive impact on people and the planet.

Speaking of positive impacts, can you talk about your affiliation with the British Beauty Council? How did that come about and how does that influence what you do for WBA?

There is an opportunity for the beauty industry as a collective to make really positive changes and contribute as a force for good. Two years ago, WBA was invited to be a founding patron of the launch of the British Beauty Council, which strives to represent the voices, opinions and needs of the beauty industry, and I took a seat on the Board at that point. A couple of things we’ve contributed to recently, which I feel proud about, is helping to tackle climate change and address sustainability. I also recently attended a big panel discussion around racial equity, which again we are very involved in and supporting. Personally, it’s nice to do something fulfilling while contributing back to the beauty industry on behalf of WBA.

How do those passions of making a difference in the industry play into your leadership and the company at large?

I feel really proud of what WBA is doing around diversity and inclusion and gender equality practices. I did my weekly video communication to my team just this morning, and we talked about how “Inclusion” has been added to WBA’s list of values.

However, we’ve also recognized we want to step up our game on racial equity. Within my team, we’ve started a Racial Equity Action Movement, led by a Board of 40 volunteers from across the business from all corners of the world. Together, we’ve written a manifesto and identified a number of areas where we want to make big steps forward – and make them quickly. For example, how we want to listen and understand each other better; how we build brands with a real inclusive proposition that works for consumers; and how we build a diverse team.

One thing I’ve done as part of this effort, which I’ve found incredibly fulfilling, is taking on a sort of “reverse mentoring” relationship. A young lady in Global Brands who is from a different ethnic background from me is mentoring me on a regular basis and helping me understand what her personal and professional journeys have been like. I have been encouraging more people on my team to do something similar; it makes us think differently about how we can work together and create conditions where people don’t feel like they’re ever on the outside.

Where else do you find inspiration?

I’ve been blessed throughout my career to have worked for some amazing leaders, even to this day. I am always learning from the people around me, looking at how they lead and what they do. That curiosity muscle allows me to learn all the time.

I’ve always been fascinated by leaders in the sporting areas. I’ve had the benefit of knowing Clive Woodward quite well. He was the coach who took England to a Rugby World Cup victory a few years ago – sadly not this last one! I got to understand how he transformed his team and culture and how he uses “second-half thinking” to change techniques around mindset with his players.

Through lockdown, I also watched the Last Dance documentary about the Chicago Bulls basketball team. Looking at Michael Jordan, I was fascinated that with all his success and fame, he wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do. That kind of leadership gets me all passionate.

Are there any other sports you’re passionate about?

Formula 1, for sure. My brother is 10 years older than I am, and we always watched races with our dad on Sundays growing up. Formula 1 has such a fascinating combination of sport, engineering, commercialism and politics.

Have you ever been behind the wheel of a Formula 1 racecar?

No, it’s quite a rare thing to do Formula 1, but I’ve been behind the wheel of a single-seater race car. [laughs] But my husband will tell you whenever I get behind the wheel of one of our cars, it’s like, “All right…all right…calm down!” I’m a bit of a speed queen.

Finally, at your eventual retirement party many years down the road, what is the one theme you’d want to emerge at your farewell toast?

I’d like to think that people would say, Annie helped me be my best. I have a team member who’s been with me for 13 years across three different businesses. To see his growth and where he was to where he is now is inspirational. This has no doubt been a tough year, but to see my team’s exemplary performance, I’m incredibly proud of them. I’d like to think in a small way I’ve helped with that. That’s where I get my enjoyment from.