SBL – the leadership failings that did for Wilko

March 2024

Marty Windle highlights why it all went wrong for Wilko, a case study of particular interest to SBL students.

In August 2023, the demise of Wilko, a once- thriving UK discount retailer, marked a significant turning point in its business trajectory. This analysis explores the strategic and leadership failures that led to Wilko’s decline, drawing insights from the Strategic Business Leader (SBL) syllabus.

The SBL syllabus underscores the importance of continuous environmental monitoring using tools like PESTEL and 5 Forces for strategic adaptation. Wilko’s strategic misalignment with the evolving business landscape became apparent in its focus on traditional brick-and-mortar stores, particularly on expensive high streets. The company’s reliance on large, inconvenient stores offering paint and furniture hindered its ability to stay agile and customer-centric.

The Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbated this misalignment, causing a decline in footfall on high streets and adversely affecting Wilko’s sales. The absence of convenient parking and incongruent product offerings alienated customers during a critical period.

The surge in online shopping, accelerated by the pandemic, revealed Wilko’s vulnerability as its business model heavily depended on in-person store visits. Despite having an online store, Wilko’s strategy relied on shoppers physically browsing stores, making it challenging to adapt to the evolving preferences shaped by digital trends. In contrast, competitors who swiftly embraced digital avenues outperformed Wilko by catering to sustainability concerns and changing customer preferences.

Supplier dynamics, which usually favour large retailers, were reversed for Wilko. Cash flow problems led to difficulties in paying suppliers, prompting the withdrawal of trade cover by a credit insurer and causing some companies to suspend deliveries. This reversal of supplier power, driven by financial constraints, impeded the timely restocking of shelves, affecting Wilko’s ability to meet customer demand.

Competitive rivalry posed another challenge for Wilko, as it faced intense competition from value discount retailers like B&M, Home Bargains, and Poundland. These competitors strategically expanded into more cost-effective retail parks and out-of-town locations, offering customers convenient parking options and further eroding Wilko’s market share.

Effective leadership, as emphasised by the SBLsyllabus, played a pivotal role in organisationalsuccess. Wilko’s struggles in its final years werecharacterized by frequent changes in executiveleadership, including turnover in CEOs, CFOs,the managing director, company chair andHR director. This lack of stability in leadershipcontributed to the absence of a cohesivevision and hindered the ability to make criticaldecisions, such as the necessary rationalisation ofthe product range.

In conclusion, the downfall of Wilko serves as a compelling case study demonstrating the practical application of the SBL syllabus. By analysing the strategic misalignments and leadership challenges faced by Wilko, professionals can glean valuable insights into the complexities of managing businesses in dynamic environments.

  • After working for 30 years in the large tuitionproviders in London and Asia, Marty Windle hasdecided to focus on helping student pass SBL.You can find his courses at