Sue Hobden is an experienced supply chain director, responsible for international merchandising - both retail and wholesale - and supply chain planning and logistics. Awarded her MBA degree at the University of Sussex in January 2018, Sue is now undertaking project management consultancy for computer software business transformation projects (Space NK London, Diptyque Paris).
Why did you choose Sussex to study an MBA?
When I was eighteen, I went straight into work after A-levels, rather than take an undergraduate degree. Ever since, I’ve always wanted to go to University and the MBA seemed to be the obvious choice for someone like me.
I chose Sussex because I have followed Sussex news over the years, seen how it’s grown, evolved, and how high it ranks in UK university league tables. I have an early memory of visiting Sussex in the 1970’s as a student at Eastbourne High School and remember being very impressed with the learning facilities available. I didn’t want specifically to go to a London business school or do an online course. I wanted a broader approach to study, and having researched a variety of courses on offer, I felt Sussex really fitted the bill.
The Sussex MBA pulls together the full spectrum of business subjects. It gives you a very thorough and consistent knowledge base from which to build your confidence in areas that may not be your specialism. I wanted to join up the dots and pull together all the experience I’d gained from a long, productive working life. The opportunity to study came when my previous post was made redundant, so it seemed the ideal time to do an MBA.
I was part of the first cohort of full time students. I came on to campus for the Masters’ open day, met the MBA course director and faculty, and took part in a great round table discussion with prospective students about the benefits of taking the MBA.
What challenges did you face as a student after a long business career?
One small challenge was how much of the study process was online – managing some of the recent innovations in IT was a learning curve for me. I was initially slightly out of my comfort zone getting used to these systems, but I soon overcame and managed this.
The biggest challenge, and what surprised me most, was discovering I performed less well in modules where I had the most practical experience. I was not used to working in an environment where someone told me exactly what they wanted. I was far more familiar with taking an outline brief, then adapting and interpreting it as I saw fit to deliver a required result. However, the lecturers expect you to follow a very specific brief. It took me a few attempts to get used to this way of working, and not over-interpret what was required. This has proved to be a useful subsequent learning.
However, I really enjoyed the wealth of knowledge on offer. There was definitely something for everyone. I appreciated the quality and breadth of teaching and the non-competitive teamwork amongst my fellow students. I found the whole experience supportive and good fun!
What aspect of the MBA was the most enjoyable?
The module that I enjoyed the most was Innovation and Entrepreneurship – we formed a team of four to devise a company start-up plan. This project was really challenging and interesting, as we had to create a real life business plan. We learned from some great outside speakers, and our team all combined different skills. Our project focussed on the problem of high volume online clothing returns in the market, as people do not order the right size. Customers are often desperate for an outfit that fits, so when shopping online they will order several sizes to ensure the best fit. As a result, returns have rocketed and are costing the industry a fortune. Online shopping is a very competitive field. The Drapers Record, the retail trade magazine, did a “hit and miss” comparison of retailers’ returns policy, and it showed how highly consumers rate the ease of returning goods online. This factor will even sway consumer choice over and above the actual item they are seeking.
Our business solution was built around the principle of taking an outline picture of your body and uploading your actual measurements into the retailer website. This would then generate a match of measurements tailored to the individual retailer’s block sizing, as they are all different. For instance, a size 12 in M&S is different to a size 12 in another brand. We put together a budget proposal and plan of how we would develop the sizing software, and a marketing plan outlining how we would sell this software to retailers to incorporate into their own website. We were very pleased with our project result.
I also really enjoyed researching and writing my dissertation, which examined the links between sustainability strategy and ethical sourcing practices based on the key principles of sustainability: the three P’s of profit, people and planet – what was the benefit to the company, community, and the impact on the local area, the land and the people? The dissertation also focused on ethical working conditions, how to ensure good conditions and consistency of standards – I experienced first-hand that a factory with bad practices is simply not worth working with, as attitudes are very difficult to change and require true commitment to ethical principles.
You learn a lot from your peers, particularly with the international student focus and broad range of experiences. You all learn together that you can do things you think you cannot, which in turn can free the mind and break down barriers.” Sue Hobden
Having graduated with a Sussex MBA, what are you doing now?
I run my own consultancy, helping companies implement new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) computer software solutions, focusing on business process and analysis as opposed to the technical IT aspects. I am currently working with three companies to help them with project management, business transformation, and to improve business return by providing an appropriate platform for growth. I work alongside specialist IT consultants and in-house teams. I aim to bridge the gap between the user expectations and IT consultants and bring my well-rounded experience to the mix.
The MBA gave me a greater level of confidence outside my own sphere of expertise. Using effective listening and questioning skills, I learned that you can successfully deliver a complete business solution and computer programme without being an IT specialist. ERP is a cross-business discipline, and I’ve learned not to worry if I am not a specialist, because I know someone who is.
What are your top tips for someone considering an MBA?
I wanted a qualification that would give my consultancy additional professional standing and external recognition for my skills. The level of commitment needed to successfully undertake an MBA is recognised throughout industry.
It is never too late to do an MBA! I was 58 when I started, possibly the oldest student on the Sussex course but my age did not make any difference whatsoever. It’s a great course for people mid-career who may have gone as far as they think they can go and are not sure what they want to do next, or for those who want to gain a wider knowledge base and build further confidence before making their next career move. The MBA gives you a grounding in all the key business skills, and enables you to make a focused career choice.
You learn a lot from your peers, particularly with the international student focus and broad range of experiences. You all learn together that you can do things you think you cannot, which in turn can free the mind and break down barriers. The MBA opens your eyes and the confidence-building factor can’t be underplayed.
The other great aspect is the friends and expanded network you make on the course. I met one of my cohort at the CMI management development conference recently, as you can gain Level 7 CMI Certificate as part of the MBA. Our cohort all met up at Christmas for drinks, and again at graduation. This truly was a special day, one for the life experience memory book!
What was your first ever job?
My first Saturday job was working behind the deli counter at the International Store in Eastbourne! My first proper job after A-levels was as a PA at Parker Pen in Newhaven. From there I moved to the London office, then the Switzerland office, returning to Newhaven in a marketing management role. Then I moved to M&S for twelve years. I was working as a merchandiser in procurement just as M&S was moving its manufacturing base from the UK to India and the Far East. It was a very interesting time as M&S were determined to maintain their UK manufacturing standards within their new Far East factory network and were founder members of the Ethical Trading Initiative. I then moved to one of the top 10 suppliers to M&S to manage the commercial function, continuing my involvement with overseas factory and product sourcing. Latterly I moved to the luxury beauty retail sector.
What career advice would you give new Sussex graduates?
I would say have courage, but be patient. Take the opportunity to learn as much as you can, build on practical experience. Do not be afraid to make a sideways move, or change jobs. Follow your heart and find the things that interest you and where you think you can make a difference. Absorb as much information as possible and take as many secondments as you can.
What or who inspires you? The disruptors within the retail industry, namely the dominance of Amazon and ASOS, who have seized significant market share at the expense of the traditional retail sector. I still feel Apple led the way, with their total focus on attractive product design, inter-active retail stores offering advice and assistance, and an interesting mainly out-sourced supply chain.
What keeps you awake at night? You must get used to working independently and to stand on your own two feet, as your income depends on successfully delivering your current contract and finding the next one! Moving from M&S to a small supplier to M&S prepared me in part, as you find yourself without all the infra-structure or support aspects of a big company that you take for granted.
How do you relax? With good food, good friends, a good book, a good film at the cinema, travelling to interesting places, and learning new things. When you stop learning, you have to question yourself - are you in the right place?
What could you not live without? I could not live without my smartphone and access to knowledge - the ability to read and absorb new things.