What happens if you fall ill or are desperate for a holiday? If you're lucky, there's a deputy manager ready to take the reins. You could just soldier on, or drag in an unwilling relative. But there is a third option: relief management.
Brothers Jack and Ian Gough have made their living as relief managers over the past decade with their company Maxim Management Services, based near Newcumnock in Scotland. They travel anywhere in the country to help out retailers who need a break.
"I saw the concept working in the pub trade and thought it would also work in this sector," says Jack Gough, who does everything a normal manager does in the course of the week: visiting the cash and carry, cashing up, going to the bank and serving customers. "The principles are the same for most businesses, but I often go along the day before I start to get a feel for things, while the first day can involve looking at where things are and asking staff questions, after that you're up and running."
Some contracts last just a few days, while others can run up to six weeks. Jack has even helped open a new store when a permanent manager couldn't be found in time.
The idea of bringing in an outsider might seem a bit alien, but the concept is catching on in the retail sector where there's now less stigma about temporary help. In fact, the relief - or interim - management sector is now worth about £1bn, according to research by the Interim Management Association (IMA), and last year 10% of assignments were in the retail sector.
"Retail has been steadily increasing the use of senior interims," says IMA deputy chair Paul Botting. "These are classic executive or managerial roles and cover the whole range of businesses, from food retail giants to small family concerns, across all types of products and services."
These interim managers are typically used at short notice for short- and medium-term projects. They work on a freelance basis, and are either self-employed or work through their own limited companies, taking responsibility for their own holiday, pension and health insurance. Many also have professional indemnity insurance.
Interim Partners has worked with retailers such as the Co-operative Group and Kwik Save, mainly to find head office managers, and its head of retail practice Jonathan Flynn believes the sector is using more interim staff, particularly when someone resigns at short-notice and they're left with a gap for sometimes weeks or months. "It's a tough market and companies are buying in people with skills and experience to help them," he says.
So who uses a relief manager's services? Many of Maxim Management's customers - in the off licence, newsagent and c-store sectors - are regulars who call them in for holiday cover, or when there's been an illness or death in the family. Indeed, many are family-run firms who don't want other staff members to know the intimate workings of their business. "I'm impartial and professional," explains Gough. "I don't get embroiled in staff politics while I'm there, either."
Both brothers are efficient and discreet, and it evidently takes a certain type of retailer to be a relief manager. "People with a good track record in the retail sector make good interim managers, who can apply their skills to another company," says Flynn at Interim Partners. "They're usually at least 40 and experience has taught them what to look for and how to make an impact in a short period of time. They've also got an understanding of how to develop relationships with staff and win people over."
Martin McColl identifies people it thinks will make good relief managers, and managers can put themselves forward. It has between 55 and 60 relief managers who are usually brought in when the chain adds another new store to its 1,250-strong portfolio; they're used as 'buddies' to help staff through the acquisition, or if a manager is dismissed.
Says Paul Taylor, general manager marketing: "Having a relief manager shows you are putting resources behind things and it gives staff confidence."
The job is increasingly a career choice for some, but they do have to be financially secure to manage periods when not working. As a result, it can be more expensive to hire one in the short term, but it's good value in the longer term, says Flynn, as they can prevent a business from failing.
However, it's not a concept that appeals to every retailer. "I'm lucky that my father can still help out when I go on holiday, and I know my staff are capable of running things," says Simon Biddle, who runs Biddles c-store in Redditch.
Simon also has a wholesale greengrocery business and while buying standard goods at the cash and carry is fine for someone else to do, the greengrocery buying would be difficult as it's quite a specialist area. "I'd much rather use someone I know than trust someone I don't, or take an agency's word for it. It's a bit of a risk otherwise," he says.
Having been away from his shop - Poundbury Village Stores in Dorset - for the past five weeks has made owner Keith Heffernan realise how lucky he is. "I've just opened another store and when I came back it was better here than when I left," says Keith. "I've trained my staff so that they can run the store in my absence, which is great as it gives me the confidence to go away - I've never had to use a relief manager. I've got 20 staff but it's probably a lot harder if you're a small store without a bank of staff to choose from."
However, Brian Bradford, who runs a Londis at Starcross in Exeter, believes an interim might be a good option. He uses his own staff when he and his wife go on holiday, but says that not everything gets done while they're away. "The paperwork builds up," he admits.
In fact, Brian has first-hand experience of relief management because he helped a fellow retailer a few years ago, by working in his shop while he was on holiday. Brian says the task was made easier because his friend had left detailed instructions about where to find things and when deliveries arrive, but it was a testing seven days.
"It was very strange," admits Brian. "It was difficult to know what to spend in the cash and carry as it was someone else's money, but the hardest thing was getting the staff to accept me."
Being a pretty easy-going chap, Brian soon won them over. "It was hard as there was a sort of resentment initially, but it didn't last."
He might consider repeating the experience, but says it would be much harder these days as there's a lot more pressure on retailers and more red tape: "I don't think I'd want the responsibility of asking for proof of age, for example - it's different if you make a mistake at your own shop."
What makes a good relief manager?
Tenacious and self-motivated with energy and drive
Capable of quickly establishing a rapport and building trust
Perceptive and able to assess what's going on in a totally new environment
Happy with change and comfortable moving between different company cultures
Strong interpersonal skills, operating independently or as a team member
Well developed people management and communication skills
Sensitive to the situation without getting involved in corporate politics.
how to get the best from a relief manager
Have well defined outcomes/expectations
Explain how things work before you leave
Give the relief manager the right amount of authority
Allow them enough space to do the job without 'over-management'
Encourage other staff to treat them as one of the team and with respect
Check up every so often to make sure they have what they need
Choose the interim manager on overall value for money, not the lowest daily rate