“We have a goal to build the number one local trading platform in the UK”
In an exclusive interview, we chatted to Hugh Hurley, the CEO of Gumtree. Hugh gave us an insight into his career, offered his advice for companies experiencing a sale being blocked, and told us about Gumtree’s plans now the company has gained its independence from eBay.
Gumtree is the first company you’ve led as CEO. Can you tell us about your career leading up to this role?
I’ve been lucky to have a varied career, starting in analytical roles (commodity pricing) before moving into strategy and corporate development (in the diamond industry) and then finally operational management in the tech space. The consistent thread has always been my fascination with not just identifying opportunities but then supporting and ultimately leading the execution and delivery.
In terms of how I’ve developed personally, each step has helped me learn new skills. I spent eight years with the De Beers Group where, as industry leaders, there was an amazing focus on leading by example and setting incredibly high standards, both internally and externally.
Moving into tech was a real change of pace, and really opened my eyes to what you can achieve with clear goals and a relentless attitude to drive towards these in a data-driven, agile environment. Finally, as I’ve taken on increasing responsibilities, I’ve recognised how critical it is to build the right team and create the right process and tools to support that team.
Have you always wanted to lead a company?
I guess most people think about leading a company on some level. For me, the role is a natural progression in wanting to shape a vision but also enabling and driving success. Being a leader is a shift from being task-focused to being people and process-focused. This can be challenging but also incredibly rewarding when done successfully.
Being a leader in the context of Gumtree is even more exciting – as Gumtree is a brand with so much potential and at its core such an amazing product. I used Gumtree before I joined the business, I use it now, and I’ll use it after I’ve moved on – so being able to shape that product is what really motivates me. What we work on day-to-day has a real, practical, meaningful use for people and that’s a great feeling.
Why was the sale of Gumtree to Adevinta stopped by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA)?
The proposed sale of Gumtree to Adevinta was part of a wider $9.2bn (£7.2bn) acquisition by Adevinta of eBay’s entire classifieds portfolio. The CMA was concerned that under the proposed transaction eBay would retain a minority controlling stake in Adevinta and as such there would be a loss of competition between eBay marketplace, Shpock and Gumtree, with only Facebook Marketplace remaining as a significant competitor in the UK market.
To maintain a level of competition and investment, the CMA required that Adevinta sell both Shpock and Gumtree.
What happened because of the sale being blocked and what lessons have you learned from the event?
It was a time of great uncertainty for the whole organisation, and our job was to keep the teams focused on best serving our users, whilst remaining positive on the outcome. Certainly, the sale was a distraction, but equally, it provided an exciting opportunity for Gumtree to carve out its own future and become a standalone business.
We learnt so much through the process, from the importance of embracing new opportunities to working flexibly and agilely to finally how important it is to remain focused on the task at hand and constantly move forward positively. I’m incredibly proud of how the team responded and their focus and resilience to make this change happen.
How can other business leaders avoid suffering the same fate and what advice would you give to other leaders who are going through the same thing?
The decision (our fate) was out of our hands, so I can’t advise on that. But I can share some learnings.
The first is to not lose focus on the impact you want to have as a company. Supporting that is to drill down on your purpose and mission – don’t be distracted by the selling process. We reset ours in 2021 and this has been a guiding North Star for us across the business.
Don’t underestimate how important culture is. As we moved away from one ownership we had a chance to re-establish our own culture. Improving connection and collaboration was so important to us.
Surround yourself with great people, listen, learn and challenge one another to ensure you’re reaching the right decision as you will have a lot of decisions to make in a very short period of time. Then be prepared to ramp up!
Finally, always keep your customers front of mind. Keep delivering value in the short term whilst you build and look toward your future. Retention and customer satisfaction now will mean you can drive growth when out the other side.
What are the highs and lows of leading a business that is going through such significant change?
- Planning and architecting for the future. It’s not often you get the opportunity to fundamentally shift the course of a business
- Seeing the positive reaction from users (both internally and externally) as work progresses
- Once it’s done, knowing you have completed a mammoth task!
- Being positive when at times the workload can be intense. Remaining focused on the outcomes and future opportunities is key here
- Identifying and integrating talent to support new areas. This includes selecting the right vendors and team members who can hit the ground running. An upfront focus on onboarding makes a big difference here
Now that Gumtree has gained its independence from eBay, can you pursue any ventures that you weren’t able to before?
eBay was a great parent company but ultimately, it was exactly that – a parent that defined our strategic direction and priorities. As an independent business, we own every decision and our long-term mission directly. Our mindset has shifted, we have a goal to build the number one local trading platform in the UK and everything we do is based on working towards that.
What effect is the cost-of-living crisis having on Gumtree and the wider second-hand market?
Gumtree is 23 years old, but has never been more relevant nor had a bigger role to play.
We saw the shift to thrift and the rise of re-commerce before the pandemic. But between Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, we have seen this accelerate and greater adoption of second-hand and consideration for the circular economy.
Whilst sustainability is a factor, right now cost is first and planet is second in consumer thinking. Our Circular Economy report found 51% of people plan to purchase second-hand items this year to save money, with one in 10 making their first secondhand purchase this year to combat the rising cost of living.
What we hope to see is a sustainable shift to local trading and an attitude to share more and waste less becoming the norm.
How is the future shaping up for yourself and Gumtree?
We’ve finished the foundation stage and now are entering the exciting growth phase. Our mission is to make local trading safer and simpler and now our teams are fully focused on making this a reality.