WH Smith boss Kate Swann quits after strong decade

The chief executive of WH Smith, Kate Swann, yesterday disappointed investors by saying she will step down next year from the retail group after a decade at the helm.

Ms Swann will leave WH Smith at the end of June next year and will be replaced by Steve Clarke, the managing director of its 618-store high street business. Her departure leaves just three female chief executives leading FTSE 100 companies.

Despite unveiling WH Smith's eighth-consecutive year of profit growth and a leap in its dividend, shares in the group – whose travel division has 619 stores in train stations, airports and hospitals, as well as overseas – fell by 21p to 631p on the news of her departure.

Ms Swann has been feted as a darling of the City for turning around WH Smith since she joined in 2003. The company also completed a £50m share buy-back last year, which means it has returned £450m to shareholders since it spun off WH Smith's newspaper division into Smiths News in 2006.

The group posted a 10 per cent rise in annual profits to £102m and hiked its final dividend by 22 per cent to 18.6p yesterday. Ms Swann said: "I will have done 10 years by next year but I have complete confidence they will continue to deliver great shareholder value."

Fran Minogue, at the executive search firm Clarity, said Ms Swann has "shown that you can generate growth from a mature ret ail business". She added: "Kate Swann shows there are superb female candidates out there and I am sure she will be in great demand."

Kate Swann also joined the debate on women in the boardroom, saying that it is "not good" that there are just three female chief executives in the FTSE 100.