Austin Reid chief ousted after slump in sales

Another day, another casualty on the High Street as retailers discover that one bad season can cost them their job
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The Independent Online

Roger Jennings, the chief executive of Austin Reed, yesterday joined a spiralling list of retail casualties when he paid the price for a dire Christmas at the ailing menswear chain with his job.

Mr Jennings' exit, which follows an 11 per cent slump in like-for-like sales over Christmas, suggests he failed to grasp just how ambivalent his target customer - a middle aged, middle class man - would be towards the group's new flagship Regent Street store.

Even Austin Reed insiders admit the store's estimated 13 per cent sales uplift is certainly not worth its £12m price tag. It would appear that such luxurious amenities as a putting green for him, and a health spa for her, are superfluous when it comes to attracting shoppers.

Mr Jennings' ousting came one day after Marks & Spencer sacked its clothing director, David Norgrove, and follows a management cull at WH Smith's troubled retail arm that saw its managing director, Beverley Hodson, fall on her sword as well as three of her most senior executives.

And few industry observers believe the bloodletting will stop there. Mr Norgrove's departure was widely viewed as a sop to the City, which would have preferred the M&S obituary to be that of Roger Holmes, its chief executive. But is the recent shake-up just a coincidence? Or does it mark the start of something more sinister on the high street?

After what has been retailers' toughest Christmas for years, the boardroom knives are out. "The world is moving faster. Everybody wants instant gratification," said Moira Benigson, who runs the MBS executive search group, pointing out that the "fish rots from the head down" to justify who should take the blame for poor results.

Hence Sir Peter Davis, who is expecting to step up to the J Sainsbury chairman's seat in March; Trevor Bish-Jones, Woolworths' not-so-new chief executive; and Matalan's John King must all be feeling the heat as they struggle to turn around their slumbering charges. The City was, to varying degrees, unimpressed by the Christmas trading reported by the three groups under the spotlight, while the profits warning at Brown & Jackson, the Poundstretcher owner, won the veteran retailer Angus Monro few new friends.

"Quite a few of these guys are lacking the basic retailing principles of having the right product in the right place at the right price," Richard Hull, head of retail at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, said. Sounds simple, but this is just what Mr King and Kate Swann, WH Smith's new boss, confessed had gone wrong as they unveiled massive profits warnings. In Matalan's case, the product was uninspiring and too expensive; in WH Smith's, in the wrong place in the store.

Most industry experts pin the wave of sackings on the upheaval in the high street that has seen one-stop wonders such as Tesco prosper at the expense of out-of-favour stalwarts such as Boots and M&S.

"In 1999/2000, Noddy could have been chief executive of a retailer and it would have been successful. But the retailing environment is far more competitive than it has been in the past 15 years," Mr Hull said.

"The past six months have highlighted the divergence between retailers with a clear idea of who their customers are, and those who are struggling to address their customer base. Woolworths, WH Smith and Boots have got strategic problems because their breakfast is being eaten by others," added one investment banker.

Ms Hodson's departure from WH Smith underscores just how wrong she was to believe customers would be prepared to hike to the back of the store to hunt out their favourite read. Rather than battle through to the magazine rack, it seems they just chose to shop elsewhere.

"They were all old hands," one former chief executive said of Messrs Jennings, Norgrove and Ms Hodson's departure. "They had plenty of time to demonstrate their skills in driving their businesses successfully and they all failed."

That the victims can look forward to pocketing hefty payoffs reflects a quirk of today's executive jobs market: big salaries demand big results. "There is a twin trend of high remuneration with increasingly high standards set for performance," one executive said.

Another feature of the retail jobs market is that bigshots are getting younger. Simon Wolfson, the mail order dynasty protégé who picked up the reins at Next aged just 33, led the wave of young blood that has flowed into retail boardrooms recently. Boots's Richard Baker, who took over from Steve Russell last summer, is 41, and Justin King, set to replace Sir Peter at Sainsbury's is another spring chicken in City terms, aged 42. Some people think this reflects the lack of genuine talent that is out there. "There are very few good people out of work," Ms Benigson said.

One thing all agreed on yesterday was that the clock now starts ticking the moment a new executive walks through the door. "People are being given a shorter period of time to prove themselves. So you could worry that the young chief executives are not going to be given that long to perform," the headhunter said, adding: "People are less scared than before of pulling the trigger because there is less fear of someone coming in from the outside."

With the ex-Asda pool of talent running dry, all eyes are on Tesco to produce the next crop of hotshots. Given Sir Terry Leahy's ambitions - to increase the supermarket chain's share of the general retail market from 12.5 per cent to something approaching 25 per cent - that should be some harvest.

FOUR WHO ARE BACK OUT ON THE STREET

Roger Jennings: Didn't suit Austin Reed

Stephen Russell: Wrong prescription at Boots

Beverley Hodson: Shown the door at WH Smith

David Norgrove: Checked out of Marks & Spencer

FOUR WHO ARE IN STORE, BUT UNDER PRESSURE

Trevor Bish Jones: Still to work wonders at Woolies

Sir Peter Davis: A struggle at Sainsbury's

Roger Holmes: Next in the firing line at M&S?

John King: Needs to ring up some change at Matalan

... AND FOUR WHO ARE WINDOW SHOPPING FOR A NEW JOB

Paul Mason: Shopping around after Matalan

Belinda Earl: Late of Debenhams

Stuart Rose: Departed from Arcadia

Mike Coupe: Got the big chill at Iceland

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