Another Ashley director quits

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The Independent Online
Laura Ashley's compensation cheque book was taken out of the drawer for another signing yesterday, with Geoffrey Haslehurst resigning after 11 days into his second year as finance director. He leaves with a cheque for pounds 105,000, which is full compensation for his one-year rolling contract.

Andrew Higginson, his predecessor, left voluntarily last year to join Burton Group a few weeks after Jim Maxim, chief executive, resigned with a pounds 1.2m pay-off and Denise Lincoln, human resources director, left with about pounds 200,000.

A spokeswoman for the high-street women's clothing retailer said Mr Haslehurst had left by mutual consent. He is being replaced by James Walsh, the jogging and scuba-diving enthusiast who was previously finance director at Harrods Holdings and chief executive of the shoe retailer Kurt Geiger.

The company also announced that Graham Searle had resigned as managing director. He recently agreed to undertake the role until a new chief executive had been appointed, and receives no compensation. He will retain links, acting as a consultant to assist in the company's restructuring.

No more executive boardroom departures are expected, although Ann Iverson, who was appointed chief executive a month ago on a remuneration package that could bring her pounds 3.4m over three years, is looking to strengthen the non-executive team with at least two appointments.

The musical chairs in the boardroom is continuing to unsettle the share price. The shares, which had been recovering recently, eased 2p to 87p yesterday. Besides the boardroom departures, the Lazard Brothers merchant bank quit last month as financial adviser.

Other recent departures have included Hugh Blakeway Webb, chairman, and Clive Pyne, group services director. Mr Blakeway Webb will make pounds 8m by selling 4 million shares back to the Ashley family, the firm's founders, under a private agreement.

Mr Pyne joined the company last October, and became an executive director six months ago. Retailing analysts had been anticipating that there would be a change of finance director, and several have come across the American Mr Walsh before.

Mr Walsh joined the House of Fraser stores group in 1991, a time when it was still part of the Harrods stable. He is credited with being instrumental in the refinancing and restructuring of House of Fraser prior to its flotation in April last year.

He remained with Harrods when the parental ties with House of Fraser were severed.

The task facing the new members in the boardroom to turn Laura Ashley around is a tough one.

Underlying profits in the year to 28 January rose from pounds 3m to pounds 3.8m, but that was before a thumping pounds 34m restructuring charge for closing 30 shops in the US, and switching to higher-margin goods and quicker stock renewals.

Laura Ashley has also had to contend with ever increasing competition in the high street.

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