Peter Bamford, who has served on the main board for only 18 months, becomes the ninth WH Smith director to leave the group since its profits warning two years ago. The total compensation bill for the departures will now exceed pounds 1m.
However, Bill Cockburn, who took over as the group's chief executive in January 1996, denied that it represented a "bloodbath". He said: "It is time for a change and Peter and I were agreed on that. He has had a particularly tempestuous year. It is the first year of our strategic review and the next three are about implementation and consolidation. It needs someone fresh to come in."
Analysts said Mr Bamford's departure was because he was too closely associated with the decline in performance of the main chain which culminated in the profits warning in May 1995.
The main WH Smith business has been hit by competition from supermarkets on key product areas such as newspapers and magazines, books, music and videos. However, Mr Cockburn said Mr Bamford's departure was "amicable".
Institutional investors supported the move. One shareholder said: "We think Bill Cockburn has a difficult job and it is going to be a long slog to get the main business right. But there needed to be a fresh overhaul of the management and we would be supportive of what has happened rather than discouraged by it. So far he [Mr Cockburn] is doing all the right things."
Mr Cockburn will become chairman of WH Smith Retail while the company seeks a replacement for Mr Bamford. He said he was keen to move closer to the main high street business, which has 400 stores, and that the search for a new managing director for the business was "well advanced".
Mr Bamford, 43, joined WH Smith in 1987 and has been running the main retail business for the past three years. He was appointed to the main board in late 1995. He was paid pounds 118,000 last year and employed on a two-year rolling contract. He will receive compensation though the company declined to reveal details yesterday.
Mr Bamford's exit is the latest in a series of boardroom departures from the retail group as it attempts to shrug off its reputation as a slumbering underachiever.
He follows the former chief executive, Sir Malcolm Field, who left last year and Peter Troughton, the former head of WH Smith Retail, who left with pounds 400,000 compensation. David Roberts, the former head of WH Smith Business Supplies, was made redundant following the sale of the Niceday business last year. He received pounds 505,000 in compensation.
Others who have left include Philip Smith, a member of the founding Smith family who was a non-executive director, and John Napier, the former finance director who retired at the age of 59 last year when Keith Hammil, the former finance director of the Forte group, was brought in.
Two other non-executive directors have stepped down while Simon Burke, the former head of Virgin Our-Price, left last year to return to the Virgin empire.
WH Smith also announced yesterday it was hiving off its retail concessions operation from the WH Smith retail division into a separate business. It will have its own managing director.
It has 100 outlets in railway stations and airports and generates sales of pounds 120m.
A spokesman said: "It has been a Cinderella business. But it is a jewel that should be buffed up."
WH Smith already has a successful business in the US operating stores in railways and airports. It has recently opened at outlet in Singapore and is looking at opening another in the new Hong Kong Airport.
In addition, the group is transferring the logistics and distribution arm of WH Smith Retail into a separate business to be run by Richard Handover, who runs the WH Smith News wholesale business.