Business Comment: It's all gone pear-shaped for Ann Iverson

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The Independent Online
When Ann Iverson was parachuted in at great expense as the new chief executive of frumpy old Laura Ashley two years ago she was greeted as a retail deity - a heroine of the high street. True, her track record was impressive. She had enjoyed success in the US and here with Mothercare (of which more later). And she made all the right noises. Laura Ashley was a great brand, she said, but needed to be modernised. She wasn't exactly going to chuck out the chintz, but yes, that Edwardian milkmaid look might have to go. She was sharp-tongued, aggressive and the City loved it.

But in the past six months, it has begun to go pear-shaped for the svelte Ms Iverson who favours slinky suits to Laura Ashley's trademark floral frocks. The business has too much stock, the systems can't cope and now the management are falling out with each other. Then, by the by, it turned out that the great turnaround at Mothercare was not quite as great as people had thought, as that business ran into problems of its own.

Senior Laura Ashley folk, past and present, say it was always going to be a four or five-year haul to get the business back on a stable footing. It had been under-invested and the systems were poor The business was, and remains, incredibly complex. It is both a manufacturer and a retailer. It has to ship stock to more than 400 stores in more than a dozen countries. And it lacks focus. A business this size should not be attempting to sell ladieswear, childrenswear and home furnishings in stores that are, in many cases, just too small.

With her pounds 1m salary and van-loads of share options Ms Iverson was always going to run into criticism, particularly when City expectations were running far ahead of what was realistically achievable.

But she has not delivered against even modest expectations as the share price chart opposite shows. What now? Ms Iverson's departure seems unlikely as a fourth chief executive in five years would probably do more harm than good. The company may need to franchise out some of its overseas stores, rein in its store opening programme and decide whether it really wants to make its goods as well as retail them. If Sir Bernard Ashley and a Japanese group did not own more than half the shares, it would be a sitting duck for takeover.

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