WH Smith shares fell 35p to 376.5p, their lowest since autumn 1995, as analysts fretted about the implications of the sudden resignation. They said the company might experience a period of drift and a new chief executive might introduce a different strategy, causing yet more disruption.
Mr Cockburn, 54, described the BT job as an "irresistible" opportunity. The bustling Scot started his career in the telephone side of the post office in 1961 so it represents a kind of homecoming. "What an offer," he said. "I didn't seek it. The phone rang two weeks ago and it was Peter Bonfield [BT chief executive]. These opportunities don't come along very often."
However, City analysts and some WH Smith workers criticised Mr Cockburn, saying he was leaving too soon, less than half way through his "four-year plan".
Nick Bubb, retail analyst at Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull, said: "Bill Cockburn's honeymoon period had just about ended. He had done all the obvious things such as cutting costs and arranging disposals. But the attention was starting to turn to the absence of sales growth."
Mr Bubb said there had been "a few uneasy feelings" emanating from WH Smith recently as the group continued to wrestle with problems in its core retail chain, hit by slow sales and competition from the big supermarkets. There has been a raft of staff departures with rumblings of discontent about Mr Cockburn's heavy-handed management style.
"The style has been a bruising one but it has cleared the decks," said one WH Smith source. "What the man was good at was cost control. The questions were about how good he would be at building on the foundations. The business now needs someone who has strategic vision."
One former executive said: "He didn't really grasp the intricacies of retailing. He grasped the nettle on some of the old WH Smith practices and he has done a bit of company doctoring. Maybe it is time to hand it back to a real retailer."
Since joining the company in January 1996, Mr Cockburn has sold Smith's 50 per cent stake in Do It All to Boots, sold the business supplies division and a host of smaller companies.
Jeremy Hardie, the WH Smith chairman who recruited Mr Cockburn form the Post Office, said yesterday: "I obviously wanted Bill to stay longer. But it was a knockout offer so it is not surprising that he was keen to take it. He has done a great deal, sorted out the portfolio and got the right people in to the business."
Mr Cockburn denied he was being disloyal to Mr Hardie and to WH Smith investors. "I really do believe the business is in better shape than it was when I arrived. If I had not felt that I wouldn't have gone."
Attention will now turn to who will replace him in one of retailing's most difficult jobs. Internal candidates include Keith Hamill, finance director, Richard Handover, managing director of the newspaper wholesaling operation, John Hancock, chief executive of the American businesses, and Alan Giles, who runs both Waterstones and the Virgin-Our Price joint venture. A headhunter has been appointed to trawl for external candidates.
In a trading statement released yesterday, WH Smith said same-store sales were up by 3 per cent in the second half .
BT would not confirm Mr Cockburn's salary in his new role. However, it is likely to be considerably more than the pounds 425,000 he received at WH Smith last year.
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