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Cockburn walks out early

Bill Cockburn, the WH Smith chief executive whose shock decision to quit the ailing retailer was announced in June, has already left the business. Mr Cockburn was supposed to remain at the company until October, when he joins BT as head of its domestic operations. But Mr Cockburn left at the beginning of August. He was entitled to a full month of holiday but will not return during September.

Insiders say the absence of a chief executive, even one who was about to leave, has left the company without strategic direction. It has left the four internal candidates for Mr Cockburn's post jockeying for position as factions form behind each of them.

Jeremy Hardie, WH Smith's chairman, has been running the company. The search for a new chief executive has been led by the nominations committee, which consists of three of the group's non-executive directors - Martin Taylor, chief executive of Barclays Bank, Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson, and Patrick Lupo, an American who is chairman of DHL Worldwide.

The company will not make an announcement about Mr Cockburn's replacement at its full-year results meeting next Wednesday. However, it is thought the successful candidate will be named next month.

Insiders are expecting an internal appointment. They say Alan Giles, head of the Waterstones books business, has emerged as a late front runner ahead of finance director Keith Hammill. The other internal candidates are Richard Handover, who runs WH Smith's news distribution business, and John Hancock, head of the group's American operations.