Outlook They’re playing musical chairs in supermarket boardrooms again, and all the seats are hot ones.
Having been passed over for the top job at Tesco in favour of Philip Clarke two years ago, Andrew Higginson is back in one of them with his appointment as chairman of Morrisons. Missing out at Tesco may actually have been a lucky break, given what happened to Mr Clarke, but the task facing Mr Higginson at his new shop is scarcely any easier.
It will be his job to try to placate a restive shareholder base that is increasingly fed-up with the way the company has been run.
Their anger was encapsulated by Sir Ken Morrison, founder and life president, who stood up at the annual meeting and lambasted management’s strategy as “bullshit”. Oh to be a fly on the wall at Sir Ken’s first meeting with the new chairman. Because it’s hard to argue with him. Morrisons’ struggles with the competitive threat from Lidl and Aldi are just about forgivable given just about everyone has been floundering on that front.
But many of Morrisons problems are entirely of its own making. The company was late to the convenience store party and is way behind the curve when it comes to the internet, which left it having to get into bed with Ocado for a pretty price.
As if that lot isn’t enough, the chain’s non-food offering is all but non existent and it also made an almighty mess of baby goods retailer Kiddicare before offloading it at a thumping loss after just three years.
There may yet be worse to come. The seat that Mr Clarke is vacating will soon be taken up by one of Mr Higginson’s old Unilever colleagues, Dave Lewis.
The latter may well use his honeymoon period – and Tesco’s deep pockets – to make life even tougher for Morrisons by making the supermarket price war look like a mere opening skirmish. Morrisons chief executive, Dalton Philips, has so far pledged to spend £1bn on cutting his prices.
If Mr Philips’ plan fails to stop the rot – a real danger if Tesco gets really aggressive – he will soon be discussing new opportunities with his headhunters over lunch. At the table next to Mr Clarke. After his departure from Tesco, Mr Higginson, now 57, appeared to have hung up his executive boots, picking up several non-executive roles including the chairmanship of plus-size retailer N Brown and – significantly – that of the appallingly successful discount chain Poundland.
If Mr Philips isn’t able to demonstrate signs of improvement soon, could his chairman end up getting the chance to run a major supermarket after all? If only temporarily?