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Business Comment

Simon English: Kate Swann's off after a job well done – for herself and Smith's

Outlook Is Kate Swann a retail genius? It is possible to think so, and plainly she has assets. Announcing a decision to quit as chief executive of WH Smith yesterday looks typically savvy.

She's nearing 10 years in charge of a business which few thought would still be going by now, and she's announced another rise in profits and a positive leap in dividends.

As a significant shareholder herself, that divi increase is – completely coincidentally – quite good news for her too, but let's agree that it is better for managers to have a financial interest in the businesses they run than not.

Assuming you are merely looking at it from the point of view of the shareholder, Ms Swann has worked something close to a miracle at Smudgers.

It looked like a business going the same way as Woolworths, an historical relic that could not compete with the digital age.

By binning the entertainment arm she managed to avoid being another HMV.

And boosting the travel side – stores in railways and airports – meant she would always have a steady stream of customers.

The thing is, if you were one of those customers, a trip to WH Smith's is never what you would call a great experience.

You went under duress, because you needed a magazine and a bottle of water for a flight or train ride, not because you found the service polite and the offerings intriguing.

Staff at WH Smith's don't exactly seem filled with the joys of life either. Like the customers, they'd rather not be there.

On the terms by which business people are always judged, Ms Swann has been a huge success.

There are other measures.

Maybe it was not possible for any individual to have kept Smith's afloat this long, employing thousands of people, keeping the City happy and making customers feel appreciated.

Still, it's hard to see that anyone has done better out of Kate Swann's leadership of WH Smith than Kate Swann.