Marc Bolland, who is joining Marks & Spencer as chief executive next year, has stepped down from Morrisons nearly two months earlier than planned.
The Bradford-based grocer thought it was inappropriate that Mr Bolland should remain at the helm, given that he is moving to a major food competitor and it is now discussing next year's plans. The supermarket chain had previously said that Mr Bolland would stay on until the end of its financial year on 1 February, but yesterday announced he had left with immediate effect.
Last month, M&S revealed that Mr Bolland, a former chief operating officer of Heineken, the brewer, will replace Sir Stuart Rose as chief executive. Sir Stuart, who is also the M&S chairman, is to stay on for a period to help Mr Bolland "get saddled up", but will leave no later than 31 July 2011.
However, Mr Bolland's departure means that Morrisons will be without a chief executive heading into the crucial Christmas trading period, although the grocer's non-executive chairman Sir Ian Gibson said that "trading arrangements for Christmas are progressing smoothly". The grocer also has three experienced executive directors on the board: Mark Gunter, the retail director, Martyn Jones, the trading director, and Richard Pennycook, the finance chief and the leading internal candidate to succeed Mr Bolland.
Some reports have suggested that Morrisons was miffed at the way news of his departure leaked out a day before the grocer's third-quarter trading statement on 19 November.
M&S said it had not finalised a start date for Mr Bolland, but that he is expected to join in the first half of 2010.
Last week, Morrisons appointed MWM Consulting, the headhunter firm founded by Anna Mann, to lead the search for a replacement for Mr Bolland. External candidates for the Morrisons chief executive role include Mark Price, the managing director of Waitrose; Ken McMeikan, the chief executive of Greggs; Mike Coupe, the trading director at Sainsbury's; Andy Clarke, the chief operating officer at Asda, and John Dixon, the executive director of food at M&S.