Laura Ashley chief in surprise resignation

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The Independent Online

A new year, a new boss at Laura Ashley. The 10th chief executive in 14 years quit the struggling fashion and furnishings chain yesterday.

Ainum Mohd-Saaid's abrupt resignation follows what analysts believe was another poor Christmas for the retailer.

Her departure on 1 February will bring down the curtain on one of the City's more unusual takes on corporate governance, coming less than two months after her co-chief executive, Rebecca Navarednam, left suddenly. The pair were appointed jointly to the post in June 2003 with the explanation that neither had all the skills required to run the business.

The company gave little explanation for Ms Mohd-Saaid's decision, except to say it was for "personal reasons". It promoted Lillian Tan, a non-executive director, as chief executive, with few analysts predicting she would retain the crown for long.

Continuing Laura Ashley's penchant for bending the corporate governance norms, Ms Tan, 50, joined in July 2001 as an "alternate director". That meant she did alternate years on the board before taking up her post on a full-time basis last April.

Unlike her predecessors, Ms Tan is a retailer by profession; she used to run Malaysia's Metrojaya Berhad, a retail conglomerate. Ms Mohd-Saaid is a former Malaysian Attorney General, and Ms Navarednam used to work for a Malaysian hotel chain. Neither received compensation. Laura Ashley has been controlled by a Malaysian conglomerate, Malaysian United Industries (MUI), since 1998.

"And so the revolving door continues," Richard Ratner, at Seymour Pierce, said. "Laura Ashley is a UK-listed company but really is run as the personal fiefdom of the chairman of MUI. We worry about the fact that the company keeps importing CEOs with no experience of UK retailing, and we are also worried by the lack of independent directors on the board."

It emerged yesterday that Laura Ashley's top fashion designer, Alistair Blair, had recently quit. Mr Blair, who used to design for Christian Dior, Givenchy and Valentino, was heralded as Laura Ashley's saviour when he arrived almost two years ago. His collections won rave reviews but failed to woo older shoppers. In the first six months of last year, the company's underlying clothes sales plunged 36 per cent. It is due to issue a trading update this month.

The company said Mr Blair's departure in December had been by "mutual consent". It intends to retain his services on a consultancy basis, suggesting that it will not abandon his attempts to banish its "frumpy frocks" image.

The shares, which have more than halved in the past few weeks, slipped 1.25p to 10.5p.