Leighton quits three posts as 'big opportunity' beckons

Allan Leighton, the chairman of Royal Mail, stepped down from three of his seven major company directorships yesterday, clearing the decks for a new "big opportunity", believed by some to be a shot at the top job at the beleaguered supermarket group Sainsbury.

Allan Leighton, the chairman of Royal Mail, stepped down from three of his seven major company directorships yesterday, clearing the decks for a new "big opportunity", believed by some to be a shot at the top job at the beleaguered supermarket group Sainsbury.

Mr Leighton resigned as chairman of lastminute.com, the internet travel company, which he has worked with for more than four years. He also said he was stepping down as chairman of Cannons, the fitness chain, and as a non-executive director of Dyson, the vacuum cleaner manufacturer.

He is thought to have been approached by a consortium of venture capitalists to join a bid for Sainsbury, assuming the top job if the bid proves to be successful. He will, however, hang on to his jobs - at least for the time being - on the boards of Selfridges, Bhs, BSkyB and Royal Mail.

Brent Hoberman, the chief executive of lastminute.com, said he was disappointed to lose his chairman, but was delighted at Mr Leighton's achievements during his time at the company. He said sales had grown from about £30m to more than £1bn since he began.

Commenting on the timing of his departure, Mr Hoberman said: "The specific reason for the timing is that he's looking at a very big opportunity at the moment, and he needs some time to do that," he said. "Even Allan can't do 12 jobs at once."

Speaking yesterday, Mr Leighton would not be drawn on whether he had been approached in relation to Sainsbury. He said: "Firstly, the three businesses I'm going to stand down from are businesses that are in stages two, three and four of their development - and if they're going to make a change, then the best time to do it is at that stage.

"Secondly, succession is very important, it has to be planned. Thirdly, I've committed to spend a bit more time with Galen Weston and Selfridges - and I have to do quite a lot of that in the US, which takes up more time."

Mr Leighton is a well-known advocate of director plurality, where individuals hold a series of non-executive posts. He was insistent that his resignations were not a move away from this position.

Lastminute.com announced that Brian Collie, a lastminute non-executive director, would replace Mr Leighton, when he steps down in January.

Mr Collie is a senior executive member on the board of BAA, the UK airports operator, a post which he is due to stand down from before the end of the year.

James Dyson, the founder of Dyson Ltd, said Mr Leighton was an "entrepreneurial one-off", adding: "He has brought a huge amount of skills to his non-executive role with us. His knowledge of retailing is peerless."

Recent reports suggest Mr Leighton, 51, has been approached by the former Asda chief executive and Tory MP, Archie Norman, with a view to the pair mounting a bid for Sainsbury.

Other bidders for the group are believed to include Permira, the private equity group, and George Magan, the corporate financier and former treasurer of the Conservative Party.

Director plurality

Allan Leighton's existing directorships

¿ The chairman of Royal Mail

¿ The chairman of Bhs

¿ The deputy chairman of Selfridges

¿ A non-executive director of BSkyB

Resigned directorships

¿ The chairman of lastminute.com

¿ The chairman of Cannons

¿ A non-executive director of Dyson

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