'Outsider' lands chief post at ailing Austin Reed

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The Independent Online

Austin Reed, the troubled menswear retailer, yesterday ended its search for a new chief executive with the appointment of the former boss of Dorothy Perkins as it revealed that profits had collapsed.

Nick Hollingworth beat off internal competition from the acting chief executive, David Lowbridge, to replace Roger Jennings, who was ousted in January after a dire year climaxed in a disastrous Christmas. Mr Lowbridge, who runs the group's Country Casuals division, said it "would not be appropriate to comment at this point" on whether he planned to stay on. "Anybody in the trading line is vulnerable," one analyst said.

Mr Hollingworth, 51, who started his new post yesterday, will receive a basic salary of £275,000 - £28,000 more than Mr Jennings was paid. Before joining Arcadia, where he also headed Burton, Mr Hollingworth ran Etam for three years.

John Robbins, Austin Reed's chairman, said the board had chosen Mr Hollingworth over Mr Lowbridge because "he is a complete outsider" and a "retailer down to his fingertips". He added: "We wanted someone with a fresh point of view."

Austin Reed, which spent £12m overhauling its flagship Regent Street store last year, said its preliminary pre-tax profits had crashed by 84 per cent to £1.2m, before allowing for an exceptional gain of £2m from selling one of its stores. "We're all disappointed with the results last year," Mr Lowbridge said. Like-for-like sales fell 10 per cent during the year, while margins also suffered, producing a "significant erosion" in its retail profits, the company said.

Mr Lowbridge said there were "encouraging" signs that the new financial year had started better, claiming the group had "tackled a number of the problems head on". Like-for-like sales during the past nine weeks are 3 per cent lower, although sales at its Regent Street site have risen 33 per cent.

The group has attempted to make its men's and women's clothing more fashionable in an attempt to revive sales. Customers can now choose from four different cuts of men's suits, instead of just one.

Austin Reed last year fended off takeover approaches from a number of parties, including its founder's grandson, Nigel Robertson. Its net asset value fell from 175p a share to 169p during the year. It is still "negotiating" Mr Jennings' payoff, Mr Robbins said.