The chief executive of WH Smith, Kate Swann, yesterday disappointed investors by saying she will step down next year from the retail group after a decade at the helm.
Ms Swann will leave WH Smith at the end of June next year and will be replaced by Steve Clarke, the managing director of its 618-store high street business.
Despite unveiling WH Smith's eighth-consecutive year of profit growth and a leap in its dividend, shares in the group – whose travel division has 619 stores in train stations, airports and hospitals, as well as overseas – fell 21p, or 3 per cent, to 631p on the news of her departure.
Ms Swann has been feted as a darling of the City for turning around WH Smith's fortunes since she joined in 2003. The company completed a £50m share buy-back last year, which means it has returned £450m to shareholders since it spun off WH Smith's newspaper division into Smiths News in 2006.
WH Smith yesterday posted a 10 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to £102m over the year to 31 August and hiked its final dividend by 22 per cent to 18.6p. Its performance was helped by strong recent sales of books, notably from the "passion" genre of Fifty Shades of Grey.
On stepping down, Ms Swann said: "By the time I have gone, I will have done 10 years. I have complete confidence they will continue with the delivery of great shareholder value."
Ms Swann, who said she did not plan to retire after the leaving the FTSE 250-listed retailer, also joined the debate on women in the boardroom yesterday.
"There are only three FTSE 100 [female] chief executives. The data speaks for itself. It is not good. I am not surprised but it is a very low number," Ms Swann said, but she added: "I don't think I am in favour of quotas – that leads to not choosing the right person."
Fran Minogue, managing partner of the executive search firm Clarity, said Ms Swann has "shown that you can generate growth from a mature retail business".
She added: "Kate Swann shows there are superb female candidates out there and I am sure she will be in great demand."