Outlook: Seven chief executives, still no strategy

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The Independent Online
ALONGSIDE THE chauffeur-driven car and share options, the chief executive's job at Laura Ashley plainly comes with a personal ejector seat. Certainly it seems that way after yesterday's belter of an announcement that the latest incumbent has propelled herself into the stratosphere after just five months in the job. After her marathon slog with the purveyor of flowery clothes and wallpaper, Victoria Egan will land back in the Philippines, from whence she apparently came.

One of the most remarkable things about yesterday's announcement is that it made people realise how little was known about her. Though her name suggests a Sloane Ranger, she is actually a Filipino who married a British businessman. She never gave interviews and was rarely photographed. Her profile has not so much been low as subterranean.

Still, she is no more, and that makes it seven chief executives at good old Laura in the last eight years. Frivolity aside, the latest convulsion at this corporate disaster story is very bad news for shareholders indeed - yet another chief executive, more management changes.

The strategy remains unchanged, the company insists, but the disruption must be damaging. Morale among the staff is at rock bottom. Why should they hang around when no chief executive has yet done so.

In any case, it is hard to know what the strategy is. A key problem for this group is that it has yet to decide what it wants to be. Laura Ashley is getting out of manufacturing, but it is still trying to sell a single retail concept of ladieswear, childrenswear and home furnishings all under one roof. Many of its outlets are not much bigger than newsagents and they are flung far and wide, stretching lines of communication and making economies of scale virtually impossible.

Only half jokingly is it suggested that the company close its remaining stores, change the name to l.ashley.com and turn itself into an Internet retailer. Alternatively, shareholders could just pray. You never know. With the TV evangelist "Pat" Robertson joining the board, it might actually work.