and NIGEL COPE
Bill Cockburn, chief executive of the Post Office, has emerged as the surprise frontrunner to take over the same role at retailer WH Smith.
Mr Cockburn, 52, has spent his working life in the Post Office and his choice as chief executive at WH Smith may raise eyebrows in the City.
Institutional investors have been urging WH Smith to bring in someone who can shake-up its sleepy culture, which is blamed for a decline in profits.
One source, who confirmed that Mr Cockburn was at the top of the shortlist, said that the company "has been looking for a strategist, not just a retailer".
Mr Cockburn's wish to leave the Post Office had been widely known. He is believed to have been frustrated by the privatisation debacle, and feels that he has not been given the chance to shine in the private sector. He already sits on the board of Whitbread, the brewing group.
WH Smith recently elevated its divisional managing directors onto the board, which the company believes gives it enough retail experience at the top. WH Smith's includes the Virgin/Our Price record shops, Waterstones books, and 50 per cent of the Do-It-All chain.
With his experience of running a huge and complex operation, Mr Cockburn is seen by WH Smith insiders as having the vision to grasp the company's many problems.
Mr Cockburn joined the Post Office at 18, was appointed to the board in 1981, and became chief executive in 1992 to help ready the organisation for privatisation. He would most likely be replaced by John Roberts, Post Office managing director.
WH Smith has lost the confidence of the City and last May's profits warning sounded the alarm bells - retail outlets have been hit by the competition and Do-It-All has suffered in the housing recession.