WH Smith aims for recovery with female director

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WH Smith appointed its first female executive director yesterday when it named Beverley Hodson as managing director of the main WH Smith high street chain.

Ms Hodson, 45, replaces Peter Bamford who left abruptly last month as part of the four-year plan by Bill Cockburn, chief executive, to rejuvenate the struggling retailer's fortunes.

Ms Hodson becomes the second woman on the WH Smith board. Marjorie Scardino, the new chief executive of the Pearson media group, is a non-executive director.

Ms Hodson will join Smith's next month after 10 months at Sears where she was managing director of the Dolcis and Cable & Co footwear chains. Prior to that she spent 18 years at Boots, where she had been general manager of the Boots the Chemist leisure business and, more recently, head of the Children's World group which was sold to Storehouse last year.

Mr Cockburn said: "What we need at WH Smith retail is someone with very strong commercial flair to develop our buying and merchandising and to drive our sales growth. Beverley has considerable strength in those areas." He described her as a "Duracell battery of energy".

However, the appointment failed to impress the City, where analysts described Ms Hodson as "a relatively unknown quantity". John Richards of NatWest Securities said: "This is not the high-powered appointment that we had been led to expect. She is taking on what it arguably one of the most difficult jobs in retailing."

Other analysts said that, though Ms Hodson had enjoyed a successful career at Boots, she has never managed a chain the size of WH Smith.

Mr Cockburn will remain as chairman of the high street chain. This prompted some analysts to speculate that the position of managing director will be a lesser role as Mr Cockburn continues to oversee the core chain.

The company was keen to emphasise Ms Hodson's career at Boots, which has managed to fight successfully against competition from the supermarkets while WH Smith has struggled.

Robin Dickie, the operations director of WH Smith is also a former Boots executive. "We're trying to benchmark ourselves against excellence," Mr Cockburn said.

Ms Hodson will be chaired with trying to revitalise the Smith's format, driving the average customer purchase higher and improving the product range. The success of the core chain is seen as vital to the revival of WH Smith's profits which have been hit by weak sales and intense competition.

Ms Hodson was educated at Blackheath High School for girls and at Newnham College Cambridge. She is married with one child.

Separately, Alan Giles is to become the WH Smith representative director on the Virgin Our Price joint venture board. He will remain managing director of Waterstones.

WH Smith shares closed 8.5p higher at 466.5p.

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