Tesco’s ‘near perfect succession plan’ coincides with period of business turbulence

January 15, 2012

Philip Clarke

When Philip Clarke replaced CEO Sir Terry Leahy in 2011, Tesco’s succession plan was described as ‘near perfect’. Within a year, serious profit warnings suggest it will be unlikely to deliver its strategic aims

The Guardian has followed the story closely, and analysed the succession plan in depth:

Leahy’s retirement has triggered a changing of the guard, including the departure of Andrew Higginson, its former finance and strategy director, who will step down as head of its retailing services arm in September [2012].

The Big Price Flop

The Big Price Flop, as some analysts now refer to it, also suggests the British arm is missing the influence of Tim Mason, the group’s deputy chief executive and Clubcard guru; he currently has his hands full with its heavily loss-making US chain Fresh & Easy.

The Terry, Tim and Andy show

One former executive argues the top team is depleted and weaker than when “Terry, Tim and Andy” ran the show, but adds: “Terry was always going to be a hard act to follow. He was a retail genius.”

When [Philip] Clarke, who first worked for Tesco in 1974 as a part-time shelf stacker while he was still at school in Liverpool, was appointed to succeed Leahy, their similar backgrounds and immersion in the business suggested they were cast from the same mould. Only time will tell if Clarke can have as much success.

So what went wrong?

If you consider the reported evidence, Tesco has had a tough time in the near recessionary conditions of 2010-11. Its failure to meet its financial targets was shared with most of its rivals. A few bucked the trend, notably Sainsbury, Morrisons, and the discounters Aldi and Netto.

Arguably, Clarke was too willing to accept the positive picture of a company requiring no major change of strategy. Forced to respond to market conditions, he and the respected top team appeared to have focused on an extensive price cutting plan of £500 million.

Black Thursday

As poor results at Christmas [2011] were unveiled, securities analyst Dave McCarthy talked of a Tesco ‘black Thursday’ as £5bn was wiped off the company’s stock market value and when the results showed that the UK chain, which generates more than 60% of group profits, was funding international losses.

“We suspect that when investors look back, they will view this day as the day the market recognised the fundamental changes that are taking and have taken place. A profit warning is the last sign of a company in trouble — and they usually come in threes.

Tesco admitted for the first time that it has long-standing problems around range, quality and service. It has slashed wage bills to try to preserve profits and that, like pushing prices up, is a short-term fix at the expense of future profits.”

Hero to zero again

Another Guardian story replays the hero to zero theme, comparing the rise and fall in reputation of Leahy’s leadership at Tesco with that of Philip Rose at Marks and Spencer.

More on Tesco’s succession plan

Tesco’s succession planning was covered in an earlier LWD post

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