WH Smith yesterday announced Kate Swann is to step down as chief executive next year after heading the retailer for almost a decade.
Swann will hand over the reins to Steve Clarke, managing director of the group’s high street division, next July after overseeing its crucial Christmas period and ensuring “a smooth transition” of the business.
During her nine-year tenure Swann has defied critics who predicted its demise, steering the business out of its flagging entertainment categories, investing heavily in outlets in hospitals, airports and motorway service areas – trebling sales to £63m.
Commenting on her time at WH Smith, Swann told City A.M. “tough decisions are often the ones you are most proud of” highlighting her decision to close the WH Smith final salary pension scheme in 2007.
“The sorts of decisions we have had to take on the pension were not easy and were not popular at the time but we will be one of the very few companies reporting this season that will be reporting a deficit going down.”
She declined to comment on her next role but ruled out retirement.
News of her departure came as the group reported a 9.8 per cent rise in full-year pre-tax profits to £102m, despite total sales falling two per cent. That figure compares with a £135m loss reported in 2004.
The retailer, which has 618 high street stores and another 619 at travel sites, has proposed a final dividend of 18.6p, up 22 per cent on the prior year.
The City will lament the departure of Kate Swann, who has orchestrated the turnaround of WH Smith over the past nine years and overseen a number of seismic changes. The exit from entertainment, the expansion of its travel arm and pursuing a rigorous cost cutting programme to protect profits all happened under Swann’s watch. She was poached in 2003 from her role as managing director of Argos. She has held senior roles at Tesco, Homebase and Curry’s and is an independent non-executive director at Babcocks.
Steve Clarke will take over as chief executive next year, after five years as head of WH Smith’s high street operations. He joined the retailer in 2004 from Argos, where he had previously worked under Kate Swann as head of product marketing. Prior to Argos he worked in a number of roles at Dixons. Clarke is regarded as “a proven safe pair of hands” by the City and while he has big boots to fill, he is already credited as having played a key part in the success of the business.