Swann checks out on a high at WH Smiths

With profits up nearly 10%, WH Smiths CEO Kate Swann is to step down next July after nine years in charge.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 08 Jul 2013
Despite the widespread woes of its sector, venerable retailer WH Smith seems to be having a pretty good recession – its full year pre-tax profits are up 9.8% to £102m despite falling sales. That’s a performance which many of its oppos on the high street would love to be able to emulate, and it’s due in no small part to the diligent cost-cutting and margin-boosting strategy pursued by its boss, Kate Swann, since 2003.

But alongside those results, Swann has also revealed that she is to step down next July in favour of Steve Clarke, currently MD of the firm’s high street division. The share price – which has more than doubled since she took over – fell 4% to 625p on the news of her departure, suggesting that investors will be sorry to see her go. She has certainly been generous to them – the firm has returned some £450m to shareholders since it spun off its distribution arm WH Smith News in 2006. So why is Swann off when everything seems to be going so swimmingly?  

Well, she may feel that having seen off profit warnings and a takeover bid from private equity group Permira in the early days, implementing a major restructure including closing the firm’s final salary pension scheme, getting out of (then still lucrative) recorded music sales and re-focussing on airport and station operations, she has done what she set out to do. It’s certainly true that many of her decisions, whilst not always popular, have stood the test of time and the drastic downturn in the fortunes of the British high street.

But cutting costs and boosting margins can only work for so long. The strategy which has served the firm well for the past decade may now be running out of steam. Many of Smith’s stores are long overdue a revamp, and queues can be long. Then there is the growing spectre of online competition.

Back in 2008, sales stood at £1.35bn, this year they are down to £1.2bn. Swann is widely recognised as having played the indifferent hand she was dealt with great aplomb. Her successor now faces the arguably even trickier business of trying to find revenue growth in order to maintain Smith’s prized profitability.

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