In a morning otherwise dominated by coverage of Labour's Election manifesto, there was also a shock announcement from Asda, Britain's second biggest supermarket chain: CEO Andy Bond is stepping down from the top job and going part-time. No word on his replacement as yet, though Asda's owner, giant US retailer Walmart, says one will be announced 'soon' (whatever that means). No word either on what's prompted his sudden semi-retirement. Bond has had a pretty good record during his time at the helm, but could he be paying the price for its lacklustre Christmas sales figures? Or has he just decided that the only way is down for the supermarkets, at least for the time being?
Walmart said today that Bond would be leaving his role as President and CEO of Asda - basically Walmart's UK subsidiary - and taking on the part-time role as chairman of its executive committee. A new CEO for the UK business will apparently be appointed 'soon', with Bond sticking around to run the company in the interim and then manage the transition. But there's clearly nobody lined up and ready to go, so it doesn't look as though this was planned miles in advance. And it means Asda becomes the second of the Big Four (after Morrisons) to be recruiting a new CEO within the last year.
On the face of it, Bond's record has been pretty good. Asda had a record year in 2009, as the company was at pains to point out today, with sales and profits both ahead of target - capping 15 straight quarters of out-performance. So why he is going now? Well, today's rather terse statement didn't give many clues on that front: there was an anodyne message of thanks from Walmart's Doug McMillon (which, interestingly, didn't actually mention Bond directly), followed by an equally anodyne 'I'm very proud to have led Asda etc etc' from the man himself.
When we last interviewed Bond, he came across as highly driven and desperate to win - he even described himself as 'energetic, abrasive, clear, blunt, impatient and not particularly empathetic'. So although Asda hasn't had the best of times in recent months - it was the weakest performer of the supermarkets over the Christmas period, and hasn't really recovered since - he didn't seem like the kind of guy to give up the ghost at the first sign of trouble, even if this year is likely to be a tough one for the whole sector. Hence the suggestions today that his departure wasn't wholly voluntary.
However, the man himself told the FT there was 'no hidden story' behind his departure - that he just 'wants the opportunity to do some other things in the fullness of time', possibly entrepreneurial or in public policy. And he's known to be quite the family man, having previously refused to uproot the kids from Yorkshire (despite it scuppering his chances of promotion within Walmart). Perhaps it's one of those rare occasions when a departing leader really does want to spend a bit more time with the family?
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