Debenhams gets new chairman as Lovering departs for M&B clear-up

Nigel Northridge is Debenhams' new chairman, as John Lovering (bravely) heads for Mitchells & Butlers.

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Debenhams has a new chairman: Nigel Northridge, the former boss of cigarette-maker Gallaher, who only joined the board at the start of this year. So it's a pretty rapid elevation - but the board clearly felt he was the best choice to replace John Lovering, the man who led Debenhams' highly lucrative (for its private equity owners) flotation in 2003. Lovering is technically retiring - although since he's just taken the chairman's job at pub group Mitchells & Butlers, which only yesterday ousted the previous incumbent after a furious and very public boardroom spat, he's not exactly reaching for the pipe and slippers...

Northridge, who will take up the Debenhams job on April 1, flogged cigarettes at Gallaher for over 30 years, eventually becoming CEO in 2000. His period in the corner office was a pretty good one for Gallaher, culminating in a £9.4bn sale of the company (to Japan Tobacco) in 2007. Since then Northridge has been keeping his eye in with a variety of boardroom posts: he's chairman of Irish bookmaker Paddy Power, senior independent director at generator business Aggreko, and a non-exec at Thomas Cook and Inchcape. At 53, he clearly thinks he's too young to retire...

Speaking of which, few people would probably have begrudged Debenhams' outgoing chairman John Lovering his retirement. The veteran retailer, who turned 60 last year, has made a fortune for various private equity firms (and, presumably, himself) after leading a number of lucrative buyout deals, including Homebase, Peacocks and Somerfield as well as Debenhams. He's come in for a bit of stick (not unreasonably) since Debenhams returned to the public markets in 2006, a deal that made its backers a mint but lost money for all its new investors - although recent results suggest the retailer’s finally back on the right track.

So it wouldn't have been a big surprise if he'd opted for a quiet life of crown green bowls and Fifteen-to-One. Instead, he's walking into one of the most turbulent boardrooms in the UK. Yesterday, previous chairman Simon Laffin (along with two of his non-execs) was unceremoniously dumped from the M&B board after a bloody battle with his largest shareholders, orchestrated by trader Joe Lewis. Although 66% of those present voted for his removal, Laffin was apparently backed by most of the small shareholders, who obviously believed his claim that these big investors were clubbing together and putting their interests ahead of the company’s. So although Lovering is the choice of the most influential shareholders, he clearly faces a battle to get everyone onside. And that’s not to mention all M&B’s other problems...

In today's bulletin:

'Stop feeling sorry for yourselves', Darling tells bankers
Debenhams gets new chairman as Lovering departs for M&B clear-up
Profits soar at bullish Amazon - as iPad lurks
Our Man in Davos: Can private enterprise solve poverty?
Psychology at Work: Climate, Copenhagen and Custard Pots

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