Smith's Swann in the black

WH Smith boss Kate Swann clearly knows a thing or two about managing investor expectations.

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Swann has just wangled shareholder approval for a new £20m three year incentive plan for her top team – despite lacklustre Christmas trading, with sales down 2% on last year.

But then everything is relative. Swann joined Smith’s back in 2003 when things were looking pretty grim for the famous bookseller and stationer, stuck in its ways and battered by competition from supermarkets and the internet. Tasked with saving the firm’s bacon, she has concentrated on boosting margins and cutting costs rather than growing revenues, ruthlessly dropping any products on which they were not making a decent buck. As a result last year profits rose 29% to £66m, despite falling sales.

Funnily enough, she’s just pocketed £4m from the last three year incentive plan, so she’s having a pretty good start to the month. But who’s to say she hasn’t earned it? Swann’s approach is effective and, we predict, will become a lot more popular up and down the high street in the months to come as the economic climate continues to cool and sales growth becomes harder to find than a book you actually want to buy on the remaindered shelf.

On the other hand, it could also be that WH Smith’s long suffering shareholders are so pitifully grateful for the £90m return of cash the firm has just been voted to them (£60 as a special dividend, the rest in share buy-backs), that they consider the whole thing to be a ‘win-win’ situation.

Either way, it’s a long way from the dark days of 2003, when some commentators were saying quietly that they thought Swann had bitten off more than she could chew.

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