Timing in business, as in many things, is everything. Waitrose boss Mark Price is leaving as the supermarket price war continues to grind on, hitting not just Tesco and its big rivals but the middle class’ favourite food store too.
The self-described ‘chubby grocer’ said he was leaving the John Lewis Partnership in April to apply for the chairmanship of Channel 4, where he is currently deputy chair, not because of Waitrose’s recent run of form.
‘Last year we became the most profitable supermarket,’ he told the FT. ‘It has not been a grim period for Waitrose. It has been a period where Waitrose strengthened its position.’
Kantar Worldpanel data out today does show Waitrose holding its market share steady year-on-year at 5.2%. And Price, having started out in the lighting and silverware section of John Lewis’ Southampton store 33 years ago and run Waitrose for nine years could be forgiven for wanting a new challenge (although there are easier places to go than Channel 4, whose future is currently under review by the government).
Indeed, his replacement, Waitrose retail director Rob Collins, is another JLP long-server, with 22 years under his belt.
But in March, the supermarket’s full year profits sank 24% to £273m, although they crept up 0.6% in its most recent half year results. And Price himself has predicted the war of attrition sparked by the onslaught of Aldi and Lidl will ‘take the best part of a decade’ to play out.
It’s already claimed the scalp of Dave Lewis’ unfortunate predecessor at Tesco, Philip Clarke, while Sainsbury’s Justin King left sharpish last year. Best to get out now.