With Sir Terry Leahy’s retirement and the Tesco board reshuffle, the UK operations will be run by Richard Brasher. What will that look like, asks Adam Leyland
Such was the enormity of last week's restructure at Tesco it was difficult to take in the significance of it all.
As well as the retirement of CEO Sir Terry Leahy and his replacement by Philip Clarke, a new global structure resulted in retail and logistics director David Potts moving to Asia, as its first CEO, and the promotion of Tim Mason to deputy CEO, with responsibility for branding, values and climate change.
And the sudden departure of fresh foods commercial director Colin Holmes resulted in a further reshuffling of the pack, with Andrew Yaxley moving across to fresh, while John Scouler is set to return from Hungary to take on Yaxley's role as commercial director for packaged goods.
Among these announcements, the fact that, from March 2011, commercial and marketing director Richard Brasher, 49, will assume responsibility for the UK and the Republic of Ireland still easily the biggest, most important division for Tesco went almost unnoticed.
It is, on the one hand, an obvious move. As a Tesco veteran (he joined in 1986), a board member of six years, and with his deep knowledge of and formidable record in food and non-food, Brasher can be relied upon to keep the UK ticking along, leaving Clarke to focus on international expansion.
In the process, however, the appointment has baffled some industry insiders. The restructure will result in the creation of a global commercial role, a role that to a considerable extent, if not officially, has been filled by Brasher. "I can't work out what this means," the sales director of one of Tesco's biggest suppliers told The Grocer. "It's a huge job running Tesco UK, but I'd have thought Brasher's strengths were very much on the commercial side, while his skills as a retailer are limited."
At a BRC conference last week, Brasher admitted that his obligatory Tesco stint in retail was not very successful. "I wasn't very good at it," he told delegates. "On Christmas Eve I had no stock, and they kept coming in. It was like Zulu Dawn. One customer asked me why I was open and I asked myself the same thing."
Conversely, and though he helped Tesco launch the first Metro store in Covent Garden, in an earlier role in marketing, Brasher is reportedly never happier than when he's fondling products, and negotiating with suppliers. "He is a hard negotiator, but he always has the interests of Tesco and the consumer at heart," recalls Mark Gerken, former sales MD of S&N.
After a brief spell in manufacturing at Unilever and Ranks Hovis McDougall, Brasher was part of the team that transformed the fresh food operations in Tesco during the late 80s and early 90s, while he was credited directly with turning the non-food operation of Tesco into a thriving, highly thought through business, which now accounts for £13.1bn in group sales.
Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco's director of corporate and legal affairs, acknowledges that Brasher comes with "a great food heritage", spearheading the development of Finest, Healthy Living and healthier food. "He's got a passion for product that's quite infectious, and you can see that in the authority of our ranges."
And he "turbocharged" non-food for Tesco, adds Neville-Rolfe, introducing Florence & Fred, the bestselling Technika TVs, as well as bringing in John Horner from Arcadia and Terry Green from Allders to help build up the non-food side.
But in those initiatives he demonstrates the skills that will make him a superb leader of the UK business, says Neville-Rolfe. "His clarity of strategy is a big plus," she says. He has also shown himself able to work "very constructively" with entrepreneurs such as Horner and Green, "moving things forward apace, and planning things through deeply and carefully".
RBS analyst Justin Scarborough believes Brasher is "cut of the same cloth" as other members of the Tesco board and will follow the strategy laid down by Leahy. "There will be no discernible change," Scarborough adds.
The last word on Brasher's tenure comes from the man himself. With nine months before he directly controls the entire UK business, it is too early to say what Brasher will do to change things, with retail and logistics an obvious hole to be filled with the imminent departure of Potts.
But Brasher lives and breathes Tesco's entrepreneurial spirit, and is not afraid of change. "We are less likely to follow the media and perceived wisdom and prejudice. We watch [our shoppers'] feet, listen hard and change. Sometimes you have to change to stay on strategy."
The skill, he adds, is to please as many people as possible. "We are a brand that works with everyone. When you come to a fork in the road at Tesco, you follow both. That's the advice I give my team."
And the other reason for Tesco's success, Brasher adds, is that "we usually concentrate on the bleeding obvious".
Tesco defends pay of Fresh & Easy chief Mason (18 June 2010)
Tesco's Holmes quits a day after Leahy bows out (12 June 2010)
Clarke to take Tesco reins as Sir Terry sets departure date (8 June 2010)