The national press has described recent defections from Tesco as a brain drain. But such reports are way off beam, says Liz Hamson

The news that Colin Smith has defected to Somerfield has sparked reports in the national press of a brain drain at Tesco. But though the move comes in the wake of a raft of departures, such suggestions are woefully wide of the mark.
Yes, the exits of Scott Wheway and Ken McMeikan at the end of 2004 were followed by others. But rather than being symptomatic of a brain drain, these are a sign of the huge currency that Tesco has developed for its staff by being the biggest and most successful supermarket in the UK. Should we be surprised that those who are seen to have contributed to this success are top of the headhunters’ lists?
Not so long ago, Asda was in the same predicament. We dubbed it ‘The Asda Effect’ in our feature of April 24, 2004. Back then, it was Archie Norman and Allan Leighton’s prodigies who were scooping top jobs elsewhere. Alan Clarke had just become MD of Iceland, Justin King had taken up the reins at Sainsbury and Richard Baker was months into his role at Boots.
This time, it is people in Sir Terry Leahy’s inner circle who are jumping ship. The question is: who will be next (see right)? Attention will naturally turn to others from the US scouting party who have returned, such as John Burry, category director for chilled foods. But, generally, the movers and shakers won’t be the obvious suspects, suggests one analyst. He believes those who will be picked up by headhunters will be the likes of those heading Tesco’s Asian operations - young, not particularly expensive and running parts of the Tesco empire that are businesses in their own right.
Whoever they are, the bait would have to be pretty tasty, he says. “It would have to be a good position. There aren’t many opportunities out there such as the one that Scott Wheway managed to get.”
Querying Smith’s logic, he adds: “If you manage Tesco’s fresh produce business, say, you’re probably managing a bigger business than Somerfield.”
Meanwhile, there is plenty of talent joining Tesco, he points out: take Terry Price, who joined Tesco’s non food team from Wal-Mart in 2003.
As for those who have left, they may have been enticed by a better pay packet and/or title, but that doesn’t mean they’ve picked - or been picked - wisely.
As one analyst puts it: “The opportunities they’ve been offered have allowed them to leapfrog into better management positions, where there were no direct opportunities at Tesco, but whether they will do well, it’s too early to tell. It would be worth looking in four years’ time at how successful they’ve been.”
He’s certainly not convinced that success in one organisation breeds success in another. “If you take a premiership footballer and put him in the third division, would he pull the team up to premiership level? He’ll probably regress, don’t you think?”