A man of huge retail talent, ousted Tesco UK CEO Richard Brasher failed to ignite his newly devolved republic and paid the price
Richard Brasher is the right man for the job. Philip Clarke is also the right man for the job. Trouble is, it’s the same job.
That’s what people were saying in June 2010, when, in an announcement as sudden as Brasher’s departure as CEO of Tesco’s troubled UK business this week, Sir Terry Leahy took the first of a nine-month suite of curtain calls.
Leahy and then chairman Sir David Reid opted to anoint the energetic Clarke over the more cerebral Brasher, largely due to Clarke’s success in piloting Tesco’s non-UK business into a profit generator as big as Sainsbury’s or Asda.
And in the long run they may be right. Brasher’s retail expertise and contribution to Tesco’s UK success is beyond question. But his lack of international experience is probably still a defensible reason for giving Clarke the nod.
Even before he took the helm, Clarke spent much of Leahy’s overlong twilight planning the structure of his Tesco, one in which the UK business would be a semi-autonomous republic - a bit like devolving England and moving parliament to Holyrood. President Brasher would be his own man, reporting in for a weekly audience with a monarch free to tour the rest of his beloved empire.
A year into Clarke’s reign, though, and the problems are all on the home front. What seemed like a good structure has proved at best ahead of its time, and for all his talent Brasher is the fall guy.
Even if Tesco’s 2,500 UK stores had only been keeping pace with the totality of the competition, Brasher would have been sitting pretty, squirrelling away cash to unleash once the economy turned. But for Clarke, the corollary of the clichéd “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” had to be “it is broke, so get your bloody finger out”. His chairman Sir Richard Broadbent and, more importantly, the shareholders will expect nothing less.
From then on there was only one possible outcome. The “informed” media scuttlebutt about handbags at dawn on Old Cheshunt Pond is actually far less probable than the official version - a simple realisation that two powerful men fighting over the wheel is going to make a Costa Concordia out of Tesco. This is not to say that Brasher has always played a particularly good hand, despite the mitigation of flagging consumer confidence. Expectations at home and abroad were high but it took him far too long to get off the blocks.
Tesco’s marketing was and remains tired and Brasher’s recently departed lieutenant Carolyn Bradley did nothing to shove that clarinet jingle back where it belongs. The Price Check, designed to counter Asda’s Price Guarantee, was so full of expensive and avoidable holes it detracted from the flaws in Asda’s well-spun scheme. Worst of all, the Big Price Drop has cost half a billion pounds, while making little or no impression on the Grocer 33 - or, more importantly, customer price perceptions.
It’s almost as if Tesco both stopped listening and forgot how to communicate internally and externally. Even the formerly sure-footed spin doctors seemed unsure as to who should talk about what.
Given time and a more benign environment, Brasher’s talent would surely have shone through. And don’t rule him out for future big roles elsewhere. But time was the one thing he, and more importantly Clarke, did not have.
This, however, is not the time for the competition to breathe a sigh of relief. Sir Terry Leahy ran Tesco both within the UK and in 13 other countries to devastating effect, and Messrs King, Philips and (the other) Clarke should be in no doubt the now all-powerful King Philip Clarke has the potential to do the same. Whether he will be given the time to do so is another question.