It’s been five months since Asda announced CEO Roger Burnley would be leaving. The initial plan was for Burnley to stay on for 12 months, to ensure a “managed succession process”, as Burnley put it at the time, adding he was “fully committed to leading this great business for the next year”.

Burnley was also going to work with the new owners to help identify his successor.

As we now know, those plans have evolved somewhat. In fact Burnley lasted less than five months before an agreement was reached for him to exit the business, as “now was the right time for him to step down following a transition period under our ownership”, said a joint statement from Mohsin and Zuber Issa and TDR Capital, earlier this month. 

The contrast with the 12 months’ notice Tesco CEO Dave Lewis was made to work awaiting the arrival of Ken Murphy, his successor in the position, is stark. Lewis spent a month briefing Murphy following his arrival. There will be no such luxury for Asda.  

That points not so much to a leadership vacuum, however, as to a whole new world order. It’s clear the Issas are now running the show, with Mohsin in particular understood to be increasingly involved in decision making. That made Burnley’s position unworkable. There could only be one boss of this £6.8bn trainset. And he owns it. 

With the Issas effectively running the show, that raises all sorts of questions over the future performance and direction of the business: do they have the competence, after less than five months, to run such an enormous, complex business on a day-to-day basis without an experienced supermarket boss at the helm? After all, running a supermarket chain is very different from operating a forecourt operator, with a lot more moving parts, more regulation, and new challenges such as maintaining and sustaining low prices (EG forecourts aren’t cheap), and the whole branding/consumer PR piece to consider.   

The Issas are also sure to bring a different culture to the business: direct, faster; less corporate, more entrepreneurial. That will take some getting used to for everyone at Asda, and especially the rest of the senior executive team. Already CFO Rob McWilliam has checked out (replaced by his deputy John Fallon), but one wonders how chief operating officer Anthony Hemmerdinger, chief merchandising officer Derek Lawlor and chief people officer Hayley Tatum will respond. Will they stay the course? 

The biggest question of all, though, is who the Issas find to run the supermarket chain. A number of candidates have reportedly been approached and turned down the Issas’ advances, including Jason Tarry, UK CEO of Tesco; Booker’s new boss Andrew Yaxley; Morrisons CEO David Potts; and Trevor Strain, the Morrisons COO (and heir apparent to Potts). Others tipped have included three ex-Asda alumni: Co-op Food CEO Jo Whitfield, M&S joint chief operating officer Stuart Machin, and Poundland and Dealz MD Barry Williams.

The latest name in the frame is Ian McLeod, 62, another ex-Asda boss, with The Times reporting the current CEO of Dairy Farm International, an Asian retailer with over 10,000 outlets, has been in talks with the Issas over a potential return.

Whether McLeod will be offered the job – and more importantly, accepts the offer – is not yet clear. But the recruitment process is starting to remind me of football club Tottenham Hotspur’s protracted search, where no less than seven candidates were apparently approached over the summer before Spurs CEO Daniel Levy finally circled back to ex-Wolves boss Nuno Espírito Santo. 

And while such a linear approach is relatively common in football (albeit taken to extremes by Spurs), it’s even more noticeable in a corporate setting, where a more normal recruitment process would involve a headhunter compiling a shortlist, from which the successful candidate emerges.

It’s another reminder the Issas will do things their own way. But the failure to identify a suitable candidate to date also points to potential difficulties they may face in finding a replacement for Burnley of the same experience and calibre – no matter how long they take. 

In the end Asda may circle back to one of the internal candidates or a less experienced external candidate, someone with more ambition and more to prove. In any event, the successful candidate will need to be able to work closely with – and for – very hands-on owners. It’s their trainset, and they will drive it the way they want it.